Welcome to another edition of Introducing. Today I’d like to share the work of K.B. Owen with you. Like me, K.B. has an academic background. Currently a resident of Virginia, she taught university-level English for two decades and is a specialist in 19th Century British Literature. She’s used that background to create her Concordia Wells series, which takes place at the end of the 19th Century. Wells is a professor at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College where she’s kept quite busy with teaching and working with young people away from home for the first time.
In Dangerous and Unseemly, Wells is also working on plans for the school’s production of The Scottish Play when everything is interrupted by the death of Bursar Ruth Lyman. There are also some malicious pranks and even a bit of arson going on at the school. Wells gets personally involved in the case, too, and decides to investigate even though at the time, it certainly wasn’t considered ‘seemly’ for a lady to get mixed up in crime.
The second Concordia Wells story Unseemly Pursuits has just been released, so you’ll want to check it out. In this novel the school has a new Lady Principal Olivia Grant, who has earned her nickname ‘The Ogre.’ Along with that, the college has to deal with a case of theft and murder. The school’s principal benefactor Colonel Adams has donated a valuable Egyptian amulet. When it’s stolen and he is found murdered, the school faces quite a scandal. And what’s worse, his daughter Sophia, Wells’ best friend, confesses to the murder. Wells knows it’s not as simple as that and she decides to look into the matter.
Want to know more about K.B. Owen? It’s all right here.
Want to know more about Dangerous and Unseemly? Check it out here.
Want to know more about Unseemly Pursuits? Here’s the information.
Now, K.B. Owen’s going to share her expertise on the 19th Century with a special close look at Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson:
Dr. Watson: Narrator, Buffoon, or Crime-Fighting Partner?
by K.B. Owen
John H. Watson – medical doctor, wounded veteran of the second Anglo-Afghan War, congenial companion, capable chronicler – the 19th century British Everyman. He’s the ideal foil for the brilliance of Holmes, and tells the story in a way that Holmes never could. He also makes the Great Detective more approachable. After all, we readers have more in common with Watson than Holmes, even if we don’t always like admitting it.
Caption: Illustrated by Sidney Paget, 1893. Wikimedia Commons.
We can extend that statement to viewers, too. As we get further from the original publication of the Holmes stories and fewer folks read them, on-screen performances will be what drive modern perceptions of the duo, and vice versa.
Starting with the 1930s, the Sherlock Holmes adventures were adapted for the screen with audience appeal in mind. As a result, some of the differences which evolved over the decades are quite striking.
So here’s a brief tour of some of the changes in Dr. Watson as he relates to Holmes, and my conjectures as to the reasons why.
Just an FYI: I’m deliberately excluding the tv series Sherlock and Elementary from consideration, only because they situate Holmes and Watson in the modern day rather than the original time period. That makes a huge difference in characterization.
In the beginning: Watson as buffoon
It starts with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Although theirs wasn’t the very first film appearance as Holmes and Watson, theirs was the most popular early portrayal. Rathbone and Bruce made 14 Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946, along with lending their voice talents to Sherlock Holmes radio shows (also broadcast to overseas troops during WWII). They set the tone for the on-screen interaction between the Great Detective and his sidekick, a relationship that actors and directors who came later would strongly react to.
Consider the following clip of Rathbone and Bruce, from the climax of Dressed to Kill:
You’ll note that Watson is not part of the key conflict or tension. When Holmes comes within inches of a knife plunged through his chest, he faces it alone. Where’s Watson? Two flights down the stairs, with the equally ineffectual police. Holmes gets the single-handed glory of the capture; Watson provides clean-up and comedic relief. The good doctor pays no attention to the man Holmes shot until Holmes points him out.
The Rathbone/Bruce canon is rife with examples of Watson as a well-meaning, loyal, clueless bumbler, but that would be its own post!
Watson as fool did serve a purpose in its time; it provided comedy (sometimes even a little slapstick) and broader audience appeal. Still, it’s a far cry from Conan Doyle’s rendition of Watson and muddies the waters. The original Watson had keen powers of observation in his own right, even if he drew the wrong conclusions from them. In the Conan Doyle stories, Watson was also handy in an emergency, unlike his persona in the 30s/40s films.
I think an additional purpose was served in conveying Watson as the buffoon: Holmes gets all the glory. War-weary audiences of the 1940s would be drawn to the brave, cool-headed Sherlock Holmes, a man always in command, who single-handedly gets the better of the criminals. He’s larger than life. He even beats Nazis. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Holmes safeguards a weapon that can win the war, and helps preserve “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” (Holmes quotes Shakespeare, too!).
