In Defence Of Dr Watson


Holmes and Watson

Holmes and Watson

I was distracted from wading through the prevailing sludge around MPs’ expenses this morning by inadvertently clicking in the wrong place on the Guardian website. Up popped a poll to find ‘your favourite fictional characters in association with Nintendo DS’. Ah, the culture-defining partnership for our times – the Guardian and Nintendo. I look forward to their first literary awards.

Anyway, the categories and contenders are these:

Most romantic heroine

Anne Elliot (Persuasion, Jane Austen)

Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte)

Tess D’Urberville (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy)

Becky Sharpe (Vanity Fair, William Thackeray)

Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare)

Most romantic hero

Orsino (Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare)

Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte)

Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)

The Black Knight (Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott)

Gabriel Oak (Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy)

Most evil villain

Iago (Othello, William Shakespeare)

The Queen of Hearts (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens)

Count Fosco (The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins)

Magua (Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper)

Most irritating character

Hamlet (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)

Beth March (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

Dr Watson (Adventures/Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Emma Woodhouse (Emma, Jane Austen)

Lemuel Gulliver (Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift)

Best performance by an animal

Black Beauty (Black Beauty, Anna Sewell)

Buck (The Call of the Wild, Jack London)

Moby Dick (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)

The Bear (A Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare)

Jip (David Copperfield, Charles Dickens)

Make of these what you will. It seems a very random shortlist to me. Of the 5 categories and 25 characters, all of the books or plays they are drawn from are from the UK or US. Where is the rest of the world’s literature? And why is it all from before the twentieth century? (I suppose Dr Watson counts as twentieth century as the last Sherlock Holmes story was published in 1927).

Talking of Dr Watson, why on earth is he in the category of most irritating character? Admittedly he was more of a Times, Telegraph or Morning Post man and never mentions reading the Manchester Guardian as it was then called, but that’s no reason to victimise the poor fellow. He liked games, from rugby to billiards, so I dare say he might have got on quite well with a Nintendo. 

To defend the good doctor, this is the man of whom Sherlock Holmes said (in The Hound of the Baskervilles) “it is at the hour of action that I turn to you”, and also “there is a delightful freshness about you, Watson … some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

A sturdy companion then, and certainly not irritating. Let’s not forget that it was Watson who narrated the vast majority of the Holmes stories, putting up with the Great Detective’s many peculiarities along the way.

As the unassuming Watson says in The Adventure of the Creeping Man, “I was a whetstone for his mind … if I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his flame-like intuitions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance.”

I suspect that the partially read people at the Guardian and Nintendo are basing their views of John H Watson on Nigel Bruce’s film portrayal of the character alongside Basil Rathbone. Bruce spluttered and blustered his dufferish way through 14 Holmes films (plus a cameo with Rathbone in the 1943 comedy Crazy House) and a long-running radio series. He is, more than anyone, responsible for the enduring (and to me irritating) stereotype of Dr Watson as a buffoon.

Anyway, back to the poll. Along the narrow lines of the Guardian/Nintendo picks, in the villains category, where are Dracula, Richard III or indeed, the Napoleon of Crime – Professor Moriarty? And in the animals category, where are Toad, Badger, Mole or Ratty?  I’m not sure the bear from Winter’s Tale really counts as it’s only mentioned in Shakespeare’s bizarre stage direction ‘exit, pursued by a bear’. One of the few examples in theatre of a grand entrance being immediately followed by a grand exit, but not exactly of a character. 

There are plenty of other examples I could think of for every category but I have a meeting to go to. Any ideas?


1 Comment

Filed under Sherlock Holmes

One response to “In Defence Of Dr Watson

  1. Timothy

    You’re far more familiar with the text than I am. And anyone who can pull a quote from the Canon without a second’s thought deserves some recognition. Or a better hobby.

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