Chapters 1-6 of The Sign of Four, Or, Enter the Homewrecker!

Because this is where we meet Mary Morstan, that shameless hussy who lures Watson away from his Holmes!

But we will come back to her because Baring-Gould has trained me well and nothing is more important than getting our dates right. Except I lied. The first thing we’re going to talk about is the discrepancies between the titles. If you remember, last week, Baring-Gould referred to The Sign of Four as The Sign of the Four. According to Leslie, The Sign of Four originally appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine under the title “The Sign of the Four; or, The Problem of the Sholtos.” When it appeared in book form in October of the same year, it was as The Sign of Four. There is no further explanation, I’m afraid, and no conclusive decision as to which is correct – Leslie states, cryptically, that the original manuscript is in private hands and unavailable (NA, 209). So I guess we’ll never know and, therefore, you are free to call it whatever you like!

And back to your regularly scheduled date discussion. There is a faction of scholars who believe that it actually takes place in July, but there are many, many, maaaaaaaannnnyyyy details that Baring-Gould claims support the September camp (seriously, I think it is all he talks about in his notes – as I was reading BG, I’d come up to a place where NA had pointed out something particularly interesting and instead, BG would be desperately trying to use the fact that there was fog or a light breeze or that the weather was uncommonly warm for the time of year to prove that it was, in fact, September and not July as certain idiots [my interpretation, not his actual words] would have us believe). And so, according to Baring-Gould, the action of The Sign of Four takes place from Tuesday, September 18, 1888 to September 21, 1888 (BG, 610; okay, as much as I tease him, I adore him for being SO pedantic) and was first published in Lippincott’s in February of 1890.

This is a bit of a melancholy introduction by Leslie: ‘Holmes occupies centre-stage for virtually the full length of this supremely satisfying tale of deduction, while Watson, not to be outpaced, comes into full flower as a human being in a case that sadly shows Holmes steeped in his drugs and ends with the breakup of the shared lodgings of the two men in Baker Street’ (NA, 213). It is very true. Actually, Holmes spends the first couple of pages being exceedingly cruel to Watson in regards to his publication of A Study in Scarlet, saying ‘I glanced over it…Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact sience, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have atempted to tinge it with romanticism…’ (BG, 611) to which Baring-Gould adds ‘It was probably the interlude with the Mormons that Holmes found tiresome’ (BG, 611). To which I must say that snarky!Baring-Gould is snarky (but also ‘Word’). But did I mention he’s all coked up for the first couple of pages, too? Poor Watson. No wonder he’s turned to drink at lunchtime.

Which brings us to Mary’s entrance. There are lots of theories afoot regarding Miss Morstan, so I’ll do my best to summarize here. The first theory brought up is that Mary visits Holmes intending to marry him in an effort to move up in the world but upon meeting him and Watson, soon turns her attentions to the latter (NA, 225). I may be biased, but I find this laughable. What lady in her right mind would choose Watson over Holmes (I’m sorry, Watson, I love you, too, but I can’t resist Holmes)?! Okay, I’m being a little facetious here – mostly I find this an odd theory because what would possess her to choose Holmes as a prospective husband out of all her choices? Is he really famous enough that marriageable young women are throwing themselves upon his feet? To quote the lovely Eddie, it makes no sense. Then there is a theory that, like Watson, she has had her identity stolen, this time by the daughter of Mrs. Cecil Forrester who answered the Times advertisement in her stead (NA, 228). Apparently, the Forresters were rather a dodgy sort – Ruth Douglass  ‘advances the speculation that the “little domestic complication” in Mrs. Forrester’s household was the Camberwell Poisoning mentioned in “The Five Orange Pips”; that the poisoner was Mrs. Forrester; that she escaped justice and used Mary first as bait (for Watson) and then as a tool (in order to obtain poson, through Mary, from Watson’s medical cabinet [and] finally killed Mary’ (NA, 228).

Again, as relates to Miss Morstan, The Sign of Four gives us Watson’s boastful statement that he has ‘an eperience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents’ (NA, 225; to which I reply ‘Oh, Watson, don’t make me laugh’ and apparently Dorothy Sayers agrees with me [NA, 227])). If you were wondering, there is discussion about which continents he means here. Usually, it is assumed to be Europe, Asia, and Australia (later Watson likens the grounds of Pondicherry Lodge to Ballarat during its goldrush), though Baring-Gould ‘posits a stay in America, prior to Watson’s relationship with Holmes, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Angels of Darkness, first published in 2002 [What is this?! I must find out.], seems to bear this out’ (NA, 227). John Hall, however, suggests that ‘Watson added the reference to Ballarat as a result of Holmes’ mention of it as recorded in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” during the events of which Watson may have been writing up his notes of the events of The Sign of Four’ (NA, 265). This gets sort of complicated because it means that, since Watson is writing after the fact, he may be changing things that have happened to suit things that will happen. Oh, I’m sorry – did I just blow your mind? DID I?!

