I might have mentioned somewhere earlier that continuity is sometimes an issue for good ol’ Sir Arthur. He did take an extended gap year between The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and The Return of Sherlock Holmes – a decade-long gap year, in fact – and whether some of that played a part in the inconsistencies that showed up over time or not is something only he could really confirm or deny. (And let’s just ignore entirely that that explanation is moot in this case, because both points of confusion here come from before said hiatus.) Who knows as well how much his growing annoyance with his beloved detective played a part in some of that as well. Part of the reason I chose to approach the canon in a chronological fashion was to see how much that questionable continuity really affected things. For the most part, so far, there hasn’t been a lot of continuity flubbing in the stories I’ve read, and there hasn’t been a lot of reason to really discuss the particular chronology I’m following, either.
This is officially the point in this undertaking where I begin to seriously, for my own sanity, start to question why I decided to do this chronologically. I know I lamented it a bit last time, but seriously, this is when I really, truly begin to wonder. I mentioned “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” in regards to last week’s entry. It’s the story where Watson first teases us with the notion of the case we come to know as “The Second Stain.” Let’s ignore the fact, for now, that the referring story comes chronologically after the referred, per my guiding list, because that’s the least of the confusion here.
Most of the problem starts and ends with the question of when Dr. John H. Watson got married, and whether he was only married once or not. Opinions differ widely on both of those questions. William S. Baring-Gould, who provided the first annotated version of the complete Sherlock Holmes, sets The Sign of the Four, the novel where Watson meets his future bride, Mary Morstan, in September of 1888, which would put their wedding sometime in late 1888 or, more likely, early 1889. There is date evidence in the book to go by: December 3, 1878 is said to be ten years in the past and an 1882 newspaper ad is described as being somewhere around six years old. There’s some question of the month; Watson says it’s September, but a letter Mary says she just received is dated July. Arguing the month is mostly frivolous to our needs right now – the year is the important part. Also the confusing part.
By the above reckoning, anything pre-“The Empty House” that presents Holmes and Watson as bachelors presumably would have to be set before 1888. So says Baring-Gould, anyway. And Chronology Corner more or less agrees with him. On this one, at least.
Why are we talking about Sign, though? Wasn’t I supposed to be reading “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty”? Isn’t Sign a few weeks off? Well, sure. Problem is, you can’t really talk about “Naval Treaty” in terms of continuity without also talking about Sign, because the story starts out with the following: “The July which immediately succeeded my marriage…”
Okay, so that should stamp a definite 1889 or later on the story, right? Baring-Gould says so. But Baring-Gould also says that “Second Stain” happens in 1886. Problem is, the text in “The Naval Treaty” and his own dating thereof contradicts that. Why would the notes for “The Naval Treaty” be filed under “The Second Stain” if the previous case happened three years earlier and otherwise bears no connection? A theft of opportunity at a government office building and a stolen letter taken from a European Minister’s home to avoid blackmail aren’t exactly so similar that they’d be filed together in Watson’s notes. The two cases don’t share victims, villains, or witnesses. They don’t even have a similar motis operandi. I’d assume a lot of cases would have come and gone in three years’ time, too. For notes on three cases (we’re introduced to the existence of “The Adventure of the Tired Captain” in the same sentence as “The Second Stain.”) to be kept together, they would, presumably, happen in a similar timeframe, wouldn’t they?
Here is what the saintly soul at Sherlock Peoria’s Chronology Corner offered as to their reasoning for placing “The Naval Treaty” where they did:
“While the time of year in ‘The Naval Treaty’ seems abundantly clear from Percy Phelps’ tale, again we come to a case where the dating of Watson’s marriage would seem to be necessary to pinpointing the year. Of course, with evidence in other cases of a Watson marriage in both 1887 and 1889, choices still have to be made. As Holmes has but fifty-three cases on his books in which he worked with the police at this point, I have to take the earlier choice on this one.”
The fifty-three cases bit seems to be the sticking point. Holmes’ total caseload probably falls in the upper one hundreds, if you add in all the cases we hear about but never see written up and the ones we can assume happen but aren’t interesting enough to even warrant a mention. Fifty-three is a pretty low number when you think about it that way. Holmes and Watson meet in 1881. Given Holmes’ skill and his tendency to solve simple cases in about five minutes, it’s not a stretch to think they would have solved fifty-some cases in six years. But there is one snag in relying on that as a dating mechanism. Back in “The Speckled Band,” which was published in the first volume of Holmes stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Watson tells us that, at the time of the writing of the story, he and Holmes have worked seventy-odd cases together. Then, two volumes later, when Doyle’s preparing to off Holmes and free himself from his own creation for good (which didn’t exactly work out so well for him), we’re at fifty-three. Does that actually put “The Naval Treaty” before “Speckled Band”? I don’t know. And thinking about it is starting to give me a headache. To paraphrase the Twelfth Doctor, who was talking about River Song at the time, you rather need a flowchart to figure out this timeline thing.
