A+ Ships is an irregular feature celebrating relationships in fiction between characters that fall along the asexual spectrum. For more information, see the A+ Ships FAQ.
Our post today comes from Eileen (see her blog here), writing about one of my favorite A+ Ships ever. Thank you, Eileen!
I decided Sherlock Holmes was asexual well before I knew the word. He was always reliable in his devotion to his work (notwithstanding the adaptations that throw a girlfriend at him in a pitiful attempt to convince me of his heterosexuality) and in his disinterest in the rest of humanity, with the exception of his (intimate) friend Watson. As my vocabulary improved, I decided Holmes was a repulsed asexual—not only did he not experience sexual attraction, he was thoroughly disgusted by the idea of engaging in sexual activity. Why did I decide that? Because.
But what of his romantic inclinations, if any? There are literally hundreds of versions of Holmes floating around, and I interpret each of the ones I’ve seen slightly differently. For this post I’ll focus on the original literary version of Holmes and Watson, who I choose to view as being romantically, though not sexually, involved.
There’s no proof that they were in a relationship, of course, and most of the signals that would be interpreted as evidence of such could be just a product of the time period. For example, Holmes and Watson hold hands rather a lot, but that’s because Victorian and Edwardian men didn’t have the concept of ‘no homo’ hanging over them. Male friends were very affectionate, which may or may not explain why Holmes felt comfortable demanding Watson’s assistance with an exclamation of ‘Quick, man, if you love me!’ in The Dying Detective.
Then again, Holmes never did quite fit into anyone’s standards. Who knows why he ever did anything? That’s part of his enduring appeal. And like I said: there’s no actual proof Holmes and Watson leaned that way… and there’s no proof they didn’t.
In A Study in Scarlet, Watson says he’s staying at ‘a private hotel in the Strand.’ The Strand is a street in the West End, which was Victorian London’s most popular cruising ground for men looking for sex with men. Theaters, music halls, bars, and—you guessed it—hotels in this area were all places where those in the know could go for a little late-night entertainment.
(Following up on that point, Holmes and Watson returned to the Strand at least once that I can remember. In The Illustrious Client, they have dinner at Simpson’s. Assuming it hasn’t moved since 1902, Simpson’s was/is next door to the Savoy, another one of those hotels I was telling you about.)
Right nearby—a mere stone’s throw from Mycroft Holmes’ Diogenes Club, in fact—was St. James’ Park, where cash-strapped soldiers and former soldiers were known to hang out every night in the hopes of picking up an upper-class gentleman. As a result, according to historian Ruth Goodman, the image of a soldier became one of several contemporary gay stereotypes. John Watson, as anyone familiar with the character knows, was himself a cash-strapped former soldier, which is what caused him to cross paths with Holmes in the first place. In other words, even if Watson was not a sex worker (though he very well could have been), he certainly fits the profile and others may have suspected him of being such.
Speaking of Victorian gay stereotypes, Holmes fits the bill as well. He is described as a clean-shaven ‘bohemian’ bachelor who lives in the heart of London. Such men were viewed with mild suspicion by the rest of society, particularly in the late 1890s. As Cook pointed out, ‘bohemian’ basically became a euphemism for ‘sodomite’ during the Oscar Wilde trials, and clean-shaven men were looked on as less masculine than those with beards and moustaches.
I freely admit that my reading of the characters is all headcanon. Not everyone who visited a hotel in the West End in Victorian England was there for sex, and not every London bachelor without a beard liked dudes ‘that way.’ Still, it is very hard to say anything ‘for certain’ about Holmes or his cases: Arthur Conan Doyle is notorious for not giving a darn about continuity errors, most of the original tales are limited to Watson’s viewpoint, and both Holmes and Watson admit Watson fudged some details.
TL;DR every element of the original stories can be taken with as much or as little salt as you like. If you don’t feel like shipping them, that is a perfectly legitimate and cool way to read the text. But if you DO feel like shipping them, romantically or otherwise, just put the stories back into their historical context and you’ll find a surprising amount of circumstantial evidence to back you up.
How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman
London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1884-1914 by Matt Cook