Saturday, April 14, 2012

" I am lost without my Boswell." - The Empty House (2)

* the Canon with no Dr. Watson.

What has been termed The Great Hiatus affords the Sherlockian reader with a vignette of how the good doctor fares without his friend. But this is set firmly in the frame of Holmes in absentia - the reader and Watson are all too aware of His unseen presence.

My invitation is different: just suppose JohnWatson simply did not occur to Conan Doyle. Instead he forged ahead writing 60 Sherlock Holmes detective stories covering all the cases familiar to us. Perfectly possible. Frighteningly so.

No doubt such a Canon would rely on either or both an omniscient narrator or Holmes himself to give voice to the adventures.

Such examples of course exist:

* A Study in Scarlet & The Valley of Fear contain long intervals of omniscient narration.

* In The Musgrave Ritual & The Gloria Scott Holmes tells Watson the main story from his memories.

* The Mazarin Stone & His Last Bow are told in the third person.

* Holmes is sole narrator of The Blanched Soldier & The Lion's Mane.

While these ( and extra-canonical works like Doyle's stage play of MAZARIN , The Crown Diamonds) are interesting comparisons with Watsonian records, they still feature the doctor or make reference to him.

This exercise in imagination requires his complete obliteration.

We do this all the time in the theatre, where it is called willing suspension of disbelief.
Having emptied the Canon of Watson, I now turn to The Empty House...and its title. 

The Title.    

I noted in my introductory post that Holmes provides the title under which Dr. Watson records this adventure. I omitted to observe that had Holmes not returned there would be no story to tell except The Park Lane Mystery. 

Had Watson never featured in the Canon, Doyle too would have focused on Adair, spinning (no doubt) a workmanlike detective story. With or without Holmes as narrator, there would be little mileage in highlighting the detective's return - because he would not have been missed.

Dr. Watson is crucial in explaining the impact of these stories on Victorian and all succeeding readers. His creation is the masterstroke that invoked a nationwide clamour for Holmes's revival. It is more than just that Holmes is lost without his Boswell - so is Doyle...and above all the reader.

Watson functions as the inter-face between the fictional Holmes and the living author and reader. Without him, Doyle must opt either to narrate from outside the imagined world or write directly as Holmes. Both would strand him aloof for neither could provide the vicarious experience personified in Dr. Watson.

His is the classical dramatic role of protagonist and his presence in the Canon is precisely as crucial as Shakespearean drama's masterstroke, soliloquy. Audiences undergo what Hamlet experiences because the Prince's soliloquies reveal his private thoughts and feelings. We are terrifyingly close to a murderer with Macbeth, because we hear his most secret thoughts. Soliloquy is by definition truth (even when a character is deceiving himself).

Everyman Bereaved.
Watson's remininscences are similarly the ultimate truth. He lives the imaginary friendship and adventures on our behalf...and Doyle's.He is our representative within the imaginative fiction and I am not surprised to see Martin Freeman's John so powerful and moving a creation, tempting one to rename the BBC series JOHN.

His impact is the direct result of Doyle's original narrative choice. And, just as John's presence allows
Sherlock...and its writers creative space to add depth and dimension to the detective story, so Watson frees Doyle to make much more of The Empty House than a Park Lane Mystery.
Within the plot, the empty house is Camden - Holmes explains the title just before the pair set out to catch a killer. But the reader is for some time unaware of its identity. Doyle drops in the phrase as the first thing we read...and leaves it to work behind the scenes. Without exact definition, we are at liberty to interpret it as we feel, literally or metaphorically. 
The operative word is Empty.  By the time it clarifies as Camden House, we have already responded to deeper meanings.

* For Doyle (as for the writers of SHERLOCK series 3) the title represents the empty imaginative space to be re-populated with new-minted images of a resurgent Holmes.

* For Watson, we sense it is an emblem of his continuing abyss of loss. The Reichenbach Fall captures this memorably as Martin Freeman soliloquizes over (ironically) an empty grave.

* In the context of The Final Problem and its 3 year aftermath, this title encapsulates the Great Hiatus.

* I intend to illustrate in my next post the conscious connections made with social and religious ideas of the time, developing the image of the empty tomb (see above).

* As the adapters of the Granada Holmes were aware, 221b is, by the story's close, another empty house to be brought back to life.

* Even Camden House, the most literal interpretation is. let us remember. a fictional creation designed and described with purpose - I shall explore its metaphoric potency in the next post too.

None of this depth would have been achieved if Conan Doyle had not invented Dr. Watson. He it is who freed Doyle to have his cake and eat it - to write profoundly in a popular genre.

The Leap of Victory!
Consider him restored!

(he was here all the time)


In the course of writing about The Empty House I have been conscious of a further sadly ironic level of meaning that Conan Doyle would certainly not have intended...his own home.

The Empty House.


 Once upon a time this house knew happier times. Now deserted and at risk, those who love it for what it represents fear its demise. I wish the petitioners well in their bid to save Doyle's home for the nation...and remind them of the miracle in Baker Street as dramatised in The Empty House.

To go straight to The Empty House (3) click HERE

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