“The Man With the Twisted Lip” Or, in which Watson forgets his own name…Or does he?

“The Man With the Twisted Lip” was first published in December 1891. As for when it takes place, Baring-Gould places it at Saturday, June 18 to Sunday, June 19, 1887. He does point out that he is alone in choosing 1887 – every other Sherlockian believes Watson’s 1889. How did he come to this lone wolf of a conclusion?

First off, Watson gets something wrong – June 19, 1889 was a Wednesday, not a Friday but July 19, 1889 was, therefore, Watson must be wrong about either the Friday, the June, the 19th, or the 1889. Baring-Gould decides that he must have meant Saturday, June 18, 1887. Frankly, I think it’s a bit presumptuous of him. He concedes that Neville’s son’s age, for whom he is buying building blocks, does support the 1889 date, but chooses to ignore it, therefore, I guess Baring-Gould believes Neville is bad at buying age-appropriate gifts. Never fear, though, we have weather report! Watson mentions that Monday was an exceedingly hot day and I assume Baring-Gould couldn’t hold back his gleeful shriek. According to the Times (and Baring-Gould’s subjectivity), there were no exceedingly hot Monday in June 1889. However, Monday in June 1887, it was 81 degrees with plentiful sunshine (13 hours and 40 minutes of it, apparently). [I would argue over the use of the word exceedingly for 81 degrees…even for London.] I noted that 4:30 a.m. seemed very early for the sun to be shining so brightly when Watson and Holmes head off to the City to visit Bow Street – knowing my editors, I also noted [We’ll see what Baring-Gould has to say about this!] And he didn’t let me down! On page 382, he confirms that sunrise in June in England is between 3:50 and 3:49 a.m. (confirming June which leaves the day of the week, the date, or the year in error). [D’oh! I am rebuked. (Though I still only ever remember the sun being up that early in Aberdeen and not in London…)]

Leslie notes that this is the first of the Holmes stories to play fair – that is, Holmes gets the same information the reader is afforded and at the same time. But I have to say that I missed the usual explanation at the end of how Holmes figured it out. As it is, we never find out what caused him to make all the correct connections!

Perhaps the biggest scandal of this story is Mary Watson’s referring to her husband as ‘James’ when his name is patently ‘John.’ Leslie thoughtfully collects all theorized explanations for this lapse for us and I’m passing the savings on to you (in order of most likely to most outlandish):

  • Good old Dorothy Sayers suggests that it is a reference to Watson’s middle name, ‘Hamish’ which is the Scottish version of…’James’ (NA, 194).
  • Ebbe Curtis Hoff, who wins my vote, suggests that ‘James’ is a ‘playful reference to Watson’s role as Holmes’ Boswell–James Boswell’ (NA, 194).
  • Christopher Morley (who is obviously a Watson fan) blames the disintegration of the Watson’s marriage on the implications  of Mary’s slip-up (NA, 194).
  • ‘Some scholars see the “James” reference as an indication of a “second hand” in the narrative. For example, T.S. Blakeney writes, “Composite authorship may generally be attributed to historical writings, irrespective of whether the original record was the work of the putative author or of another person of the same name; and the suggestion arises that the ‘James’ Watson spoke of in The Man With the Twisted Lip may be one of these editors”‘ (NA, 195).
  • John D. Beirle takes this a step further and claims that ‘viewed objectively, The Man With the Twisted Lip gives evidence of hasty and even careless composition by someone not familiar with Dr. Watson’s family life.’ inferring that the story was not written by Watson but by Arthur Conan Doyle. Leslie goes on to note that ‘Beirle’s view is not a popular one’ (NA, 193). I wondered why it was such an unpopular theory, given that it seems to make sense. Turns out Leslie didn’t give us the whole quote – ‘The unfortunate conclusion to which we are forced is that this “adventure” is not by Dr. John H. Watson, nor is it, actually a recollection of facts. Rather, we must conclude that it is a work of pure fiction…’ (BG, 387). [Now I see why it’s unpopular – fiction, indeed!]
  • Many people suggest that Mary was actually referring to someone else in the room. Candidates include Watson’s bull pup, a stepson (by the doctor’s marriage to Mrs. Forrester), or an adopted child who later tragically died (This theory is supported by the extra room in Watson’s flat, mentioned in “The Crooked Man.”) (NA, 195).
  • Bliss Austin (who is quickly becoming my favorite non-editor Holmesian) suggests that there are two Watsons, John and James. John having died shortly after the adventure of “The Reigate Squires,” James took on John’s identity (this seems to happen a lot to Watson, doesn’t it?) (NA, 196).
  • Ian Neil Abrams does him one better, suggesting that John and James are in fact twins – John was the one wounded in the shoulder and James in the leg (very tidy, Abrams!). John initially shared rooms with Holmes and then James took his place when John left to see to a growing medical practice. James then met and married Mary Morstan and, I guess, John moved back in with Holmes (it’s James who looks after the oft-absent John’s practice). I think I’m starting to confuse myself, but you get the picture (NA, 196).
  • And then Baring-Gould rains on everyone’s parade by pointing out that ‘when we recall that Conan Doyle named Watson for his friend James Watson, the slip of the pen is understandable’ (BG, 369). [Boo, Baring-Gould, you’re no fun!]

Exhausting, right?! So which do you think is the real explanation?

