When, of late, I happened to ramble a lot about the Holmes Brothers - both the canonical ones, and their BBC modern counterparts - and their past, as well as family background (you can find the more recent posts on this topic here and here, as well as, more generally, under the tag “ramblings”), I never mentioned a quite telling canonical quote, that I just happened to re-read today, and which I’m therefore going to post here for the delight of every “Holmes Brothers nutter” like me (it’s Holmes speaking, here):
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Problem of Thor Bridge
Of course, it could be just a very Dickens-like concept - nothing strange for a man of the Victorian age like Holmes - an yet… 1) I can’t see Sherlock Holmes as much of a Dickens reader… 2) Even Dickens developed this sort of axiom - that life’s sorrows are the ultimate teachers, what molds human beings as they are, and what can make them better (but also worst, depending on circumstances…) - through his childhood and family experiences. 3) This sentence DOES sound a little bit personal, doesn’t it?
So, I’m just going to leave it here for your consideration…
There is another quote along those lines in “The Empty House,” after Holmes learns that Watson’s wife Mary has died:
“Work is the best antidote to sorrow, my dear Watson,” said he, “and I have a piece of work for us both tonight which, if we can bring it to a successful conclusion, will in itself justify a man’s life on this planet.”
The idea that, for Holmes, work justifies his life on the planet would seem to suggest that he ignores his personal baggage by channeling into his work. This would appear to hold true for Mycroft also. The fact that Holmes starts climbing the walls - or even is tempted to tip the needle as a means of escape - if he goes too long with no work seems to bear out that his self-esteem is very much tied up with his being useful.
As a reader, of course, I rather coldly rubbed my hands in glee at Holmes’ comment, because this meant that the two friends could once again resume their partnership unencumbered by outside commitments.
But for the sake of “the game” and your premise, Holmes goes on to say: “We have three years of the past to discuss. Let that suffice until half-past nine, when we start upon the notable adventure of the empty house.”
How I wished I was a fly on the wall during that conversation. Holmes already had outlined what he’d done for three years, so I like to imagine that Watson was more the focus of the unrecorded conversation and that Holmes spent that time empathizing with him over his loss.
After all, Holmes had traveled for two years in Tibet and “amused” himself “by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Llama.”
I like to think he was drawn to Tibet through some desire toward self-exploration, a la “The Razor’s Edge,” although his comment that he found the visit amusing doesn’t sound very enlightened.
Still, I like to give him the benefit of the doubt, because by the end of the conversation Watson seems more than willing to embrace the “work is an anecdote for sorrow” premise:
“It was indeed like old times when, at that hour, I found myself seated beside him in a hansom, my revolver in my pocket and the thrill of adventure in my heart.”
Just like old times, indeed. Watson had met Holmes at a time when he needed to recover from the trauma of his war history. They reunite when Watson needs to recover from the death of his wife. It seems to bear out both Holmes’ “schoolroom of sorrow” and “work as an anecdote for sorrow” premises.
All the above!
AND some further considerations about Holmes’ role in helping Watson to cope with his loss: I’ve always been under the impression that, when Holmes manoeuvred in order to make a distant relative of his - a young Dr. Verner - buy Watson’s medical practice (and house, as they apparently were, as it was customary at the time, in the same building) for the high price Watson had “ventured to ask” (NORW), he did it at least as much for Watson’s sake, than for his own, and possibly more for the former reason, than for the latter.
What I mean, is that Holmes, in a way or another, had by then managed to adapt to live, and often work, alone (firstly during the years of Watson’s first marriage, and then for the three years of the Great Hiatus); Watson, instead, after his wife’s death was (truly) alone again, but he was so for the first time in several years: soon after his return from Afghanistan, in fact, he begun his association with Holmes, and he was with Holmes when he received the news that his elder brother (presumably, the last living member of his family) had died; he then married and started his new life with his wife, Mary Morstan, as well as resuming his practice as a doctor. But at the time of Holmes’ return, he had - presumably not so much time before - lost Mary, and was completely alone, a condition that must have been taxing, for him.
Besides, Holmes perfectly knew that Watson was not so fond of his medical profession: as long as he had been able to, he had avoided active medical practice, preferring to live on his - albeit modest - army pension, and later (we might presume) also on the earnings of his writing activity. He only bought a practice (and a house), and resumed to work as a doctor, in order to grant his wife a good standard of living (as he did when, later in his life, he married again).
But at the time of Holmes’ return, the one and only person for whom Watson had resumed his profession - his wife Mary - was no more, and Watson was stuck into a work he didn’t like, as well as into a house that everyday must have remembered him about his late wife, and about all their projects for their shared future that were no more going to be realized.
I think that Holmes knew Watson well enough to understand all this - and it’s even possible that, in that first, long conversation they had in EMPT, Watson poured some of this discomfort, together with some of his grief, into his friend’s sympathetic ear…
So Holmes, with his usual, practical and decision-making attitude - as well as out of affection and concern for his friend - determined that the best thing, for Watson, was to leave that work and that house as soon as possible, as well as to not be left alone, to ruminate on his sorrow; and that the best and more effective way to ensure all this was to have someone buying Watson’s practice, as quickly and (for Watson) as profitably as possible. And, of course, he made it happen!
As for Holmes’ peregrinations during the Great Hiatus, I tend to agree with those canonical scholars that assume that they must have been linked, at least to some extent, to Mycroft’s work for the British Government, and that at least some of the places Holmes visited, he visited on his brother’s precise input, in order to gather intelligence required by the Foreign Office.
Please, do notice that many of the places that Holmes cites in his short resumé to Watson were at the time the object of a keen interest not only by Great Britain, but also from all the main European colonial powers:
Hymalaia and Persia were, at the time, the very heart of the “Great Game”, which opposed the British and Russian Empires in a subterranean, but ruthless fight (a sort of “Cold War” ante litteram) for supremacy over Central Asia. And Holmes visiting such important figures as the Head Lama or the Khalif speaks of letters of introduction coming from very high spheres…
Anyway, if you’re interested in a pretty decent apocryphal which focuses on the Great Hiatus and on Holmes’ possible involvement in the “Great Game”, I’d recommend Ted Riccardi’s The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.
Finally, may I friendly point out how you, too, fell victim of the vexata quaestio of the Lama/Llama? A never-ending source of amusement for holmesian scholars of every time and country…
But at least I did note that all the places Holmes visited corresponded with places in which Mycroft would have taken an interest. I imagine Sherlock had plenty of practice brushing up on his spying skills as Sigerson in preparation for his role as Altamont “His Last Bow.”
Your observations also are interesting in light of how the Holmes tales so often reflected Conan Doyle himself. Doyle wasn’t particularly interested in being a doctor either. His heart was in writing, in running off to be a war correspondent and an adventurer too, so in that respect he had a lot in common with Watson. And did you ever notice that the alias he chose for Holmes in “His Last Bow” - Altamont - was his own father’s middle name? :D