Before this week, I had never actually read Sherlock Holmes. I only knew Holmes through parodies, adaptations, and other cultural references. I had gleaned that he boxed, played violin, and smoked cocaine. I was also become familiar with several popular interpretation of his character: suggestions that he was a sexist, a racist, that he’d had an affair with Irene Adler, or that he was gay.
I always assumed that these interpretations were based more on readers’ individual ideologies than on Conan Doyle’s own words. But as soon as I finished the first few stories, it seemed blatantly obvious that Conan Doyle was hinting heavily at a romantic relationship between Holmes and Watson: the two of them strolling about with arms in the manner of “intimately acquainted men,” Watson abandoning his wife to spend the night with Holmes, Holmes’ fantasy of holding Watson’s hand as they fly above the rooftops of London.
If the Victorians were committed to strictly defined gender roles, Conan Doyle must have known that any breach of gender norms would be interpreted as homosexuality. But then I had to ask: were the interactions between Holmes and Watson unusual in the context of their time? Or was the behavior simply an example of “normal” interactions between male friend?
I remember reading an article by David Deitcher that addressed some of these questions by analyzing photographic representations of Victorian men. Based on Deitcher’s discussion, I would say that Holmes and Watson’s relationship might best be characterized as an example of “Romantic Friendship.” According to Deitcher, the strict stratification of Victorian society encouraged and normalized intimate relations between members of those groups, and particularly among men of a certain class. Romantic Friendship was seen as a relationship that transcended the vulgar material world (which the Victorians created but also hated), and a manifestation of non-sexual passion (compared to sexual passion which was also deemed vulgar).
Deitcher’s article is really interesting for many reasons, including the gender and class elements…but you can’t read it online! I did find a photo exhibit that he curated, though, which includes the picture that he analyzes in The Passionate Camera.