Rex Stout was busy trolling the Baker Street Irregulars with his “Watson was a Woman” theory:
You will forgive me for refusing to join in your commemorative toast, “The Second Mrs. Watson,” when you learn it was a matter of conscience. I could not bring myself to connive at the perpetuation of a hoax. Not only was there never a second Mrs. Watson; there was not even a first Mrs. Watson. Furthermore, there was no Doctor Watson.
Please keep your chairs.
Like all true disciples, I have always recurrently dipped into the Sacred Writings (called by the vulgar the Sherlock Holmes stories) for refreshment; but not long ago I reread them from beginning to end, and I was struck by a singular fact that reminded me of the dog in the night. The singular fact about the dog in the night, as we all know, was that it didn’t bark; and the singular fact about Holmes in the night is that he is never seen going to bed. The writer of the tales, the Watson person, describes over and over again, in detail, all the other minutia of that famous household-suppers, breakfasts, arrangement of furniture, rainy evenings at home-but not once are we shown either Holmes or Watson going to bed. I wondered why not? Why such unnatural and obdurate restraint, nay, concealment, regarding one of the pleasantest episodes of the daily routine?
I got suspicious.
The uglier possibilities that occurred to me was that Holmes had false teeth or that Watson wore a toupee, I rejected as preposterous. They were much too obvious, and shall I say unsinister. But the game was afoot, and I sought the trail, in the only field available to me, the Sacred Writings themselves. And right at the very start, on page 9 of “A Study in Scarlet,” I found this:
…it was rare for him to be up after ten at night, and he had invariably breakfasted and gone out before I rose in the morning.
I was indescribably shocked. How had so patent a clue escaped so many millions of readers through the years? That was, that could only be, a woman speaking of a man. Read it over. The true authentic speech of a wife telling of her husband’s— but wait. I was not indulging in idle speculation, but seeking evidence to establish a fact. It was unquestionably a woman speaking of a man, yes, but whether a wife of a husband, or a mistress of a lover, … I admit I blushed. I blushed for Sherlock Holmes, and I closed the book. But the fire of curiosity was raging in me, and soon I opened again to the same page, and there in the second paragraph I saw:
The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, and when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavored to break through the reticence which he showed on all that concerned himself.
You bet she did. She would. Poor Holmes! She doesn’t even bother to employ one of the stock euphemisms such as, “I wanted to understand him better,” or, “I wanted to share things with him.” She proclaims it with brutal directness, “I endeavored to break through the reticence.” I shuddered and for the first time in my life felt that Sherlock Holmes was not a god, but human—human by his suffering. Also, from that one page I regarded the question of the Watson person’s sex as settled for good. Indubitably she was female, but wife for mistress? I went on. Two pages later I found:
… his powers upon the violin … at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder…
Imagine a man asking another man to play him some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder on a violin!
And on the next page:
… I rose somewhat earlier than usual, and found that Sherlock Holmes had not yet finished his breakfast … my plate had not been laid nor my coffee prepared. With … petulance … I rang the bell and gave a curt intimation that I was ready. Then I picked up a magazine from the table and attempted magazine from the table and attempted to while away the time with it, while my companion munched silently at his toast.
THAT is a terrible picture, and you know and I know how bitterly realistic it is. Change the diction, and it is practically a love story by Ring Lardner. That Sherlock Holmes, like other men, had breakfasts like that is a hard pill for a true disciple to swallow, but we must face the facts. The chief thing to note of this excerpt is that it not only reinforces the conviction that Watson was a lady—that is to say, a woman—but also it bolsters our hope that Holmes did not through all those years live in sin. A man does not munch silently at his toast when breakfasting with his mistress; or, if he does, it won’t be long until he gets a new one. But Holmes stuck to her—or she to him—for over a quarter of a century.