Friday, September 9, 2011

“I had neither kith nor kin in England” (STUD): The Family Relationship in the Sherlock Holmes Canon (Part One)

“The date of the watch is nearly fifty years back, and the initials are as old as the watch: so it was made for the last generation.  Jewellery usually descends to the eldest son, and he is most likely to have the same name as the father.  Your father has, if I remember right, been dead many years.  It has, therefore, been in the hands of your eldest brother…He was a man of untidy habits–very untidy and careless.  He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died.  That is all I can gather.” (“The Sign of Four,” Chapter One)
The Sherlock Holmes stories are filled with lonely, unmoored people.  People without family, or with only distant relations.  People who seem to neither need any close relationships, or are unable to maintain them.  Dr. Watson, after all, introduces himself to the reader in A Study in Scarlet as man without any family or close relations, and that is why upon returning from the Afghan War he “was therefore as free as air.”  But for a man who claimed to be “free,” and all the lighthearted imaginings that may invoke, he is quick to throw in his lot with a complete stranger, a man who admits from the outset that he is not the best of companions: “Let me see–what are my other shortcomings?  I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end.  You must not think I am sulky when I do that.  Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.  What have you to confess now?  It’s just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together” (STUD).
Sherlock Holmes analyzes Dr. Watson's elder brother's watch in The Sign of Four.
The reader learns in the above passage from The Sign of Four that Watson’s father and older brother have both died, and there is no mention of any other relations.  While it is true that Watson tells his reader in STUD that he “had neither kith nor kin in England [emphasis mine],” and therefore opens the door to speculation that he had relations in other nations, he never mentions them, and they never visit.  And whether the reader believes that the good Doctor was married once, twice, or six times as Brad Keefauver maintains (see the recent posting about Miss Mary Morstan), the sad fact is that none of the many Mrs. Watsons was a permanent, or even a long-term fixture in the Doctor’s life.  There is also no mention of any “little Watsons,” and as Dr. Watson was quick to return to his rooms at Baker Street in between his marriages, there is some evidence that Watson remained childless.  Baker Street, and his life with Sherlock Holmes, remained one of the few constant fixtures in his life; however often he found himself untethered from its moorings.

Sherlock looks like he's afraid Mycroft is about to tell an embarrassing family story. 
Mycroft looks like he's wondering where his dinner is. (
Sherlock Holmes’s isolation is legendary, of course.  Even bringing up the subject seems to confirm Christopher Morley’s admonishment to Sherlockian writers: “Never has so much been written by so many for so few."  Holmes is reticent, and close-fisted with his personal details.  And nowhere in the canon is this better exemplified than in “The Greek Interpreter.”  As Watson says:
“During my long and intimate acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes I had never heard him refer to his relations, and hardly ever to his own early life.  This reticence upon his part had increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence.  His aversion to women and his disinclination to form new friendships were both typical of his unemotional character, but not more so than his complete suppression of every reference to his own people.  I had come to believe that he was an orphan with no relatives living; but one day, to my very great surprise, he began to talk to me about his brother.”

If the traditional chronology is to be believed, then the events of GREE took place in 1888, and Holmes and Watson had been sharing their rooms at Baker Street for over seven years.  Seven years without a word about a close relation, a brother, living in the same city!  It beggars belief.  Indeed, Gavin Brend of My Dear Holmes: Studies in Sherlock, posits the theory that the events of GREE took place within the first few years of Holmes and Watson’s acquaintance (58-62), which seems more likely if still a curious oversight.  Furthermore, if William Baring-Gould is to be believed, Holmes was quiet on the subject of more than just one older brother!  The famous Sherlockian scholar put forth the theories that there was a third, older Holmes brother, Sherrinford; that his parents were named Siger (the inspiration for Holmes’s alias during the “Great Hiatus”) and Violet; and that Sherlock Holmes was the father Rex Stout's detective character Nero Wolfe (the result of an affair with Irene Adler in Montenegro).  Despite the fact that Holmes’s family relationships are apparently more prodigious than Watson’s, they are no more substantial.  More is made of Mycroft’s character—and the Holmes brothers’ relationship—in pastiches or on screen, than ever was truly made of it in the canon; in fact, Mycroft only appears in just two of the original stories: “The Greek Interpreter,” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” and is just briefly mentioned in “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House.” 
And finally, what of Mrs. Hudson, the famous matriarchal figure of Baker Street?  She is a “Mrs.,” but no “Mr.” Hudson ever appears (although fans of BBC’s “Sherlock” know what might have happened to her missing spouse).  Neither do there appear to be any Hudson children.  Her tenants are often troublesome, and she seems to go through agonies to care for them: cooking, cleaning, sending telegrams, shepherding clients (at all hours of the day and night), tending to bullet holes in her walls.  Oh, and not to forget: the task of preserving the flat while one of her residents was presumably dead for three years.  Watson does say that Holmes’s “… [rent] payments were princely.  I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms during the years that I was with him” (DYIN), but it still seems quite a lot for one landlady to tolerate, “princely” rent payments or no.
In fact, according to Christopher Redmond, author of the Sherlock Holmes Handbook (2nd Edition), Mrs. Hudson’s unusual devotion to her tenants—particularly Holmes—is worth noting.  “Certainly the kind of devotion seen in ‘The Empty House,’ in which she repeatedly crawls to Holmes’s wax bust ‘on my knees’ and in danger of her life to adjust its position, suggests something more than the usual relationship between tenant and landlady” (54).  In the pastiche, The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds, Manly Wade Wellman and Wade Wellman theorize that Mrs. Hudson’s devotion to Sherlock Holmes stems from another source entirely, as well as find a neat solution for the “three Hudsons” that appear in the canon: Blackmailer Hudson of “The Gloria Scott,” Morse Hudson of “The Six Napoleons,” and Mrs. Hudson of Baker Street, of course.
Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes in 2010.  Not pictured, their longsuffering mother.
So, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Mrs. Hudson form a neat little family unit at Baker Street, for all that it is flexible and changeable, for all its strangeness and peculiarity.  Dr. Watson needed somewhere to return to—after the war, after his marriages.  Sherlock Holmes needed to be allowed to remain in the middle distance—to create his legendary separation and isolation.  And Mrs. Hudson needed a place to tend to—and perhaps even residents that needed tending.  They work rather neatly together as a unit, perhaps better than most.
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  1. There is so much I don't know about Holmes literature! You make me want to read everything. I feel like I should be taking notes after your blog posts lol.

  2. I most appreciate your concluding summation after the illuminating meditation on each character's place in their "found" family's life together. This characterization of their interrelations made me think that nontraditional family units, constructed by choice by the participants themselves, may not be such a new phenomenon after all.

  3. @TheUnderStudy: Aw, thank you! I think you would really enjoy the "War of Worlds" pastiche I mention. It's light-hearted in a way I think you would like. :-)

    @Lucy: Actually, someone on Facebook made a very similar comment regarding this post, about the manner in which the characters relate makes them consistently accessible, for much the reasons you put forth. You're correct that "found" families are probably much older phenomenon that we realize! :=)