Timeline: A Layman’s Guide to the Holmes/Watson Relationship

January 2nd, 2010 | Tags: ,

A Layman’s Guide to the Holmes/Watson Relationship

In the past week, this site has seen a dramatic surge in visitors (and for this I thank you, Guy Ritchie). Many of them are emailing, wanting more information on Holmes and Watson, and their relationship. While I still recommend reading Canon and then my series, Decoding the Subtext, I thought providing a summary of Holmes and Watson’s relationship, as found in Canon, would prove useful.

So here is a more or less chronological (hard to do as not all the stories are dated, or dated correctly) summary of their relationship, along with the key Holmes/Watson stories all newcomers to the pairing should read. If I’ve missed anything, please feel free to let me know, and I’ll add it to the table.  As I attempt my annual winter re-reading of Canon, I may add to the table myself.

A Canon-based H/W Timline


Holmes and Watson meet. They are, at this point, in their mid-to-late twenties, Watson some years older than Holmes.Watson, having returned to London from campaigning in Afghanistan (during the second Afghan War), and sporting an injured shoulder and/or leg (Doyle varies on the location of Watson’s wound) runs into an old acquaintance, Stamford. Watson tells Stamford he is looking for cheap accommodations, so Stamford offers to introduce Watson to Holmes, who is looking for someone to go halves with on a set of rooms (Baker Street).They agree to take the rooms and move in together. Within the span of a few weeks, Watson has become obsessed with his new roommate and begins keeping lists of Holmes’ limits. Holmes preens under the attention.

Shortly after Watson’s list-taking begins, Holmes chooses to reveal his profession (consulting detective) and begins dragging Watson out on cases. Holmes, ever the showman, is delighted to have found an audience.

By the end of the story, Watson has announced his intention of writing and publishing Holmes’ cases. A great friendship/love affair is born.

A Study in Scarlet (STUD)
1881-1888 Holmes and Watson live in domestic bliss, continuing to work together on numerous cases. While there is some evidence for a physical relationship, most agree their relationship up until this point was platonic. This, however, is open for interpretation.

Holmes’s cocaine use places a strain on Holmes and Watson’s friendship/relationship and they argue/break up.

Mary Morstan appears in Baker Street, requesting Holmes’ aid in helping to solve a case.

Watson, over the course of 2 days, falls deeply in love with Mary and proposes to her. Or so he would have us/Holmes/himself believe.

Holmes, horrified by losing Watson, spends the entire case attempting to woo Watson back. He even serenades him on the violin. Sadly, Holmes fails, and turns to cocaine once again to ease the upset of Watson’s leaving.

The Sign of the Four (SIGN)
1888-1889 Watson, still living in Baker Street, but engaged to Mary Morstan, continues to help Holmes with his cases, most notably, The Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN).
1889 Watson marries Miss Morstan implied behind the scenes

Holmes is hired by the King of Bohemia to retrieve a photograph and some letters from the woman who is blackmailing him: Irene Adler.

Holmes meets Adler twice, both times in disguise. She never sees him as his true self.

Adler alludes Holmes, taking the King’s photograph with her, but she leaves a letter stating that she has found the love of a better man (her now husband, Godfrey Norton), and hence won’t bother the king anymore.

A Scandal in Bohemia (SCAN)
1889-1891 Watson continuously abandons Mary Watson (nee Morstan) in favour of sleeping at Baker Street and accompanying Holmes on his cases.

Holmes and Watson’s relationship is now slightly strained, likely due to Mary’s influence.

Holmes has come up against his greatest adversary, Professor James Moriarty.

Holmes, after months of investigation, has finally found a way to capture Moriarty. The plan requires him to leave London (for his own safety) so he shows up at Watson’s home, requesting his company on a trip to the continent. Watson agrees, ditches Mary, and the pair spend several weeks traipsing about Europe.

Moriarty eventually slips through Holmes’s net and Holmes learns he is now bent on revenge. Holmes has become a dangerous companion and attempts to send Watson away. Watson refuses. It is important to note that neither Watson nor the reader meet Moriarty – we must take Holmes’s word that he exists.

