Notes on A Study in Scarlet

Or, more properly, Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department. I think this is telling: a medical doctor giving an account of a miracle worker. Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes is introduced to us, not so much as a study of an extraordinary character (the product of Doyle’s extraordinary Late Victorian Era imagination), but as a study of a sclerotic, injured, convalescing defender of the Queen’s Empire.

It is, of course, a study of the self, comparing and contrasting two figures who may not be so unalike as alike. In fact, it is a worthwhile question to ponder whether Sherlock Holmes ever existed at all, being, instead, the figment of Watson’s imagination, Watson being utterly bored and aimless, like his companion (or creation), Sherlock Holmes.

The answer, in my mind, is, yes, Sherlock Holmes is real; no, he is not the figment of Watson’s imagination. On the other hand, the two are attracted to each because of what is similar between the two.

Note these two passages, the one a self-portrait:

Under such circumstances I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained. There I stayed for some time at a private hotel in the Strand, leading a comfortless, meaningless existence, and spending such money as I had, considerably more freely than I ought. So alarming did the state of my finances become, that I soon realized that I must either leave the metropolis and rusticate somewhere in the country, or that I must make a complete alteration in my style of living. Choosing the latter alternative, I began by making up my mind to leave the hotel, and take up my quarters in some less pretentious and less expensive domicile.

The other a portrait of Sherlock Holmes:

“By Jove!” I cried; “if he really wants someone to share the rooms and the expense, I am the very man for him. I should prefer having a partner to being alone.” Young Stamford looked rather strangely at me over his wineglass. “You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” he said; “ perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.” “Why, what is there against him?” “Oh, I didn’t say there was anything against him. He is a little queer in his ideas — an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know he is a decent fellow enough.” “A medical student, I suppose?” said I. “No — I have no idea what he intends to go in for. I believe he is well up in anatomy, and he is a first-class chemist; but, as far as I know, he has never taken out any systematic medical classes. His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors.” “Did you never ask him what he was going in for?” I asked. “No; he is not a man that it is easy to draw out, though he can be communicative enough when the fancy seizes him.” “I should like to meet him,” I said. “If I am to lodge with anyone, I should prefer a man of studious and quiet habits. I am not strong enough yet to stand much noise or excitement. I had enough of both in Afghanistan to last me for the remainder of my natural existence. How could I meet this friend of yours?”

Thence the two are practically inseparable, except when practicality demands. Watson is peering into his own soul, which is in dire condition, and he finds Sherlock Holmes, who, likewise, needs much attention. Can the doctor save the patient?