My Dear Watson will go down in blog history as “the book that sparked a marital spat on the way to church.”** And really, it’s no wonder, because the story itself is based on a controversial premise: What if Sherlock Holmes were really a woman?
That is, a woman masquerading as a man. As you no doubt know, there are plenty of historical precedents for this.*** These women decided to live as men for varied motives: to obtain an education, to find a military spouse, to work in traditionally male occupations (such as “pirate”), or because they were what we would refer to today as “transgender.” Lucy Holmes’ choice is made first out of necessity, and then out of a desire to fulfill what she sees as her life’s mission: to seek out and combat evil in all its forms.
This is not a choice she makes lightly. Until the age of fourteen, Lucy Holmes was just an awkward, bookish girl with an insatiable curiosity and an aptitude for everything that has nothing to do with practical homemaking. Her much older brother Mycroft is away at school, and she’s left alone with her parents: a meek, religious mother and a father who loves horses almost as much as he loves other women. Young Lucy is unaware of this predilection, however, until the night her mother accidentally falls downstairs after catching her father with yet another mistress. Shocked and shattered, Lucy accuses her father of murder, and flees to Mycroft’s rooms in Oxford. In order to stay there undetected, she cuts her hair and dresses as a boy. She’s able to live secretly in Christ Church college for nearly a year before she’s discovered and evicted. By that time, however, she’s managed to garner herself quite a scientific education, and the trauma of her experience has convinced her that, not only does she wish to avoid the subservient life of women like her mother, she also wants to root out wickedness. And the only way to engage that enemy on its own field, she firmly believes, is as a man.
And it works for her. Obviously it works quite well, because as the novel begins, it’s 1903, she’s on the cusp of her 50th birthday, and has an active, prosperous career behind her. She’s not immune, however, to the traditional midlife meditations, however, and these take on a special urgency when Constance Moriarty bursts into 221B.
Yes, Moriarty. A name that’s never a coincidence in the Sherlockian world.✝ The Napoleon of Crime, it seems, did not leave this world without issue, and his red-headed actress daughter now believes he never left this world at all. She’s received a sort of ransom note claiming he’s alive, and she wants to hire Sherlock Holmes to find him. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Holmes to realize there’s much more to this shocker than is readily apparent, and the murder of a young Irregular confirms her suspicions. It’s not long before she’s fighting for life as she’s known it for thirty-five years, and Watson is in hot pursuit of (yet another) bride. Ms. Bridges sets the adventure against the backdrop of Shakespearean tragedy (Macbeth), and by the time the final scene is played, each of the main characters’ lives is shattered by their fatal flaws.
Because we all have them, don’t we? Those crevasses in our characters which threaten at times to swallow us the way Constance Moriarty claims the Swiss Alps swallowed her father. These flaws, or quirks, or struggles generally lie dormant until we’re forced to confront them by some catalyst. For fans of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, My Dear Watson is just such a catalyst. It’s a very well-written book which still challenges one to explore his or her own views of canonicity and world-building. These opinions (and they are only that, for all we may fervently espouse them as doctrine) will naturally vary reader by reader. Here, then, are mine.
First, of course, is the issue of Lucy Holmes. For some, this will be an instant deal-breaker, and that’s fine.✝✝ I will confess that “gender-bending” is not really my thing. I like Holmes and Watson as men. However, pastiche is a playground, and I decided up front that Lucy Holmes would not be an issue for me. What matters, in the end, is whether or not the story is a good one, and whether or not it’s well-told.
For me, the problems started at page one. There in the first paragraph, Ms. Holmes states that she has not been “an experienced writer of anything more substantial than mountains of hastily scribbled research notes.” Of course (and I’ll be honest–I had to check), she was still to write “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”(assuming she wrote it long after it occurred in 1903) and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” (1907) but this statement still leaves the monographs unaccounted for, as well as the magazine article Watson disparages in A Study in Scarlet, “The Book of Life.” Other canonical problems follow, and unfortunately, they’re the kind that make Holmes’ ability to pass as a woman while living intimately with her physician friend seem implausible. Ms. Holmes claims, for example, that she cared for her own medical needs, and that she never went to the baths. “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” (Baring-Gould date, 1902) would indicate otherwise.
Of course most pastiches contain some canonical error or other, and I’m certainly not well-versed enough to catch them all.✝✝✝ My Dear Watson also posed some believability problems for me. It was hard to accept that Lucy could remain hidden in college rooms for any length of time at all, even if she were dressing as a boy. The chemistry equipment Mycroft provided her would alert others to her presence if nothing else. The fact that Dr. Watson and Holmes are such close friends raises more plausibility concerns. The man’s a physician. A physician who knows and likes women. And while he may not seem to enjoy doctoring all that much, he proudly claims, in The Sign of Four, “an experience of women over many nations and three continents.” He’s been married, for the purposes of this book, three times. Because this site should be suitable for all ages, let’s just say that there are aspects of female life it would be nearly impossible to hide from an experienced male roommate, much less a female housekeeper, for so many years. In the book, Watson notices that his friend has no need to shave after two days. Surely, after all of their trips together, he would have noticed this before. Likewise, Holmes’ drug use, which is alluded to in the book, would have, on occasion, put her in positions in which she would not have full control over herself, making discovery more likely. Couple this with a physician’s knowledge of female anatomy (not just the obvious parts), and it’s difficult to believe that Watson has never figured it out. The author tries to salvage this with what amounts to his ability to see and not observe, but physicians do observe others’ physical characteristics, and I can’t imagine why, once his curiosity was piqued, he would not investigate.
