The Sunday Salon: John Watson and Mary Morstan

Another Valentine’s Day, another batch of inappropriate Valentines handed out to my beloved friends (this year: The Dark Knight Rises), and another tribute to a literary couple that I adore. My journey through the Sherlock Holmes canon is almost complete, so John Watson and Mary Morstan have been weighing heavily on my mind. By which, of course, I mean that I’ve been making playlist after playlist for their various incarnations, so. Let’s get down to it.

Doctor John H. Watson

Victorian Doctor's Implements

Dr. Watson needs little introduction—Sherlock Holmes’ erstwhile friend and biographer, as well as a veteran of the Afghan War, a capable athlete, and an honorable gentleman. Nigel Bruce’s performance of Watson in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (opposite Basil Rathbone) unfortunately gave us an image of a dim-witted Jam Watson that lasted for decades in the pop culture consciousness, but recent adaptations of the Holmes’ canon have stressed Watson as an intelligent, capable sidekick who can hold hir own against the great detective, just as in the books. There’s a lot to love about original flavor Watson, from his sense of humor to his eagerness to his glorious mustache, but I particularly want to point out the way he rolls his eyes at Holmes’ misogyny. It’s not a trait that just makes sense for Joan Watson from Elementary; it’s part of the character. While all the modern Watsons—Jude Law, Martin Freeman, and Lucy Liu—are doing wonderful and, frankly, swoon-worthy work, I have to say that Jude Law’s Watson is the most vivid to me. It’s probably because he was the first Watson I ever encountered, but also because he’s the only modern Watson that’s met his Mary.

Miss Mary Morstan

Picture No. 10046719

Mary Morstan makes her first appearance in the second Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, when she visits Baker Street to ask Sherlock Holmes to investigate a bizarre case involving the disappearance of her father and the sending of a single pearl to her every year for the past six years. Holmes, of course, solves the case, and, over the course of the short novel, she and Watson fall in love. She’s a calm, capable, and refined governess who can hold her own in a situation, even when it’s a delicate, weird, complex, and, frankly, racist situation like The Sign of the Four. Even Holmes—Holmes!—has to admit she’s a bit of a genius. Unfortunately, she gets a short shrift in the books. After her introduction and a few short stories where she gleefully sends Watson off to his adventures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed her off because a married Watson was apparently a drag. (His forgetfulness about this fact makes Watson’s married life a headache to figure out.) Most adaptations, sadly, agree—while Mary shows up in the famed Granada Sherlock Holmes, she doesn’t marry Watson, and she hasn’t appeared in either Sherlock or Elementary yet. But, luckily, Kelly Reilly’s Mary Morstan in the Guy Ritchie films makes up for all of them, even if she lacks the books’ cool origin story. She’s cool, calm, collected, and clever, calling out Holmes on his crap, encouraging Watson’s writing, and, in the second film, helping take down Moriarty’s operation while Holmes and Watson are distracting him. There’s a lot of problems with the Ritchie films (queerbaiting among them), but Mary isn’t one of them.

The Doctor and the Governess

John Watson & Mary Morstan-Watson Costumes

In The Sign of the Four, Holmes and Watson accompany Mary to a rendez-vous with her unknown benefactor, and then this happens:

Miss Morstan’s demeanor was as resolute and collected as ever. I endeavored to cheer and amuse her by reminiscences of my adventures in Afghanistan; but, to tell the truth, I was myself so excited at our situation and so curious as to our destination that my stories were slightly involved. To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.

These few sentences communicate volumes about Mary and Watson. As a Victorian gentleman and a victim of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s erratic continuity, Watson doesn’t say much about his lady love, but it’s all here. Watson sees Mary endeavoring to brace herself for impact—she doesn’t think this encounter is going to go well—so he tells her some wild and dashing story from his wild and dashing life to amuse and, undoubtedly, impress her. But he’s so overcome by the situation and Mary that he tells it all wrong, and Mary finds it endearing. Mary does speas, obviously, in the canon, but I think this is the only time we hear from Mary as Watson’s companion in the future from whence he writes. And we hear her gently teasing him about his attempts at flirting with her.

Two of the short stories collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, actually open in the Watsons’ home—incredibly briefly, of course, but long enough to see Mary encourage her husband to go off on an adventure to restore himself and Watson take pride in the fact that “[f]olk … in grief came to my wife like birds to a light-house”. Like all my favorite couples, they not only love each other, but complement each other. In a way, they’re both healers; Watson physically, and Mary emotionally. The division of labor is a bit old-fashioned, of course, but they’re the very picture of a Victorian couple—albeit a couple with dashing pasts and sparkling intellects.

The great thing about a story like Sherlock Holmes is that it’s constantly being rewritten and reinvented, which means a possibility for endless variations on this relationship. While I feel fairly confident Mary will show up in Sherlock shortly (the ~*feelings*~ demand it!), I’m also very curious to see if Elementary will ever take a crack at providing Joan with a Mary or Murray of her own; certainly, having someone experienced with handling kids (ze’d be a nanny, of course!) around would be fun to play against Miller’s eager Holmes. But one thing’s for sure—despite Doyle’s best efforts, the love story between John and Mary has stuck around for the past hundred years. They’ll stick around for a hundred more.

I’ve been having a very good few days—Valentine’s Day went swimmingly (I ate an entire bucket of strawberries) and yesterday was another Atlanta Outworlders meet-up, which was fun. My application for the Denver Publishing Institute is in (yikes!), and today I’m interviewing potential Agnes Scott students for our Scholarship Weekend. As far as reading, I finished Team Human and started on Eighty Days, a book about Nellie Bly’s attempt to travel the world in less than eighty days. I’m quite enjoying it.

This week’s links:

  • A gentleman named Ryan decided to make a genderbent Slave Leia costume and documents his progress here. What’s interesting here is Ryan’s determination to not have this costume be a tired men-in-drag-are-somehow-inherently-funny piece, but rather a serious take on the character, trying to translate the costume design into masculine terms. I’ve often fantasized about a similar project with Luke, but tailoring an existing outfit is different than translation.
  • Max Gladstone’s guest post at A Dribble of Ink, the first in a short series called “Broader Fantasy Foundations”, highlights the Chinese classic Journey to the West. It’s a fun, informative read, and the series’ goal, to point out that there are other traditions we can be pulling from for modern fantasy that aren’t exclusively European, is quite laudable.
  • Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley on Community, dropped by the Nerdist earlier this month. Like most Nerdist podcasts, it’s good-natured fun, but towards the end, Brown talks seriously about her spirituality and the difficulty of actually connecting with other human beings in this day and age. It’s lovely, thought-provoking stuff.
  • Over at GQ, Amy Wallace interviews Beyoncé in a piece that focuses on her incredible self-discipline and self-control—not only control over her physical body, but also her image, her music, and her empire. It’s an interesting read.
  • In light of the protests over Orson Scott Card contributing a story to a Superman anthology, here’s a 2000 Salon article about Donna Minkowitz, a Jewish and lesbian liberal, interviewing Orson Scott Card and trying to reconcile her love for Ender’s Game with Card’s hatred for the queer community. 

What’s your favorite literary couple of the moment?

2 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: John Watson and Mary Morstan

  1. Watson is so sweet when he talks about Mary, and I do like their relationship. My favourite literary couple always used to be Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, but I’m not so sure nowadays. Maybe Robbie and Cecilia from Ian McEwan’s Atonement or Phedre and Joscelin from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series, or Éowyn and Faramir.

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