In a dramatic conclusion, Holmes, having been separated from Watson in the Swiss Alps, finds himself confronting Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. Locked in mortal combat, the pair plummet to their deaths. A short time later, Watson, finding only Holmes’ stick, cigarette case and a short note, deduces that Holmes has died and is devastated.

Final Problem (FINA)

Period known as The Hiatus.Watson, over the course of two years, records and publishes twenty-three of Holmes’ cases. He still believes Holmes to be dead.

Mary either dies or leaves Watson.


Holmes returns to London and Watson.

Watson faints. Then forgives Holmes for faking his death. Holmes offers his condolences on Watson’s loss (of Mary).

They immediately fall back into their old life, with Watson selling his practice and moving back into Baker Street. It should be noted that it was in fact Holmes, though a cousin, who purchased Watson’s practice, so eager was he to have Watson back.

The Empty House/Norwood Builder
1894-1902 Holmes and Watson continue taking cases, working and living together.

I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes’s pistol came down on the man’s head. I had a vision of him sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend’s wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.

“You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!”

It was worth a wound — it was worth many wounds — to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

The Three Garridebs
1903 Holmes retires and moves to Sussex to keep Bees.While it is suggested that Watson remained behind in London, it is entirely probable that this is a blind, meant to distract the reader from the true nature of their relationship. The Creeping Man/The Lion’s Mane
1903-1927 Watson writes the remainder of the stories.
1914 Holmes and Watson’s last known case together, on the eve of WWI. His Last Bow
  1. Jay
    January 2nd, 2010 at 20:53
    Quote | #1

    Stumbled upon your timeline here and it’s really interesting! Quite helpful for a new fan. But I think there’s a typo in your dates?

    1889-1991 –> probably 1891?
    1994-1902 –>I was so confused here, lol

    Otherwise great guide, thanks for making it!

  2. admin
    January 2nd, 2010 at 21:28
    Quote | #2

    Thanks for the catch. It’s fixed now. I’m blaming it on the new year. Throws my dates off for months. *g*

  3. JL82
    January 3rd, 2010 at 10:59
    Quote | #3

    I gather you suggest that at least some of the cases in Adventures take place between STUD and SIGN? I have The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and as you may know, STUD comes first in the volume, then SIGN, then Adventures, starting with SCAN. I’m afraid that, being only a teenager when I first read them, I rather took their taking place in that same order for granted. And I still think the dialogue between Holmes and Watson in SIGN rather suggests that STUD is the only case in which Watson has been involved. Remember, Holmes says something about, “you got to observe my methods in the Jefferson Hope case?” As if that has been the only one so far. I also think that Watson’s hesitation about speaking up about the cocaine, and the way he broaches the subject, seems like they’re still new to each other.

  4. admin
    January 3rd, 2010 at 12:07
    Quote | #4

    They are not dated in the order they are written. Check out a few chronologies:





    The only reason it seems as though they are new to each other and that STUD was the only other case is because it was the first short story and Doyle wanted to remind his reader of the original novel. Watson clearly dates a number of stories in between STUD and SIGN. It’s fascinating research, chronologies, and worth looking into. I think it’s every Sherlockians dream to some day write their own chronology.

  5. JL82
    January 8th, 2010 at 15:19
    Quote | #5

    I can’t buy the injection by some of these of a wife before Mary. I think it’s pretty clear that Watson is unattached when he meets Holmes, and that Mary is the first girlfriend/potential spouse to come between them after they meet. In SIGN it doesn’t seem like it’s happened before.

  6. admin
    January 11th, 2010 at 10:42
    Quote | #6

    The infamous “how many wives has Watson had” question. Personally, I’m not even sure Mary existed. She could be a blind, invented to divert attention from the true nature of their relationship (would explain all Watson’s inconsistencies regarding her, and her mysterious disappearance). Regardless, at most, I believe Watson was married once.

  7. JL82
    January 11th, 2010 at 18:19
    Quote | #7

    All the chronologies seem to agree that many stories take place in between SIGN and FINA. Which goes to disprove the theory that Holmes disappeared because he felt that Watson had deserted him for traditional marriage. It would make the most sense for him to do that right after the marriage, when he might assume that Watson’s priorities were about to change, without having the courage to talk about it with Watson. But by the time of FINA, the married Watson has already abandoned his practice and wife several times to accompany Holmes. Why would Holmes suddenly decide then that he’d been deserted?

