19th May 2011
Mary Morstan from Sherlock Holmes
With blockbuster adaptations, modern TV re-imaginings and the complete works available free of copyright online, Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes continues to attract legions of new fans.
For many readers it is Holmes and Dr. Watson‘s relationship that marks the keystone of the stories; as whip-smart detective and dogged chronicler battle London’s most devious villains, their companionship provides humour and pathos in a way that elevates the canon from a series of mere ‘whodunnits’ to something far more appealing.
It is perhaps the strength of their relationship, however, that has caused one figure in the Holmes stories to be often overlooked and upon whom I’d like to swing the spotlight a little more squarely: Miss Mary Morstan, the woman who became Dr. Watson’s wife.
She is first introduced to the reader in The Sign of the Four, a novel that contains all the hallmarks of a Sherlockian cracker: drug-use, a wooden-legged man, a chase along the Thames and correct deductions made about a man’s character from a brief examination of a pocket-watch.
Without giving away too much of the plot, details about Miss Morstan are swiftly outlined there: an orphan, her mother died while Mary was still in infancy while her father – a decorated military captain – has vanished. From the offset Watson is smitten and by the end of the story the two are engaged. But is it happily ever after for the good doctor?
In scholarly Holmesian circles the concept of the canonical Dr. Watson leading a married life is a slippery subject and one wriggling with potential red-herrings. Sherlock obsessives (taking their hero’s mantra ‘there is nothing so important as trifles’) are wont to nitpick and analyse the stories to their furthest limits, and the existence of a Mrs. Watson certainly gives them something to exercise their own skills of detection.
That Mary might exist as the sole wife of Dr. Watson, for example, is deemed suspect not least because she is never mentioned again by name in the stories: certainly a wife prompts him to take to the country for the sake of his health in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, but there is no indication that this is Mary.
Indeed, this Miss Morstan is deemed a right little puzzle: as already stated, it’s made quite clear that she is an orphan, but in The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips, Watson’s wife is described as ‘visiting her mother’.
Through close textual scrutiny (and a lively imagination) critic Brad Keefauver has even conjectured that there is evidence in the text of seven wives for Watson (one of whom is mooted to be his landlady, the dependable Mrs. Hudson!).
If her status as Dr. Watson’s only wife is in question, her death is also shrouded in speculation. Many readers contend that she must have died in the interval between The Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House, hence Sherlock’s farewell letter to Watson in which he extends his ‘regards to Mrs. Watson’ and when Holmes pops back up again in the latter story Watson writing that ‘[Holmes] had learned of my own sad bereavement’.
One would be forgiven for inferring here the death of Mary, but the fantastically-named Wingate Bett speculates that ‘bereavement’ could mean ‘deprivation’, either by estrangement or madness, whilst C .Alan Bradley and William A.S. Sarjeant contend that since Watson does not identify the name of the deceased person, it might be any relation or close friend: not even poor Mary Morstan’s death seems a given.
Throughout the canon Watson is a self-styled ladies’ man (‘…an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents…’) while on the whole Holmes resorts to his usual cold, logical appraisal (‘I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind, as you are aware, Watson…’); many critics have picked up on Holmes’ impatience with his friend’s more amorous tendencies, with Keefauver noting that Sherlock, as recorded in The Adventure of the Reigate Squires, embroils himself in a French case on February 14, 1887 – to escape his housemate’s Valentine’s Day celebrations?
But Sherlock’s response to Dr. Watson’s engagement does reveal something akin to jealousy tinging the detective’s mindset. The dialogue runs:
‘Miss Morstan has done me the honour to accept me as a husband in prospective.’
[Holmes] gave a dismal groan.
I was a little hurt. ‘Have you any reason to be dissatisfied with my choice?’
‘Not at all. I think she is one of the most charming ladies I ever met and might have been useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way…’
Ebbe Curtis Hoff counts Holmes’ reasons for this unwillingness to congratulate Watson as threefold: he had lost an extra help-mate in Mary (the highest praise!); he was being abandoned by his chronicler and companion and, more controversially, Hoff wonders whether the great detective could somehow foresee a tragic bereavement for his friend.
The figure of Mary Morstan allows Conan Doyle fans to play a fine game of textual cat-and-mouse. She has even ushered forth her own pastiches (such as Molly Carr‘s The Sign Of Fear) where she stars as a crime-fighting heroine.
Mary’s mysterious, unfixed identity in the books has not done her many favours in the canon’s adaptations – in the 1991stage adaptation of The Sign of the Four, for instance, she is renamed Irene St. Claire, while in the 2001 film of the novel her character becomes engaged not to Watson but Thaddeus Shalto.
However, ‘her smiles, the deep rich tone of her voice’ give an opportunity for the reader to see Watson bowled-over and Holmes’ humanity exposed: for these reasons, and because of her tantalising elusivity, for me Miss Mary Morstan is a valued character in the canon.
(Pic of Kelly Reilly as Mary Morstan in the 2009 film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes)