There are many things to admire about our friend, Dr. John Watson. Let there be no question about that. But it is also necessary that we recognize one of the deficiencies in his character -- a flaw, if you will, of great magnitude. This should not detract from our appreciation of him. It should, in fact, endear him to us all the more when we gain an understanding of the terrible price that he paid as a consequence of his weakness in this respect.
The reference, of course, is to his inability to keep his promises. You may recall that it was in The Adventure of the Second Stain that Watson made a promise to Holmes that he ultimately failed to keep. It was there that Watson promised Holmes that if Holmes would permit the publication of the events of The Second Stain, then that would be the last of the adventures that Watson would ever write or publish. This is clearly stated at the outset of that story.
These were the circumstances surrounding the events which we are to examine here. Holmes granted Watson permission to publish The Adventure of the Second Stain only on condition that it was to be the last of the reports upon his exploits. That is made clear by the declarations of Watson in the text:
"I had intended `The Adventure of the Abby Grange'
to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr.
herlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to
the public." ([SECO], Doub. p.650)
That intention did not result from lack of material. The reasons are explained by Watson:
"The real reason lay in the reluctance that Mr. Holmes
has shown to the continued publication of his
experiences. So long as he was in the actual professional
practice the records of his successes were of some
practical value to him, but since he has definitely
retired from London and betaken himself to study and bee-
farming on Sussex Downs, notoriety has become hateful to
him, and he has peremptorily requested that his wishes in
this matter be strictly observed. It was only upon my
representing to him that I had given a promise that `The
Adventure of the Second Stain' would be published only
when the times were ripe, and pointing out to him that
that it is only appropriate that this long series of
episodes should culminate in the most important
international case which he has ever been called upon to
handle, that I at last succeeded in obtaining his
consent that a carefully guarded account of this incident
should be laid before the public." [ SECO] (p.650)
After Watson struck his bargain with Sherlock Holmes, and thus obtained permission to release for publication the account of the Second Stain matter, Watson found himself unable to resist the temptation to break his promise. He later submitted further tales for publication.
The promise to Holmes by Watson to cease publication was made before publication of The Second Stain in December of 1904. Then for four long years, from 1904 to 1908, Watson struggled with the inner conflict-- the forces of good reminding him that he had given his word, made an oath; and the forces of evil tugging at him to return to the life of ease and the cash flow which would result. Finally, in the summer of '08, his resolve gave way and the floodgates were opened. *Wisteria Lodge* was published in August 1908 and was rapidly followed by The Bruce-Partington Plans in December of that year.
Then there followed, higgledy-piggledy: Devil's Foot, (published Dec/1910); Red Circle (published Mar/1911); Lady Frances Carfax (published Dec/1911); and The Dying Detective (published Nov/1913). These were the tales that Watson published after he had promised Holmes in 1904 that there would be no more. He broke his word; but he paid a price.
Either out of disgust or as a form of punishment, Holmes cut Watson out of his life for the six years following the broken promise. After the publication of the stories in 1908, there is not a single case in which the two worked together until their final encounter in * The Last Bow*.
According to Baring-Gould's chronology, the only two tales which recount events that occurred after 1904 are The Lion's Mane (July/August 1909) and The Last Bow (August 1914). Neither of these were written by Watson. Watson does not appear in Lion's Mane which was written by Holmes. Holmes points out the estranged relationship:
“At this period of my life the good Watson had passed
almost beyond my ken. An occasional week-end visit
was the most that I ever saw of him. Thus I must
act as my own chronicler.” [LION]
During the six years between 1908 and 1914 there was almost no contact between these two former very close friends.
Then in August 1914 Watson received a wire from Holmes which invited him to participate in the capture of the German spy, Von Bork. It is believed that Holmes brought Watson into that case (Last Bow) for the sole purpose of effecting a reconciliation of the friendship. There is no other logical explanation for Watson's presence in the case. His participation was minimal.
First Watson sat alone in the car while Holmes was doing the work; then Watson stood around after Holmes subdued and bound the spy; next he drank a little Tokay with Holmes and watched as Holmes unloaded the safe; then he helped to walk Von Bork to the car. He did little else. So why did Holmes invite Watson into the case? Holmes wanted to restore the friendship with Watson. It is reported that as they stood upon the terrace: "The two friends chatted in intimate converse for a few minutes, recalling again the days of the past..." Thus, after six years, the damage to the friendship was repaired.
Later, but only after he obtained permission, Watson resumed publishing. Those later reports of earlier cases can now be found in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. Watson was careful to get the necessary permission from Holmes, and he points this out at the beginning of The Illustrious Client.
Much to Watson's credit, he has never mentioned the pain of the six years of loneliness which he had to endure throughout his punishment period, a period which we now like to call The Second Great Hiatus.
(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)