Much is made of Mrs. St. Clair’s reaction when Holmes returns with Watson. Frankly, I think she’s disappointed that Watson isn’t, in fact, her husband, returning safe and sound from the City with Holmes. Richard Asher, in “Holmes and the Fair Sex” writes that ‘surely as men of the world, we can interpret [this posture (her draping herself artfully in the doorway, backlit and wearing a light mousseline de soie with fluffy pink chiffon at her neck and wrists, that is)] correctly’ and points to her insistence that Holmes stay at her house in Kent, an inconvenient seven miles from the scene of Holmes’ investigation along with her aforementioned method of greeting him. He goes on to conclude that it is ‘abundantly clear that Holmes had brought Watson with him as a chaperon’ and that ‘even with [Watson sleeping in his room], Holmes does not seem to have felt quite secure, for he sat up all night on a pile of cushions smoking shag and probably ruminating over his narrow escape’ (NA, 179). This picture of Holmes terrified of Mrs. St. Claire makes me laugh, as does the Sherlockians’ aversions to seeing Holmes married off. I need to make a chart!

There are even more theories! ‘C. Alan Bradley and William A. S. Serjeant, in Ms. Holmes of Baker Street: The Truth About Sherlock, see this incident as the plainest indication that Holmes was a woman. Of course, the entire incident is easily explicable by those who suggest a homosexual relationship between Holmes and Watson (for example, Larry Townsend’s The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, first published by “J. Watson” in 1971) ETA: [I’m so embarrassed – I was so excited at the prospect of Sherlockian essays about Holmes and sex that I not only forgot to close my quotation marks here, I forgot to cite my source! How shameful!] (NA, 179). My first thought was ‘WANT!Those wacky Sherlockians, they’ll write an essay about anything!’ but I’ll save you the Googling, it’s erotica, not scholarly. But still! Averse to seeing Holmes married off!

After Mary getting Watson’s name wrong and whether or not Holmes and Mrs. St. Clair were involved in an illicit affair, the subject that gets the most discussion is Holmes’ dressing gown, specifically how many he has and what color they are. Really, Holmesians? Really? I think the better question here is why we care how many dressing gowns Holmes has, let alone what color they may be! Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we do care, but you have to admit it’s a little weird. (The Holmesians are divided: Christopher Morley says that there is only one – it is blue here, has faded to purple by the time he wears it in “The Blue Carbuncle”, and then fades even more as Mrs. Hudson airs and suns it in the backyard while he’s…away for a bit [I don’t know who doesn’t know what’s coming, but I don’t want to spoil it just in case.] so that it is mouse-colored in “The Bruce Partington Plans” (NA, 184). S. B. Blake suggests that he began with two (the blue one and the purple one) which were lost in a fire…later on [*is shifty*] and he bought the mouse-colored one when he was in Italy…for some reason [*shifty*] (NA, 184). “Richard Lancelyn Green dismisses the controversy, observing that the dressing-gown was likely borrowed from Neville St. Clair” (NA, 184). Baring-Gould mentions that ‘Morley liked to wear, to dinners of the Baker Street Irregulars, a hideous tie striped in blue, purple, and mouse” (NA, 381). And I LOL’d (and long to join the Irregulars!).

My miscellaneous thoughts! [Let me show you them!]

  • When Watson is looking for his friend in the opium den, he comes across a disguised Holmes who, as part of his disguise (sure, right, Holmes, it’s part of your “disguise”), has an opium pipe with him. Leslie notes that “the normally staid Encyclopedia Britannica, in its 1910 edition, continued to carry instructions for its use” (NA, 164). [I don’t know what I find funnier – Leslie description of the encyclopedia as ‘staid’ or the fact that if you wanted to know how to smoke opium, you could look it up in the same.]
  • There is gossip afoot! Baring-Gould and Leslie both express astonishment at the fact that Watson would treat his wife so cavalierly – he bundles his opium’d off his rocker friend into a cab with a note to that he’s gone gallivanting off with Holmes…again. ‘In the view of Clifton R. Andrew (“What Happened to Watson’s Married Life After June 14, 1889?”), Watson failed to refer to Mrs. Watson in stories after “Man with the Twisted Lip” because their marriage ended in divorce, as a result of conduct such as Holmes suggests and Watson adopts here.” (NA, 166). [This (and the sentence that follows the note [‘and for the rest, I could not wish anything better than to be associated with my friend in one of those singular adventures which were the normal condition of his existence.’ (NA, 166)]) would not be hard to believe. Not that I blame you, Watson!]
  • Holmes spends a quiet, contemplative night, smoking an ounce of his shag tobacco (and counting his lucky stars to have escaped the clutches of Mrs. St. Clair, apparently). When he awakes, Watson notes that ‘The pipe was still between his lips, the smoke still curled upward, and the room was full of a dense tobacco haze, but nothing remained of the heap of shag which I had seen upon the previous night’ (NA, 184). [I know Watson’s a smoker, too, but how did he manage to sleep in all that smoke! How inconsiderate! Really, Holmes.]
  • I bet Holmes is trying to come up with a mathematical equation to predict how short your trousers will be when you sit down.

  • ‘Mr. Simpson added that it is small wonder that the coat sunk, for the coins would have weighed about twelve pounds avoirdupois. [Avoirdu-what, Baring-Gould?! (It’s a system of weights in which 1 pound=16 ounces. So…twelve pounds, I think, is sufficient explanation, BG.]

Whew! That concludes what I think is my longest Holmes post to date – hope you were able to get through to the end of it! Stop by next week when I’ll be discussing “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” and, undoubtedly, Holmes’ now-purple dressing gown.

*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.

One thought on ““The Man With the Twisted Lip” Or, in which Watson forgets his own name…Or does he?

  1. Pingback: “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” Or, what the what, Baring-Gould?! « My blank page

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