Posted by: Chelsea | October 3, 2012

Holmes & Watson

Before this week, I had never actually read Sherlock Holmes. I only knew Holmes through parodies, adaptations, and other cultural references. I had gleaned that he boxed, played violin, and smoked cocaine. I was also become familiar with several popular interpretation of his character: suggestions that he was a sexist, a racist, that he’d had an affair with Irene Adler, or that he was gay.

I always assumed that these interpretations were based more on readers’ individual ideologies than on Conan Doyle’s own words. But as soon as I finished the first few stories, it seemed blatantly obvious that Conan Doyle was hinting heavily at a romantic relationship between Holmes and Watson: the two of them strolling about with arms in the manner of “intimately acquainted men,” Watson abandoning his wife to spend the night with Holmes, Holmes’ fantasy of holding Watson’s hand as they fly above the rooftops of London.

If the Victorians were committed to strictly defined gender roles, Conan Doyle must have known that any breach of gender norms would be interpreted as homosexuality. But then I had to ask: were the interactions between Holmes and Watson unusual in the context of their time? Or was the behavior simply an example of “normal” interactions between male friend?

I remember reading an article by David Deitcher that addressed some of these questions by analyzing photographic representations of Victorian men. Based on Deitcher’s discussion, I would say that Holmes and Watson’s relationship might best be characterized as an example of “Romantic Friendship.” According to Deitcher, the strict stratification of Victorian society encouraged and normalized intimate relations between members of those groups, and particularly among men of a certain class. Romantic Friendship was seen as a relationship that transcended the vulgar material world (which the Victorians created but also hated), and a manifestation of non-sexual passion (compared to sexual passion which was also deemed vulgar).

Deitcher’s article is really interesting for many reasons, including the gender and class elements…but you can’t read it online! I did find a photo exhibit that he curated, though, which includes the picture that he analyzes in The Passionate Camera.


  1. Oh I am so happy someone brought up this article! I actually had to read it for another class the week we read the Holmes stories. After I read it I actually had to double check what class I was reading for, haha.

    I have to agree; Holmes and Watson are more than just platonic friends. I find that there is something very intimate in the way they _know_ one another. The Deitcher article says: “Notwithstanding the religious sanctification of marriage, the love of a man and wife could not aspire to the immaculate spirituality of same-sex romance…” (Deitcher, The Passionate Camera, p. 26).
    Although John does marry (twice), he always comes back to Holmes. I think, as you said, their relationship transcends the material/vulgar/sexual world, into a spiritual, cerebral companionship.

  2. There is certainly a cult of Holmes/Watson shippers, but I think that, as you have pointed out, the sexualization of their relationship is a product of the fetishization of male friendships more than a grounded reading of the text. It is fascinating to hear, however, that there was a classification of “Romantic Friendship” that excluded sexuality, but was seen to transcend the ordinary connection between members of the same sex. I wonder how or if this functioned differently in the upper-middle-classes, landed gentry and aristocracy, and if it existed at all in the working class. I feel as though I have never seen intimate male friendship represented between two members of the Victorian working class in the media, but that may simply be a product of a contemporary (and/or American) misunderstanding of a culture.

    It is also striking to me that close friendships between women are much less often interpreted in a sexualized way than the close male friendships, at least in contemporary American culture. There is a policing of male friendships by other male-bodied people that doesn’t occur between female friends in the same way. I struggle to understand why that might be; that straight male sexuality is policed to a strikingly lesser degree than gay male sexuality, but that straight female sexuality is policed to a much higher degree than same-sex oriented female sexuality. (I don’t say gay or lesbian here, because I feel that these words carry implications of female gender presentation that are most certainly policed in American culture.)

    • I can’t help but think of Oscar Wilde who showed the consequence of being intimate with other men (he was charged for gross indecency. Details of the case, would be an interesting blog post). There we have an example of the press having a hey-day concerning same-sex relationship. Another later “invisible” example would have been E.M. Forster’s book “Maurice” written in 1913, but only published in 1971. The book is a story of homosexual love and actually reminds me a lot of Oscar Wilde’s forays with undergraduate men.

      As for close friendships between women, I can think of one popular culture reference the book and film Possession (, where a female poet has an affair with another male poet and this results in the death of her female companion/lover. Set in the Victorian era, it briefly alludes to the topic, but unfortunately it’s not a contemporary source.

      • I remember talking to someone who was in this course last year (just checked the tags and I don’t think she wrote about it here) who focused her final paper on Holmes/Watson and their portrayal in modern on-screen adaptations.
        I’m not sure what conclusions she came to, but she pointed out that the current Robert Downey Jr version is masterfully and thoroughly heterosexual, while the recent “Sherlock” series suggests a gay relationship and possibly an asexual Holmes (and a gay-with-an-exception Irene Adler? I honestly have been confused by that particular treatment of queer sexuality… anyways…). It’s fascinating to think about the justifications their relationship must undergo in present-day– and to wonder whether that speculation was at all present in Victorian times. Perhaps the policing of male friendships was not as present in that era. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been considered worth speculation.
        Although, you just reminded me that I’ve seen the movie adaptation of “Maurice.” While I don’t remember it very well I do remember it being dramatic with reason. I’d say that that portrayal is a reminder that while sexuality as an identity would not have been explicitly named, that does not mean that is was granted acceptance or approval. In the movie, Maurice actually compares himself to Wilde as a signifier, which might mark the onset of a recognition of sexuality. Watson and Holmes might have preceded that recognition.

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