  8. admin
    January 13th, 2010 at 14:14
    Quote | #8

    I think you’re missing the point. It wasn’t like Watson got married and Holmes said, oh, woe is me, better fake my death. Watson got married. Holmes spent some time thinking it wouldn’t last. Was vindicated when Watson kept showing up at Baker Street. 2 years went by (the time between Watson’s marriage and Holmes’ disappearance). Eventually, Holmes got to the point where seeing Watson all the time, without having Watson to himself, drove him crazy. He eventually stumbled across a plan to get away from the agony of it once and for all. It was a gradual thing, that built over time. If anything, having that many stories between SIGN and FINA goes a long way towards proving the therory that Holmes’ “death” was a result of Watson’s marriage, not the other way around.

  9. twincy
    January 27th, 2010 at 20:19
    Quote | #9

    Oh man.

    Firstly: hi.

    Secondly: OH MAN. I cannot accurately express how thrilled I am to have found this site – to have found *you* again. You’ve been on my mind a fair bit over the last few months, which, um, sounds a bit creepier in writing than it did in my head. I read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes back in November. I loved it. I would’ve gone on to read everything else Holmes-related if I’d had the time and the right mindset at that point, but I didn’t, and as these things go it drifted to the back of my mind, replaced by the more immediate pleasures of … well, the internet.

    Cut to last week. I was in London. I went to see the film, belatedly. I went to see it again. And again. I went to Baker Street and visited the museum. I bought a pipe. I came home and bookmarked a metric gazillion of e-texts and articles and timelines etc. In short: I fell in love.

    This is a great thing, of course, and yet amidst the thrills of this new-found obsession there was a sadness in remembering you, and your love for the Canon. I wondered if you were still as in love with all things Sherlock Holmes as you were when you left LJ, and if so, what you thought of the film (I’ve just read your review and you’re a lot more positive about it than I thought you might be, which makes me happy). I just wanted to *talk to you* about it, and let you know that… I may have been a little slow on the uptake (understatement), but god, you were right all along. Holmes/Watson is pure love.

    In short: I am ridiculously happy to have found out you are still (or again?) active on the internet, and active in Sherlock Holmes fandom. I hope you’re well. I also hope you remember me, otherwise the above won’t mean a great deal to you. I shall now go back to battling my ailing attention span and general dislike for reading fiction off a computer screen in order to inhale as much of A Study in Scarlet as I can before I collapse from exhaustion.

    With love.

  10. admin
    January 28th, 2010 at 06:58

    Hello! How are you? I keep meaning to pop into livejournal and say hello. The prospect seems so daunting, though, as lj consumed far more time than I have to commit to anything these days. I’m not sure if you know why I left, but I have a toddler now, and he pretty much requires 24-7 attention. Even as I write this he is pulling strips of wallpaper off the wall (which is okay, because I intended to replace it anyway). So, yes, I am sort of online, though sporadically, when I find myself with an odd bit of free time.

    But how fantastic that you have come to love Sherlock Holmes! And you visited the museum! Isn’t it lovely? I cried the first time I walked through it (and I wasn’t the only one — I met a lovely older fellow, in his 70s, who wept alongside me as we toured the museum). If I could wish for one thing, it would be to have more time to devote to Holmes. There are still dozens of films I haven’t seen. Dozens upon dozens of pastiches I haven’t read. I could spend a lifetime devoted to his study. And, of course, someone implanted the idea of spending a few years fleshing out a relationship chronology.

    If there is one good thing about this film, it is that it has drawn in a lot of new fans. Fans that have gone or will go on to read the Canon and come to love everything that is Holmes/Watson. I get busy sometimes and forget about them, but inevitably I find my way back. I have to thank the film, too, because it’s put me in touch with some old friends, which is so lovely. And it’s certainly renewed my passion. It may not have been the truest thing to Canon, but it’s certainly a fun film, and very, very slashy.

    Anyway: I’m so glad you popped in, and I hope we can talk more (of course I remember you). Have fun reading the Canon. There is nothing like the first time, though I do fall in love all over again every time I read it. And now, the boy is eating electrical cords, so I probably should go.