Timey-wimey stuff aside, Chronology Corner dates “The Naval Treaty” as July 29, 1887, which puts it prior to Watson meeting Mary Morstan, so definitely prior to marrying her. Which means the line about it being the July after his wedding is a flub on Doyle’s part, right? Maybe. Unless, of course, Mary wasn’t his first wife and that’s the reason we have “evidence…of a Watson marriage in both 1887 and 1889.” But if he was married before, why was he living in 221B as a swinging bachelor? His and Holmes’s shared bachelorhood is mentioned a few times throughout the canon. He doesn’t talk about leaving 221B until after he and Mary are married. If he had a missus living with him at 221B, wouldn’t she have been mentioned? Wouldn’t he have not called himself a bachelor? I’m not even going to touch the “did he get married again after Mary died?” argument at this point. That’s a battle for another day, and trying to figure these dates out is already going to have me buying stock in Advil.
I can’t give Doyle too hard a time, though. Not everyone makes spreadsheets and OneNote templates (that give other writers heartburn just looking at them) to keep track of every character trait, scene, and relationship. I admit to being slightly obsessive about detail, partially because I don’t want someone cursing my name and contemplating suing me/my estate for pain and suffering for the headaches and subsequent Advil habit my chronology has caused them. (Partly, possibly, because I’m also a control freak, but that’s neither here nor there.) Doyle wrote in an era when notes were written by hand, or at best typed on a cumbersome typewriter, and stored in drawers or boxes and not the Cloud. They didn’t have Wikipedia. He couldn’t ctrl-f a document to see if he’d mentioned something previously. Nobody even knew what a continuity editor was. I doubt he sat down in front of a butcher’s paper timeline he meticulously drew out by hand and plotted the position of each story relative to the ones that came before it and the ones that might come after. Even if he’d started out doing so, he probably would’ve burned it as Holmes’ effigy when he wrote him off in “The Final Problem.”
(Trust me – I understand the urge to host a bonfire and sacrifice the remains of characters you wish you’d never penned, possibly while toasting marshmallows over their funeral pyre, and I’ve never created anything people were as crazy about as fans were of Sherlock Holmes. I don’t blame him there at all.)
Since I’ve rambled on again (which no one is surprised about, I’m sure), I’m going to try to keep Charlotte’s interruption brief and on track. And that track, this week, is all about time.
My dearest Mycroft,
How are you, brother-mine? Do you ever plan to return to London? Upon doing the calculations, I realized it’s been nearly six months since you completed University, and that long at least since I have laid eyes upon you. I’m not insinuating that I’ve missed you by any means, of course. Heaven’s no. I ask mostly for Anne’s benefit, as our aunt is nearly beside herself at your continued absence. And…oh, I suppose I do miss you at least a little. I did have the uninterrupted joy of your company from before our birth until the day we each went off to our respective educational pursuits. I’ve become accustomed to your presence, I suppose. Besides, how is a younger sibling to properly irritate and annoy their elder when said elder never darkens the younger’s doorstep?
Things have been well here. Anne has made threats of continuing my cooking lessons, but Doctor Watson wisely dissuades her whenever the topic is broached within his hearing. Start one small fire and suddenly you’re not to be trusted around heat and flame. Oh well. I’ve little interest in learning, anyway. Before you assure me I’ll only starve myself should anything happen to Anne, let me remind you there are many fine eateries in London and two of them are now in my debt due to my timely intervention in events on their behalf.
Yes, I said two: I recently helped the maitre’d at the Palm Court – at the Langham Hotel, you remember the place? They do put on a marvelous tea service – prove his innocence in a dreadful matter that involved a poisoned writer from the Times. Poor Maurice had argued with the man the night he died, but it turned out the chef was the one with an axe to grind. More accurately, a plentiful crop of hemlock to chop. Horrible business, really. All boiled down to some past slight and a woman both men had been in the act of courting years ago. Funny, isn’t it, how things we think we’ve locked up in the past can come back to bite us horribly when we least suspect? All in all, though, I doubt I shall ever have reason to worry after my next meal. Oh, and I met a lovely young woman in the course of my investigation that I’ve befriended in the interim. Her name is Fidelia and she really is quite the character. I would tell you her profession, but I’m afraid you’d disapprove, and I’ve given you enough reason to do that lately.
What else has happened since your last letter? It’s mostly been the usual, really. Bit of work, bit of boredom; the latter far more feared than the former. The good doctor continues to confound me, but I know you’d rather not hear of any of that. For the record, and to spare you repeating past arguments, I am aware of his age and mine, thank you. You’ve little to worry about, as I said before. He’s not at all interested anyway. That does not, however, stop him from confounding me all the same.
Anne has mentioned that you are to return shortly, as Home Office has offered you a position and you’ve accepted it, “most delightedly,” by all accounts. I note you didn’t tell me about this position yourself. In fact, your last letter consisted entirely of commentary on your visit to Rome. While I do appreciate the travelogue, I would have also appreciated hearing of your good news firsthand. We shall discuss that when next you stop by for tea. At length. In fact, I believe we may be overdue for a round of singlestick, you and I, or I could dust off the epees instead, if you’ve a mind for a match. I think I may be willing to overlook your oversight if we address it with blunted blades. I promise to take it easy on you, since you likely haven’t had an adequate sparring partner since you left home.
For the record, I haven’t had an adequate sparring partner since you left, either. Which, really just speaks horribly of the people of London when you think about it. Hurry home. My sword arm may atrophy from disuse otherwise.
Your ever-modest sister,
P.S. I’m told a fine Turkish tobacco is always an appropriate show of apology and repentance. Not for me, of course. As you know, I would never dream of touching the stuff.