Undoubtedly the most
controversial topic associated with Watson is that of his personal
relationships with women. Noted Sherlockian authorities have credited him
with from one to five wives in an effort to reconcile discrepancies in the
Watsonian chronology, although Dorothy L. Sayers decried the attempt to
“provide Watson with as many wives as Henry VIII.” (Dorothy L. Sayers,
Unpopular Opinions. London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1946) Likewise, Watson’s
“sad bereavement” that Holmes alludes to in EMPT has been variously
interpreted as one or more of the following: Mary Morstan’s death, the death
of their child, and Mary Morstan’s insanity.
I propose a totally different solution to the confusion
about Watson’s personal life — a solution which
resolves all of these difficulties, yet could not be
discussed openly in the
Victorian era. Even today, it is a somewhat sensitive topic. You see, Dr.
Watson was impotent or to use the phrase preferred by Bob Dole — he suffered
from ED — erectile dysfunction.
Admittedly the cause of Watson’s
problem is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps in passing from the leg to the
shoulder, that Jezail bullet hit an even more sensitive portion of the
doctor’s anatomy. Or perhaps while experiencing women in three continents,
the doctor received a lasting memento from one of them. I personally feel the
latter is the reason since in SIGN, Watson refers rather ruefully to his
But whatever the cause of the doctor’s
ailment, its existence is clear. The textual references leave no room for
doubt, although Watson, of course, was discreet in alluding to his situation.
When he first fell in love with
Mary Morstan, his problem overwhelmed him. He writes, “What was I, an army
surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking account, that I should dare to
think of such things (i.e., marriage with Morstan)?”
Clearly, it was the weakness in what is
sometimes referred to as “the middle leg” that worried him — why would a mere
limp be an impediment to marriage? Especially since in the same case Watson
tells Holmes that he can handle a “six mile trudge.” Later on, in HOUN, he
speaks of a “pleasant four mile walk.” Watson is certainly not an invalid in
the traditional sense of the word, although he cannot rise to every occasion.
It was not Watson’s fear of Morstan’s being an heiress that initially
restrained his impulse to propose. It was his realization that he could not
provide her with a normal sexual relationship or children. Listen to his own
words: “She little guessed the struggle within my breast, or the effort of
self-restraint which held me back... Yet there were two thoughts which sealed
the words of affection on my lips.”
Ostensibly those two thoughts were her being “weak and helpless” and
an heiress. Yet, there is nothing weak about Mary Morstan. Even Holmes speaks
positively about her strength and resourcefulness. Watson could not express
his real misgivings on the printed page — he could only hint at the problem
and mention his depressed state of mind.
At some point, he must have discussed his disability with
Mary and she reassured him — possibly during the visit to Camberwell that
lasted until the evening. Thus, when the treasure is lost, the last barrier
is gone and he proposes. Watson never wrote truer words than when he said, “
Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one.” Mary
Morstan realized the doctor’s true worth and made her decision accordingly.
Holmes had, of course, deduced Watson’s problem. In fact, one reason
he encouraged the doctor to join him on cases was to prevent Watson from
lounging about Baker Street, drinking and brooding about his injury. However,
Holmes understandably has misgivings about the wisdom of Watson’s marrying.
Hence, his loud groan when Watson announces his marriage, and the comment “I
really cannot congratulate you.” Since he then goes on to praise Mary
Morstan, it is clear that he fears that Watson’s disability will make the
marriage an unhappy one.