Jody Baker: A Bumbling Watson

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

[I love Peter Blau’s expression – “Further to…” – It says so much in so few words, --- literary brevity at its best.] 

Those of us who first experienced Holmes and Watson through Saturday afternoon matinees at the "moving picture show" have a particular fondness for Nigel Bruce as Watson. And we have a special loyalty toward both of those whom we grew to love and to respect in our youth. It may be a generational thing that we prefer Rathbone over Brett and Bruce over Hardwick. But loyalty is loyalty, and Nigel Bruce is, for me, the definitive Watson. He portrays John Watson as the "boobus  Britannicus" because that is precisely the way that Arthur Conan Doyle crafted the character in his stories.

Sherlock Holmes viewed Watson in that light, and when we look beyond the cutting and sarcastic barbs of Holmes, there is additional evidence. Corroboration is found in the remarks of Conan Doyle in the short movie interview  [Fox Movietone, filmed at Crowborough, October 1928, transcript of which was published in the New York Times May 26,1929]. There Sir Arthur, without objection or contradiction, reports that many readers refer  to Watson as the "rather stupid friend" of Sherlock Holmes.  

But that is not all that Conan Doyle had to say on the subject. In "The Field Bazaar" he gives an assessment of Watson with the words that he puts into the mouth of Holmes. "Field Bazaar" is a parody done by Doyle to raise money for Edinburgh University. (Published in "The Student " November 20, 1896). In that work Doyle, revealing his own thoughts, presents the truth in these words of Holmes to Watson:

"You will not, I am sure, be offended if I say that any reputation for sharpness that I may possess has been entirely gained by the admirable foil which you have made for me. Have I not heard of debutantes who have insisted upon plainness in their chaperones ? There is a certain analogy."

Objection may be raised that the author, himself, may not be a reliable evaluator of his own creation. Therefore, we shall consult other sources for an evaluation of the intellectual inaptitude of Dr. Watson. 

"Webster's Dictionary of Proper Names" (G & C Merriman Company 1970) lists Watson and says of him that he is: 

" The slow-witted foil, to Sherlock Holmes...."

"The Oxford Companion to English Literature " (Oxford University Press 1932) concurs: 

"Watson, Dr. - in the cycle of stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (q.v.) relating to Sherlock Holmes, the detective, is a stolid medical man, Holmes's companion and assistant in his adventures, and his chronicler. His stupidity, which is good-humoredly tolerated by his brilliant leader serves as a foil to set off the qualities of the latter. " (p. 874)

Stephen Vincent Benet, in his essay "Watson" [See "Profile By Gaslight" (Simon and Schuster, 1944, p. 155)] characterizes Watson with this description: 

"If he had a tail he would wag it incessantly -- there is something very canine about him somehow; it is easy to see him transformed, a solemn, ponderous St. Bernard, galumphing after Holmes with portentously stately bounds. 

Now, I tell you, that's the Watson that I know. By far the most significant external evidence may be that found in a 1926 literary review: "Detectives in Fiction" in The Times Literary Supplement (London literary weekly), August 12, 1926, (repeated in "The Living Age," September 18, 1926). The pertinent parts of this article merit careful consideration. In this review the author reports: 

"Sherlock Holmes as a type [ of detective story ]  caught the fancy of the public to such an extent that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set a fashion in the presentation of detective stories through the medium of a companion to the hero whose intelligence and powers of observation were so nicely calculated as to give the reader a pleasing sense of slightly contempuous superiority.The Watson who was the fidus sed hebes Achates* of Holmes...."                      

* [The faithful -- but dull, obtuse, stupid -- close companion of Holmes. Achates was the close companion of AEneas in Virgil's AEneid. The phrase "fidus Achata" is an accepted one for close friend or best pal. The author of the review added the "sed hebes."]

When "Detectives in Fiction" was published in The Times Literary Supplement, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was active and commanded a position of prestige in the literary world. So we may ask ourselves, what did Sir Arthur have to say in reaction to this characterization of his creation? 

Well, like the dog in the night time, he did not bark. 

May I submit to you that if you will apply rational reasoning and thought to the matter, you will find that your deep and abiding love for the Sherlock Holmes tales is because of Watson and not because of Holmes.

The Defense Rests. 

Respectfully, Baynes

(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at

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