    So good to hear from you.

  11. OctoberHoliday
    January 29th, 2010 at 18:34

    I always took it that they were in their forties when they first met, perhaps Holmes in his late thirties. How do you figure twenties?

  12. admin
    January 29th, 2010 at 19:15

    This isn’t me, though I agree with them being in their mid to late twenties. Pretty much every Sherlockian chronology ever written suggests the same. The evidence given is this:

    -Holmes is at the start of his career, and still taking classes/doing research at St. Barts, implying he must be relatively young.
    -Watson, having taken his doctorate of medicine (STUD) in 1978, cannot have been more than 25 when he went into the army. They meet in 1881.
    -Holmes’ last case takes place in 1914, 33 years after they met. Holmes is still young enough to impersonate a middle aged mechanic. At one point he’s described as “springing” out of a car.

    Klinger, whose chronology is the most widely recognized as being accurate, places Holmes’ birth in 1854, making him 27, Watson’s in 1852, making him 29.

    But since no actual ages/birthdays are given, an argument could be made for them being older. It would certainly make for an interesting paper.

  13. January 30th, 2010 at 23:39

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there some reference in LAST regarding Holmes (or Altamont) being a man of about sixty? That is how I always figured the age, and it would still amount to SH being mid-late twenties in 1881.

  14. admin
    January 31st, 2010 at 07:52

    This is the quote:

    “He was a tall, gaunt man of sixty, with clear-cut features and a small goatee beard which gave him a general resemblance to the caricatures of Uncle Sam.”

    But, remember, this is from a third person perspective, and Holmes was known for his disguises, so you really can’t take this at face value. Still, it does agree with other chronologies.

    And then again, there is some question as to the authenticity of LAST, which I touch on here:


  15. OctoberHoliday
    February 1st, 2010 at 19:38

    admin :@OctoberHoliday
    -Holmes is at the start of his career, and still taking classes/doing research at St. Barts, implying he must be relatively youngP>

    About that, maybe he was just one of those guys who goes to whatever lab they have open to them. I don’t know. I just honestly can’t see the two men as being younger than thirty. . . maybe my math just sucks.

  16. admin
    February 2nd, 2010 at 06:33

    I’m sure you could argue the point, though I suspect you’d be the first Sherlockian to do so. 28 is the oldest I’ve seen for Holmes.

  17. Nessa
    March 1st, 2010 at 10:20

    First:I`m happy to find this site again!
    I totally agree with you.You know the preface of the Case-Book,when Conan Doyle says:”One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of imagination, some strange, impossible place where the beaux of Fielding may still make love to the belles of Richardson, where Scott’s heroes still may strut, Dickens’s delightful Cockneys still raise a laugh, and Thackeray’s worldlings continue to carry on their reprehensible careers. Perhaps in some humble corner of such a Valhalla, Sherlock and his Watson may for a time find a place, while some more astute sleuth with some even less astute comrade may fill the stage which they have vacated.”This place is in Sussex Downs!

  18. admin
    March 24th, 2010 at 08:29

    Wonderfully said. If anyone deserves immortality, it is Holmes and Watson!

  19. Nessa
    April 11th, 2010 at 10:50

    HI!I`m here again.Do you know THE SLASHER`S ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES?I think you could do a great job there.It`s a good idea,but I missed you decoding the subtext.It would be so, so wonderful.
    Here´s: http://jane3gar.springnote.com/

    See you,Nessa

  20. admin
    April 13th, 2010 at 08:20

    I have seen that, and haven’t actually found anything to add. I guess everything I’ve had to say on the subject I’ve said in DTS. Also, my life has been hectic recently, so I haven’t had the free time I would like to involve myself in H/W. Perhaps when next I re-read the stories I’ll get inspired and head on over.

  21. WC
    April 15th, 2010 at 19:10

    I’ve always wondered– how is it known exactly that Watson is older than Holmes?

  22. admin
    April 24th, 2010 at 16:57

    It is an assumption, though widely accepted by Sherlockians and based on sound evidence. Given Watson’s profession (i.e. time in medical school/army) and Holmes’ history (i.e. GLOR and MUSG), especially in regards to his time at university, it is reasonable to assume Watson is older, but only by a few years.

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