And one more! Based on her reaction when describing her father’s disappearance (‘put[ting] her hand to ther throat, and [allowing] a choking sob [to] cut short the sentence’ [NA, 232]), T.B. Hunt and H. W. Starr ‘conclude that Mary suffered mental illness and that Watson cared for her throughout her long decline into insanity and referred to this as his “sad bereavement” in “The Empty House”‘ (NA, 232). So poor Mary! Most scholars have her coming to some sort of unfortunate end (though one has a fun theory I’ll save for a little later) – I can only assume they are fantasizing what unfortunate circumstances might befall Watson and Holmes’ Yoko.

There will be a note on a hilarious illustration later, but right now I have to say that Richard Gutschmidt is closing in fast on Paget and both of them are easily eclipsed by F.H. Townsend:

Aren’t they gorgeous?! I love how dapper Holmes is and how not-pudgy Watson is and how lush the backgrounds are (they must be something different than the pen-and-ink illustrations we’re used to seeing for Holmes – does anybody know for sure?)!


  • Holmes has driven Watson to drink. Watson sort of takes Holmes to task about his cocaine use, saying ‘Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner (Holmes is about to insolently offer Watson a crack [no pun intended] at his morocco case), I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer’ (NA, 214). [Watson is buzzed and Holmes has driven him to it!]
  • In a related note discussing Watson’s aforementioned Beaune with lunch, Leslie says that ‘it is no more “potent” than any other non-fortified wine, and this editor wishes it to be known that he is available for experimentation on the suitability of the wine for lunch’ (NA, 215). [Uh-oh, Baring-Gould, Leslie is catching up on the likability points. If only I could afford it, Leslie, if only I could afford it.]
  • There is an illustration that I desperately wish I could show you, but since the author is unknown, my Google-fu has failed me and my scanner is still in its box in my closet. It is an illustration of Holmes, bent double, inspecting something on the floor. Nothing else. No other characters, no background, it is not even clear what exactly he is looking at. Oh, and did I forget to mention that his bum is on prominent display? I laughed out loud as soon as I turned the page to it. My apologies, but my baser instincts got the better of me, I’m afraid and my note on the subject says [Yeah, baby, work that moneymaker! (What an odd illustration…)]
  • There is also a theory that Mary was employed as a ‘”governess” in the sense of a dominatrix in the Forrester brothel. [Yikes! The hidden talents layers of Mary Morstan! I wonder if Watson knew what he was getting into…]
  • There is (yet another) ACD slip-up about details [Did the man not have an editor?! THIS IS WHAT WE ARE FOR!]. Leslie’s note quotes ACD’s letter to the editor of Lippincott’s: ‘By the way there is one very obvious mistake which must be corrected in book form – in the second chapter the letter is headed July 7th, and n almost the same page I [sic] talk of its being a September evening.’ (NA, 234) [Leslie’s ‘[sic]’ made me LOL.]
  • Upon finishing her first interview with Holmes and Watson, Mary bids them goodbye and ‘with a bright, kindly glance from one to the other of us, she replace[s] her pearl-box in her bosom and hurrie[s] away’ (NA, 235). [Her bosom? Really?! Women really carried things around in their bosoms?! I think the evidence for Mary working as a “governess” is mounting.]
  • While Thaddeus Sholto is taking Holmes, Watson, and Mary to Pondicherry Lodge, Watson is preoccupied by Mary’s presence and Holmes ‘declares that he overheard [him] caution [Sholto] against the great danger of taking more than two drops of castor-oil, while [he] recommended strychnine in large doses as a sedative’ (NA, 259). According to Leslie, Dr. Maurice Campbell remarks that ‘Watson could almost have been forgiven if he actually had given the injection to Thaddeus Sholto who must have been very trying in the cab on that journey’ (NA, 259). [I have to say that I’m imagining Gilbert Godfried and it’s hard to disagree with Campbell.]
  • Standing in the dark at Pondicherry Lodge, Watson and Mary clasp hands to comfort themselves. ‘A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two, who had never seen each otehr before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. [Barf.]
  • As Holmes is investigating the attic of Pondicherry Lodge, Watson remarks that ‘So swift, silent, and furtive were his movements…that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he woul dhave made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defence’ (NA, 277). [Once again…GUH! The only thing hotter than Holmes? Criminal!Holmes.]

So what did you think of The Sign of Four so far? Chime in and I’ll see you next week for chapters 7-12!

*Most of my notes, I think, come from the New Annotated simply because I find its format easier to work through and it is, therefore, the version that I’m reading first (I’m only reading the notes in the Baring-Gould). Much of the information is doubled up, but there is some that is unique to either volume, so if you see NA, that’s the Baring-Gould edition and BG is the New Annotated. No, I’m totally kidding – it’s the other way (the logical way) round.


2 thoughts on “Chapters 1-6 of The Sign of Four, Or, Enter the Homewrecker!

  1. Following your lead, I have only read through Chap. 6. My favorite part so far? “But halloo! here are the accredited representatives of the law.” Also “Goethe is always pithy.”

    • I do love snarky!Holmes when it comes to his interactions with the police. Such disdain! (Usually.) And we’ll get some actual Goethe being pithy (though also a bit sad) tomorrow. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s