Holmes and Watson
Holmes’ career has spanned over 120 years; in the form of four ‘canon’ novels, fifty-six short stories, two-hundred and eleven movies and countless comic strips, radio plays and fan-fiction stories. Yet for almost as long as he’s been solving mysteries, Holmes has maintained one of his own. While other celebrated literary characters were renowned for their womanizing ways (James Bond being a perfect example) Sherlock Holmes has always remained resolutely celibate—leading many to question what his proclivities really were. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that there’s only ever been one person the famous detective has ever been truly close to—his loyal friend, flat-mate and confidante Doctor John Watson.
Now that director Guy Ritchie has brought the Great Detective back to cinema screens with Sherlock Holmes, more and more people are asking: just what form of relationship did the dynamic duo of Holmes and Watson really have?
Most people only know Sherlock Holmes and Watson from the movies, as characters based on Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Holmes and Watson in the 1940s. Onscreen, Holmes is traditionally played as a prim, proper English gentleman, while Watson is good natured, yet painfully obtuse. Ironically, these popular characterizations bear little resemblance to the ‘real’ Holmes and Watson; who have more in common with how Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law play them in the new film.
In Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes was eccentric, self-destructive and wildly bohemian; more likely to appear in a soot-stained shirt than the plaid cape and deerstalker he invariably wears in the movies. Doctor Watson, too, was far from a middle-aged, bumbling buffoon. A tough, capable former army surgeon, he was Holmes’ physical equal, if not his intellectual one. Together, Holmes and Watson were more of an equitable partnership than a ‘hero and sidekick’ team. That’s one of the reasons why Ritchie’s new film is a far more accurate adaptation of the stories than anything that has come before.
But because the film is so much closer to the original adventures, it’s led many people to examine it more closely, searching for evidence that Holmes and Watson were more than just good friends.
Examining the Evidence
Google the words ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘gay’ and you’ll find hundreds of articles pondering the supposed homoerotic undertones infusing the new onscreen relationship between the two crime-fighters. Yet surely, if there are homoerotic undertones in Ritchie’s movie, you can’t hold the British director entirely responsible for them. After all, Ritchie lifted the Holmes mythos directly from Doyle’s writings of, which were not exactly devoid of their own homoerotic undertones.
For those who argue that Holmes is gay, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to support that theory in the new movie—even down to the opening scene, which has the camera peering through Watson’s window across a shelf laden with statues of muscular, nude men. Onscreen, the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law is nothing short of electric; with Holmes and Watson swapping the sort of quick-witted banter you’d only expect from an old, married couple. “They’ve been flirting like this for hours,” Irene Adler complains at one point in the movie, as both men resolutely bicker with each other, utterly ignoring the beautiful con-artist. The flirting continues when Holmes awakens from a drug-induced stupor, to find Watson greeting him with, “Oh, you look gorgeous.”
The movie heavily emphasizes the codependence of both characters. When Watson announces his intention to get married, Holmes responds like a jealous lover, sabotaging his first meeting with the soon-to-be Mrs. Watson. Similarly, Watson has difficulty choosing between his fiancée and friend—blowing off a luncheon with the in-laws to follow Holmes to the London dockyards to investigate a lead.
Yet despite their codependent relationship and the lines of innuendo-laden dialogue, Ritchie doesn’t push the issue one way or another. In fact, in the only significant departure from Doyle’s original stories, the director introduces a love interest for the Great Detective—New Jersey adventuress Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). Fans of Holmes will recognize the name. Adler was a scandalous seductress whose path crossed Holmes’ in the story A Scandal in Bohemia. In the original story, the two of them barely even met—and Sherlock was in disguise at the time. Nevertheless, Adler captured Holmes’ imagination, if not his heart. In the story, Watson reveals: “To him, she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name.”
In the film, Ritchie reinvents Adler as a muse of Holmes—creating a romantically ambiguous backstory which saw her previously outwit the great detective on two separate occasions (which Watson cattily suggests is the only reason Holmes is so obsessed with her). Yet despite being leveraged as the love interest, the only demonstration of physical affection Holmes gives this stunning siren is a chaste kiss on the cheek; again demonstrating director Ritchie’s loyalty to the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Such ambiguous affection neatly matches how Watson appraised Holmes’ feeling for the quick-witted brunette: “It was not that Holmes felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler,” the Doctor writes in A Scandal in Bohemia. “All emotions—and that one particularly—were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.”
The Calculating Machine
And if Holmes was gay, it’s understandable that he never acted on it. After all, the great playwright Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for sodomy at the height of Holmes’ popularity, so it’s unlikely that Holmes would have similarly risked the wrath of repressive Victorian society. But being forced to repress his true feelings might be one explanation for the casual drug abuse Doyle frequently made reference to in the stories—Holmes’ infamous “cocaine binges.” Some theorize those binges were attempts by Holmes to suppress his latent sexuality. Supporting that theory were his symptoms of manic depression. In the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, the detective warns Watson when he first moves into 221b Baker Street that, “I get in the dumps at times and don't open my mouth for days on end.” Like the drug abuse, these mood swings are often cited as further evidence that Holmes was repressing something—perhaps his true feelings towards other men.
But while there’s undeniably a mountain of circumstantial evidence and innuendo to support the theory that Holmes was homosexual, the majority of Sherlokian scholars remain utterly dismissive of such ideas. “Sherlock Holmes is just celibate,” New York Times book reviewer Laura Miller argues. “He has to be ... it’s his nature, and one of the main reasons we love him." She asserts that it wasn’t just an “aversion to women” that manifested itself within the Great Detective; he was similarly disinterested in men (at least, once they’d “ceased to be the centre of one of his problems.”) She points out that the popularity of the ‘Holmesosexual’ debate seems to stem largely from the popular post-modernist fad of ‘outing’ historical figures, whether there’s evidence to support such theories or not. William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln have been other popular targets.
It is worth remembering that the character of Sherlock Holmes was dreamed up at a time when the idea of two young men living together was by no means unusual, and it was common for a Victorian bachelor to remain unmarried for his entire life. Similarly, Holmes was created by a resolutely heterosexual man (as far as we know): Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was married twice, and produced a flotilla of children. Why would a straight man scandalize a nation—in the age of Victorianism, no less—by creating a fictional character that was gay?
Most likely, Holmes’ romantic inclinations, or rather lack of them, were a reflection of the period in which he lived. Doyle himself always argued that the Great Detective simply lacked the capacity for romance. “Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage's calculating machine,” Doyle explained, “and just about as likely to fall in love.”