The 1950s through 90s: rejecting buffoonery, but not yet equal
Following the years of Rathbone/Bruce dominance, actors and producers sought to tone down the goofiness of Watson’s character. Two productions did this quite well:
Peter Cushing (Holmes) and Andre Morell (Watson): The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Image via Amazon.com
Here’s an explanation of Morell’s approach to the role of Dr. Watson:
“This was the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation ever to be shot in colour. Morell was particularly keen that his portrayal of Watson should be closer to that originally depicted in Conan Doyle’s stories, and away from the bumbling stereotype established by Nigel Bruce’s interpretation of the role.”
Citation: Kinsey, Wayne (2002). Hammer Films – The Bray Studios Years. Richmond: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. pp. 133. ISBN 1-903111-11-0.
And let’s not forget:
Jeremy Brett (Holmes) and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke (Watson). Granada Television series, 1984-94.
Image via Amazon.com
Burke played Watson until 1986; Hardwicke stepped in as Watson for the majority of the series, 1986-94. For both actors, the role of Dr. Watson was that of faithful friend and companion, operating smoothly together, though often with comedic moments.
With this long-running Granada Television series, Watson as buffoon was left behind forever.
Turn of the century: Watson’s demand for equality
Richard Roxburgh (Holmes) and Ian Hart (Watson): The Hound of the Baskervilles. PBS, 2002.
This particular rendition strikes me as another turning point in the modern portrayal of Dr. Watson. The relevant scene from this clip starts at 5:52 and goes to 8:52.
Notice that not all goes smoothly between the two. Watson is angry. He’s frustrated with Holmes for distrustfully holding back information and not treating him as an equal. Conan Doyle’s Watson seldom lost his temper; whenever he admonished Holmes, it was typically for “roommate” issues.
So why has Dr. Watson morphed into a pouty side-kick here, yelling at Holmes and demanding to be on equal terms with him? This is in the realm of conjecture, of course, but I think audiences were moving away from abject hero-worship, from a fascination with mega-minds and infallible heroes, and instead gravitating towards more egalitarian, cooperative, Everyman-pushed-to-extreme-circumstances tropes. Our society values openness more than ever before. Sure, we still love bigger-than-life heroes, but we want more.
That’s where the next Holmes-Watson duo comes in.
Watson, 21st century style:
Robert Downey, Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Watson): Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
Here’s the trailer for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Hollywood can squeeze a lot into two and a half minutes!
Here’s what I find noteworthy about this “new” Watson:
Holmes actively solicits Watson’s help (if you call shoving Watson’s new bride off the train “soliciting”)
Watson is affectionately condescending to Holmes: “I should have brought you a sedative.” And Holmes takes it.
Watson goes all-Rambo with weaponry, and saves Holmes’ keester more than once.
Huh? Where did this come from? It doesn’t seem at all like the stories Conan Doyle wrote, does it? I agree.
But you know what? I love it. And it makes perfect sense to me that the Holmes/Watson pair would now be evolving into this.
I’m going out on a limb and you all may vehemently disagree, but I think that if Conan Doyle were writing the Holmes stories now, this would be an adventure style he could get behind. If you read the entire Holmes canon, you get a collective sense of the adventurous hearts of Holmes and Watson: the thrill in Holmes’ voice when he first spots a deadly snake or uncovers a dangerous cult; Holmes’ confidence that Watson will always bring his revolver with him on perilous expeditions, and that he won’t be averse to a little B&E for a good cause; the wistfulness in Watson’s voice as he recounts the outre cases of the old days. It’s all there.
So, what’s your opinion of the way Watson has changed over the years? Who is your favorite Watson?
Thanks, Margot, for hosting me today!
K.B. has also asked me to include this information:
An Unseemly Giveaway:
During K.B.’s Unseemly Pursuits book tour, which goes through the first week of March, there’s a giveaway at each blog stop (including here!). The winner, randomly drawn from the commenters at each stop, will get a free ebook copy of Unseemly Pursuits. At the end of the tour, she’ll hold another random drawing from among the ebook winners for the final prize: a special Concordia Wells series swag package! It includes customized mug, keychain, JellyBelly mini-tin, and signed paperback copies of the first two mysteries: Dangerous and Unseemly and Unseemly Pursuits. You can read, sip your coffee, and snack on candy in unseemly style. Check the sidebar on the home page of kbowenmysteries.com for the full tour schedule and other info.