One could argue, however, that this Watson is a bit of a…well, isn’t the famous appellation “Boobus britannicus”? Basically, this is the Watson who likes jam.‡ Although he is very funny at times, he’s really out of character, and it’s hard to believe that even a man who needs romance is able to pursue another woman so ardently when his last wife (and their miscarried infant) is barely cold in the grave. Likewise, when cocaine poisoning forces Holmes to revisit her previous experience with withdrawal, Watson leaves her with a French couple who are basically strangers so he can pursue the mystery back in London. Holmes doesn’t send him; it’s his idea, and one which seems completely antithetical to his character. The French couple–a retired concert violinist and his wife, who have lost their only child–seem to have no real purpose in the story except to serve as Holmes’ caretakers in Watson’s stead, to make sure he doesn’t undress his raving friend. There’s an amusing bit with a motorcar, a sweet bit with a violin, and they take in one of the culprit’s victims in the end, but I kept waiting for them to prove untrustworthy, and found them superfluous when they did not. Other secondary characters, such as Constance Moriarty’s lover, Geoffrey Wickham, are well-drawn and interesting.
And Holmes? After a slightly rough start with the young Lucy, Ms. Bridge’s Sherlock Holmes is just what one might expect: she’s impatient, clever, forthright, and has a sharp tongue. There are the familiar canonical phrases, with just enough variation to make them original. However, Lucy Holmes has a depth and capacity for self-examination that I didn’t foresee. Although she’s read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she chose her path for more personal than political reasons, and her consequences have been personal as well. Middle age has become, inevitably, a time of uncomfortable reflection, and all she knew in her thirties no longer seems as certain. She has that typically feminine moment of seeing her mother in the mirror, the bitterly common dilemma that the one she loves doesn’t know she’s alive, and the universally human realization that, in making her choices, she may well have rendered their alternatives impossible. For the best of all possible reasons, she’s built her life on a fundamental deception; her attempts to grapple with this decision and its fallout are truly poignant.
This brings us back to that argument in the car. My husband, who is not a Sherlockian, argued that, if the story is good, canon shouldn’t matter. I had more difficulty reconciling a very well-written story full of depth and insight with the plausibility problems, some of which contradict canon. As I told my spouse, when a group of people call the works of their favorite author “The Canon,” they’re sending a not-so-subtle message.
Where to put the emphasis? That was my problem. Conan Doyle had the answer. His “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” has to be one of the goofier Holmes stories. In it, an aging professor hoping to impress his young fiancée injects himself with ape serum and ends up becoming ape-like himself. No, really. But behind the implausible scenario is a touching glimpse of the unpleasant realities of aging. Making Sherlock Holmes a woman seems outlandish, but in playing “what if,” Ms. Bridges is able to make us think about issues ranging from “the thin line between good and evil,” to what it really meant for the Great Detective to push aside “the softer emotions.” There is gain, and there is loss, and who’s to say which is greater in the end?
My Dear Watson is available from your usual online suspects, as well as the MX Publishing site and the Baker Street Babes’ online bookstore. Ms. Bridges also writes popular children’s books. You can learn more about her, and her books, at http://www.margaretparkbridges.com/. I’m curious about your views on this book, canonicity, gender-bending, etc. Be the first commenter and win a copy of My Dear Watson, or the upcoming anthology currently being prepared in support of the Undershaw Preservation Trust.
Star Rating: For the first time ever, I’ve decided to give a book a “dual” star rating. If you highly value canonicity, My Dear Watson rates 3 1/2 stars out of 5, or “Flawed, but still worth your while.” If you give greater weight to story, My Dear Watson rates 4 out of 5, “Well worth your time and money.”
*My Dear Watson has a very interesting history. It was, in fact, published in Japan in 1992, after it impressed judges in an international competition for unpublished mystery authors (an experience you can read about here: http://www.margaretparkbridges.com/writing-backwards/). New York publishers, however, are notoriously hard to please, so the book languished almost two decades before finding a new home at MX.
**It devolved into something like this. Brett: “You’re too sensitive.” Leah: “You won’t ever let me score a point.” Ultimate outcome: stalemate, as usual.
***Examples include: Billy Tipton, James Barry, Albert Cashier, James Gray, and pirate Anne Bonny. If you do a web search for these (and others), you’ll find that most of them are fairly easy to “see through.” Several, however, are not.
✝Unless, say, it’s your last name. And if it is–how cool!
✝✝ Let’s say it together, shall we? “It’s all fine.”
✝✝✝ In fact, a couple of items I initially believed were errors proved, upon inspection, to be correct, or open to interpretation.
‡See http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=210 ; “Boobus britannicus” was Edmund L. Pearson’s description of Watson in 1932.