Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Three Students


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Three Students in April of 1895. This is the second case to appear after Holmes' return (according to Baring-Gould's chronology) and it is interesting to note that it occurs exactly one year after The Empty House. Watson confirms Baring-Gould's year, but does not mention a month. Baring-Gould argues that the case occurs at a term end (given the fact that an exam is being written) and suggests the spring term as it corresponds with the hour the sun sets during the story. The story was first published in June of 1904.


Holmes and Watson find themselves studying in a famous university town when tragedy strikes at one of the local colleges. Mr. Hilton Soames, a tutor and lecturer at St. Luke's College, has discovered that one of his students has examined, and very likely made notes of, an exam proof which was resting upon his desk. Eager to avoid scandal, Soames seeks out Holmes' aid, hoping that Holmes will correctly deduce which of the students has cheated so that Soames will not be forced to cancel the examination. Holmes does exactly that, the solution contingent on a pencil, a scratch mark, and a small triangle of blackish clay.

The Subtext:

It was in the year '95 that a combination of events, into which I need not enter, caused Mr. Sherlock Holmes and myself to spend some weeks in one of our great University towns.

So begins The Adventure of the Three Students, and it is quite curious that Watson should allude to such a mysterious affair. Indeed, we cannot say what has brought Holmes and Watson to this great University town (or, rather, what has driven them from London). The above paragraph, however, lends itself well to speculation.

This speculation is not without its subtextual highlights. Indeed, we might go so far as to suggest that Holmes and Watson's intensifying relationship brought about a need to escape the public eye. They might very well have chosen to leave London in hopes of stilling rumours before they became widely known. While this may be the least plausible of explanation, it is still not impossible, and so we must consider it. Regardless, the image of Holmes and Watson, sharing temporary rooms in a University town which buzzed with the thrill of academia, is not in the least unpleasant.

We were residing at the time in furnished lodgings close to a library where Sherlock Holmes was pursuing some laborious researches in early English charters.

It would appear, however, that, according to Watson, Holmes' desire to spend time in this University town was limited to these charters. If this is the case, then we cannot quite grasp why Watson's presence was needed. Indeed, if this vacation from London was indeed scholarly in nature, then one must confess that Watson's presence is quite unusual. Clearly, Holmes is unwilling (perhaps even unable) to live without his Watson.

Indeed, Watson tells us:

My friend's temper had not improved since he had been deprived of the congenial surroundings of Baker Street. Without his scrap-books, his chemicals, and his homely untidiness, he was an uncomfortable man.

Holmes is a creature of habit, and so despises being away from his things. Despite this, it has clearly been some time since they have left Baker Street, and yet, Holmes seems to be surviving without his objects of comfort. One wonders, then, if Watson's presence came at Holmes' insistence, as perhaps Holmes knew that he could vacate Baker Street so long as Watson accompanied him.

The arrival of Mr. Soames, a lecturer and tutor at St. Luke's College, marks the start of the case, and, after listening to Mr. Soames tale, Holmes seems quite thrilled to find that the case presents quite the intellectual puzzle. He immediately agrees to help, and soon Holmes and Watson find themselves heading over to the college.

Holmes quickly begins his investigation, and, upon entering Mr. Soames bedroom, remarks upon a very obvious hiding place. As he approaches it, Watson tells us:

As Holmes drew the curtain I was aware, from some little rigidity and alertness of his attitude, that he was prepared for an emergency.

Again and again, throughout the Canon, we have been witness to the connection between Holmes and Watson. We see it again here, Watson's awareness of Holmes far too acute for a mere friend and biographer.

Holmes' investigation quickly draws to a temporary conclusion; Holmes announcing that he will retire for the evening and return the next morning. The walk back to their lodgings is passed in companionable conversation, until, of course, Holmes notices the late hour.

"By Jove! My dear fellow, it is nearly nine, and the landlady babbled of green peas at seven-thirty. What with your eternal tobacco, Watson, and your irregularity at meals, I expect that you will get notice to quit and that I shall share your downfall".

Amusing, is it not, that Holmes should tease Watson so. While this can be dismissed as mere banter, one wonders if perhaps some of Holmes' habits have rubbed off on Watson. Clearly they have spent a large portion of time in one another's company; it is not unreasonable to suggest that they would have adopted one another's idiosyncrasies.

Ignoring this theory, Holmes' comment is still quite telling, for such banter and teasing speaks to the affectionate bond which existed between the two men. Holmes' playfulness here brings to mind the image of a man very much in love, and very much at ease with his long-standing lover and partner.

The pair eventually return to their rooms, where they partake in a late supper. The next morning sees Holmes up and out before the break of dawn. Watson later tells us:

At eight in the morning he came into my room just as I finished my toilet.

Curious, is it not, that Watson should attempt such an obvious lie. While we have no doubt that they rented double rooms so as to keep up appearances, it is highly unlikely that Watson could have claimed his own.

That being said, it is interesting to note that Holmes' first thought, upon returning to the rooms, was to seek Watson out so that he might be there are the climax of the case.

Indeed, Holmes even goes so far as to suggest that they skip breakfast in order to head back to the college and complete the case. There, Holmes, with the aid of a bluff, is quickly able to unravel the whole of the mystery, and all that remains is for Holmes and Watson to return home for breakfast.

"No, indeed," said Holmes, heartily, springing to his feet. "Well, Soames, I think we have cleared your little problem up, and our breakfast awaits us at home. Come, Watson!"

While not Baker Street, it is quite evident that Holmes subscribes to the old adage: Home is, indeed, where the heart is.


Decoding subtext is not by any means an exact science, and so it is natural that the occasional piece of information should be overlooked. Many thanks to Alexa D., who was kind enough to fill in several blanks.

The reader will recall that we mentioned above possible motives for Holmes and Watson's retreat from London. We suggested that it was entirely possible that Holmes and Watson wished to escape from the public eye in order to avoid having their intensifying relationship become common knowledge.

Recall that Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Three Students on April 5/6, 1895. It is interesting to note, and here we must once again thank Alexa for bringing the event to my attention, that Oscar Wilde was arrested on April 6, 1895 for gross indecency. Thus began the Oscar Wilde trial which saw him spend two years in prison for his homosexuality. Alexa also pointed out that it was shortly after Wilde's arrest that homosexual men and women began fleeing England for France.

Is it too much to assume, then, that Holmes, given his connection with Scotland Yard, would have heard of Wilde's impending arrest before hand, and that he therefore would have decided that a retreat from the city might be in order? Holmes and Watson could have not have gone to France without arising suspicion, and yet they are conveniently absent from London when Wilde's arrest occurs. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps?

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