If he had ever been alive, he would have been born 169 years ago today, 7 July 1852. Of course, he would have been born in the U.K, but it would be more accurate to say that his birth occurred in the fertile country of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, which was never bound to England proper. Doyle, who was not born until seven years after Watson’s arrival, created in his Watson an extremely valuable tool, the right-hand man of Sherlock Holmes. Watson became the lens through which we witnessed the awe-inspiring actions of Holmes, who cannot grow beyond the colossal two-dimensional character he is created to be. And the wonder and power of Watson’s character was that he became whatever a reader needed to appreciate the genius of the world’s only consulting detective. Where Holmes is mercurial, Watson is patient. Where Holmes plunges headlong into action, Watson shows caution—and vice versa. He is sometimes married, often not, depending upon the needs of his service to the cause, which amounts to being there for Holmes and taking us along for the ride. The wound Watson suffered at the Battle of Maiwand, which sent him to away from the Afghan action, would switch from hip to shoulder, as needed. And so, ‘dutiful’ seems one word to best describe this remarkable character.
Watson is, in most readers’ eyes, so dutiful, so loyal, so unchanging, that any core character qualities would keep him two dimensional, like his more scintillating friend, Holmes. And yet, as the picture of the actors above indicates, many screen portrayals of Watson introduce different elements of his (or her, as the case may be) character that beg for growth. Jude Law’s portrayal, as well as Martin Freeman’s, emphasize his military, sporting, man of action qualities. Freeman’s portrayal goes much further into his life to show his growth through dealing with the trauma he experienced as a combat veteran, as well as the trauma of being party to Holmes’ adventures. As I’ve said often before, Watson’s background, as it grew through the plethora of Holmes’ cases he chronicled, gives him such richness that he begs rounding out, growing, changing as he works out of the tension in his contradictions: soldier-healer, solitary bachelor-ladies man, thinker-man of action.
In my own work, I have sought to give him his own character arc, immersing him not only in the science of deduction but in the spiritual seeking that marked the Victorian age which he represents so well. Watson is a product of the British Empire and its loyal subject, though he bears the marks of his service in body and mind. He has, I think, had a remarkable capacity to learn, which he often does as a result of Holmes’ tutorials, though he can always express surprise as well as admiration for Holmes’ abilities. And while it is convenient for his creator, Doyle, to keep him solely in a two-dimensional role, Watson’s richness calls prompts me to explore what his growth and awareness might look like. For me, a student of Arthurian legends, Watson plays Percival to Holmes’ Galahad. Whereas Galahad is perfect and strolls into literary heaven as he finds the Holy Grail, Percival stumbles in, which is “in” nonetheless and far more interesting, more human and worthy of a story all his own.
So, Happy Birthday, Dr. John Watson, you who sprung fully formed from the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! I am privileged to mine the rich ore of your mythical life and in doing so, shine the light on you for a change, showing that doing one’s duty, being the best friend, the best man, he can be, no matter how flawed, is no less an ascendance than that accomplished by more brilliant minds. I borrow the phrase of an old friend, Michael Smith, who said to me once, “you are the man who would be king, if only you knew you were royalty.” I have never forgotten that and have sought to apply it to the character of Dr. Watson, in the hope of living it out myself. Live on, Watson!