Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Veiled Lodger


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger in October of 1896.  Watson tells us that the case took place in late 1896, and yet it is curious to note that Baring-Gould does not date any cases between November of 1895 and October of 1896.  While we do not doubt Watson's date, we must question this period of inactivity, especially as Watson has previously made reference (SOLI) to Holmes being an exceedingly busy man between the years 1894 to 1901.  The story was first published in January of 1927.


In one of Watson's more unusual narratives, The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger is not an adventure at all.  In fact, the only mystery that exists is that of a decades-old unsolved case.  Still, it is a curious story, tragic and not without its merits.  In The Veiled Lodger, Holmes finds himself agreeing to meet with Mrs. Ronder, a woman Holmes recalls from an earlier investigation involving the death of a man and the mutilation of a woman at the hands of a circus lion.  At the time, Holmes felt certain that there was more to the case than a mere mishap, and so he is quite eager to hear, first hand, Mrs. Ronder's account of the event which left her husband dead and her face disfigured.

The Subtext:

When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperate with him and to keep notes of his doings...

So begins The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger, and here we pause to examine Watson's statement in terms of chronology.  Holmes' first case (ignoring The Gloria Scott, as Holmes was not yet in practice at this time) was documented by Watson in a publication entitled The Musgrave Ritual.  According to Baring-Gould, this case occurred in October of 1879.  We must also note that Holmes refers to this as his third case, and yet he clearly tells us that it was this case which set him forward into public practice.

Holmes' last official case, prior to his retirement, took place in September of 1903.  We can therefore suggest that Holmes was in active practice from 1879 to 1903.  This marks the passage of twenty-four years.  But, of course, Holmes was not in active practice during the hiatus (1891-1894), and so, therefore, we must deduct these three years.  By our calculations, then, Holmes has been in active practice for some twenty-one years.  We will assume Watson's calculation, then, stemmed from 1877, the year in which Holmes took rooms in Montague Street (according to most scholars) and began establishing his practice (even if the first few months resulted in stagnation).

Watson then tells us that he was involved in Holmes' cases for seventeen of these years.  Watson's first case, we know, was documented in A Study in Scarlet and took place shortly after their meeting in the spring of 1881.  Seventeen years brings us to 1898.  Adding three years to this to account for the hiatus and we are brought to 1901; two years shy of Holmes' career.  Either Watson miscalculated, or there exists a period of two years sometime between STUD and Holmes' retirement in which Watson was away from Baker Street.  While this is certainly a topic for speculation, we suggest here that Watson was not referring to his role in Holmes' practice, but rather, his role in Holmes' life, and so Watson deducted the two years between 1889 and 1891 from his tally, as during this period of time he was married to Mary Morstan, and hence could not consider himself wholly devoted to Holmes.

One forenoon — it was late in 1896 — I received a hurried note from Holmes asking for my attendance.

Here we are presented with another interesting problem.  Prior to this case, and indeed, immediately after it, Watson appears to be living in Baker Street.  We know, too, that Watson has sold his practice and now devotes all of his time to Holmes and their growing practice.  Why, then, did Holmes have to send for Watson?

While other scholars have suggested that Watson was living away from Baker Street during this case (and, indeed, several have questioned the placement of this story in terms of chronology), it is your author's opinion that Watson was not away from Baker Street at all.  In fact, Watson had merely stepped out to run several personal errands, and Holmes, knowing Watson's habits, sent a messenger out to find Watson on the street.  In all likelihood Holmes knew exactly where to find Watson; an indication of their growing intimacy and the familiarity resulting from a long-standing relationship.

Holmes does, of course, find Watson, and Watson immediately rushes back to Baker Street, where he finds Holmes interviewing a client.  Here, Holmes tells Watson:

"Mrs. Merrilow does not object to tobacco, Watson, if you wish to indulge your filthy habits."

We cannot help but find this comment amusing, for it would appear as though their relationship is as strong as ever, Holmes teasing Watson playfully, and in the company of a client, no less.

Holmes and Watson's banter is pushed aside so that their client can relay her story.  She is acting on behalf of her lodger, a woman Holmes has reason to know, and requests that Holmes come in person to hear first hand the tale of this strange, veiled lady.  Holmes agrees, and Mrs. Merrilow leaves, upon which Holmes recounts the original case which first introduced him to Mrs. Merrilow's lodger.

"Have you no recollection of the Abbas Parva tragedy?"

"None, Holmes."

"And yet you were with me then."

We can obvious date the original case at an early point in Holmes and Watson's relationship, and yet here we are more concerned with Holmes' comment that Watson was with me then.  It is quite adorable that Holmes should have to search for the details of this case, and yet, he clearly remembers that Watson was, as ever, by his side.  Why Watson does not recall the case is a question best left to the ages.

Holmes takes a moment to go over the details of the original case, and upon finishing, he asks after Watson's thoughts.  While Watson's response is quite fascinating, as it speaks to Watson's progress, here we wish to examine Holmes' reaction.

Holmes looked thoughtful and remained in silence for some moments.

"Well, Watson, there is this to be said for your theory..."

One can almost picture Holmes' amazement; that Watson should suggest a theory which did not at the time occur to Holmes is truly a sign that Watson is fast becoming a reasoner of his own merit.  Indeed, one can almost hear the pride in Holmes' voice; for we know that Watson was unable to make such a suggestion in the first instance of the case.  We have mentioned before the growing equality which now exists between them, and here we remark that this equality has largely grown out of their shared relationship.  We see Watson becoming increasingly confident in his deductions, and we see Holmes becoming increasingly open with his emotions.  Clearly, their relationship has been to the benefit of both men.

Sadly, Watson's theory proves to be incorrect, as does Holmes', and as the story winds to a close, we must remark upon the curious nature of the story itself.  The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger is not by any normal standards a tale of adventure or mystery.  Nor does it highlight any of Holmes' singular talents.  One must question, then, why Watson chose to include such a story.

Remarkably, although The Veiled Lodger does not showcase Holmes the brilliant detective, it does showcase Holmes the human being.  This is a very rare occurrence in Watson's narratives, for he often depicts Holmes as a machine; a brain without a heart.  We see here Holmes with a heart, and we must assume that Watson intentionally chose a story which would highlight Holmes' emotional growth.

And so, if Watson intentionally depicted Holmes the man, then it is entirely reasonable to suggest that he did so in order to demonstrate to the world what it was that he loved best about Holmes.  Watson, while infatuated with the detective, loved the man, and it is quite natural that he should wish to share this aspect of Holmes' personality with the world.  This is particularly obvious in Holmes' interaction with Mrs. Ronder, for Holmes is quite sympathetic towards the woman (above and beyond anything we have seen from Holmes in the past).  Indeed, Watson tells us:

Then Holmes stretched out his long arm and patted her hand with such a show of sympathy as I had seldom known him to exhibit.

"Poor girl!" he said. "Poor girl! The ways of fate are indeed hard to understand. If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest."

It becomes quite apparent that Watson has come to fully know the man behind the detective.  It becomes apparent, too, that, as Watson's affection and, indeed, love for Holmes grew, so too did his desire to share this aspect of Holmes' personality with the public.

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