by BSB Lyndsay Faye
Let’s chat about Mary Morstan for a sec. No, not that one, the one you’re thinking of we’ll get to in a wee bit. I’m talking first about the one who kicked so much canonical ass that she deserved her own spinoff series. (Does this exist? Tell me, please, if it happens to exist.)
One of the most canny tricks they teach actors is also a neat tip for writing fiction of all types: listening to what other characters have to say about your character can be a much better guideline and way more insightful than the things your character says about him- or her-self. Take Sherlock Holmes, for example. Sherlock Holmes talks mad phat game about prizing reason above all things. “I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment;” “I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix;” I haz no feels and you can’t make me haz teh feels.
But then Watson has to go and write down all those moments when Holmes was snortchuckling over hiding a treaty in a curry dish, or scritching a puppy, or crying like a rom-com addict over Watson’s bullet wound, and we therefore (secondhand, but secondhand is better than first!) know that he is always and forever full of horse puckey.
What is said about Mary Watson, nee Morstan, in the Sherlock Holmes canon? Enough to convince me that she must have been an absolutely extraordinary woman. Let’s address the elephant in the room and get ridiculous shipping wars out of the way immediately: no one is saying that John Watson didn’t love the “best and wisest man” he’d ever known, or that Holmes wouldn’t have gone full Braveheart Mel Gibson if you threatened his army doctor. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were either brothers-in-arms, or brothers-in-crossed-swords-of-a-certain-type, or something on the spectrum between these paradigms.
This isn’t about that. This is about Mary being awesome. John “Three Continents” Watson has been around the block, we learn in The Sign of Four. Then along comes Mary with some pearls and a mystery, and before you can ejaculate something, John Watson is head over heels. In fact, remember when he developed an epic mancrush for Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, when he said that the casual reader would doubtless set him down a hopeless busybody over his new consulting detective obsession? Here is what he has to say about Mary Morstan (and John Watson has, I think most will agree, very sound taste regarding the company he keeps)…she entered the room:
…with a firm step and an outward composure of manner. She was a blonde young lady, small, dainty, well gloved, and dressed in the most perfect taste. There was, however, a plainness and simplicity about her costume which bore with it a suggestion of limited means. The dress was a sombre grayish beige, untrimmed and unbraided, and she wore a small turban of the same dull hue, relieved only by a suspicion of white feather in the side. Her face had neither regularity of feature nor beauty of complexion, but her expression was sweet and amiable, and her large blue eyes were singularly spiritual and sympathetic. In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature.
Let’s parse this for a second, because of all the people in the canon, John Watson can be counted on to rate inner beauty above outer prickliness, right? He says that she’s isn’t beautiful. (She also isn’t “backlit as if caught by surprise, with one hand faintly grasping the doorjamb, the hint of something ripe and J&=RI&EDYFh%@e5r about her lips as she formed a question upon them, appealing to my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes and wearing a heartbreaking expression of sweet appeal on her angelic and pale yet still cherry-red mouth.”)
John Watson is a dude, and John Watson is a good dude, but he is a dude, and he refuses to objectify her.
Now, I know you’re going to say that she comes to them for help, so she’s still a damsel in distress, and yes she’s a damsel, and yes she’s in distress, but then Watson gets up to leave, because he knows this is probably going to be awkward, and she goes, halt:
To my surprise, the young lady held up her gloved hand to detain me.
“If your friend,” she said, “would be good enough to stop, he might be of inestimable service to me.”
I relapsed into my chair.
Oh yeah, That One Time When Dr. John H. Watson Who Survived Afghanistan And Even Living With Sherlock Holmes Got “Detained” By This Kinda Terse Lady He Thinks Isn’t Beautiful. This is not about a fling. This is not about a conquest. It isn’t even about chivalry, not the way he states the case. We only know the canon through Watson’s eyes (let’s forget LION and BLAN for the moment, shall we?), and he sees in her something formidable and steely, but also something gentle and warm, and he goes on to explicate after they are married that people in trouble flock to Mary “like birds to a lighthouse,” one can only assume thanks to both her strength and her kindness.
What does Sherlock Holmes, Reasoning Toaster Oven, think of Mary with his superior man-brain and his mighty deductive powers?
“You are certainly a model client. You have the correct intuition.”
“I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way…”
I want everyone in the virtual room to perform a simple thought exercise and count the number of times Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Vacuum Cleaner, who adores John Watson, ever said Watson had “a decided genius” about anything at all. Ever. And when you come up with “making me smarter” and “picking the right stories to tell” as the closest compliments, you will be correct, and Mary will emerge triumphant, and we can all ask her over for whiskey and pie because I don’t particularly care for cake (I’m weird like that).
Yes, definitely, let’s talk about the Other Mary. Well, to be fair, we should make that plural of course…Kelly Reilly does a tremendous turn as Mary Watson, not only tolerating Holmes when necessary (pretty early on) and throwing a drink in his face when necessary (come on, he deserved that one) and being thrown out of a train and still doing super seekrit tasks when necessary (whatever we all thought of Fry’s epic casting, we really never saw THAT coming). But she is definitely portrayed as someone Holmes considers an impediment, an objection, a wrench in the proverbial works and not the right kind of wrench, the kind that can help with bolts, which is inconsistent with the Doyle canon in this way:
“Oh, Anstruther would do your work for you. You have been looking a little pale lately. I think that the change would do you good, and you are always so interested in Mr. Sherlock Holmes’s cases…”
See, that there’s Mary, in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” telling Watson that he looks “a little pale lately,” when he thinks about Sherlock Holmes too hard, and needs a strong dose of adventures and service revolvers and mayhem and master blackmailers and devil hounds and the like. Not preventing anything—worthy of being asked along, according to Holmes himself. But content to watch Watson take care of these criminal matters.
What a shame that she was relegated to the backseat so.
Now we can talk about That Other Mary for a bit. Because BBC Sherlock is badass, almost universally loved telly, and I love them so much, and Mary is difficult, and here is my opinion as to why:
The writers of BBC Sherlock, as stated by me before, would like to be thought of as metal. They would like to be so metal that they tour Scandinavia forever, and so stone cold that Alex Lifeson of Rush couldn’t say shit to them with a metronome in his damn hand, and so utterly possessing of epic hair that A Flock of Seagulls weep when they behold Moffat and Gatiss. And they are pretty much THAT awesome. This leads them to have to best themselves. This leads them to do things like:
—almost kill Sherlock and John in S1
—actually “kill” Sherlock in S2
—really actually kill kill Sherlock in S3, because what could be more metal than turning it up to 11?
This ultimately has very little to do with the canonical Mary, and maybe even not much to do with the BBC Mary, because we won’t know her well until she proves her (new) self in S4. They are going to write new factors into this situation, and come what may, Amanda Abbington is brilliant, absolutely spot on, and the writers have given her a thorny role she handled very well indeed in the absence of S4 (or even advance knowledge as to what S3 entailed).
In the meanwhile, one could definitely love oneself some canonical Mary. A woman Sherlock Holmes declared “a decided genius” must be pretty spectacular. And yes, I am allowing Holmes to define her, but remember…secondhand evidence is better than firsthand. And Watson agrees with Holmes. And if your two favorite characters both enthusiastically approve of a woman who could have been anything but intelligent and forthright and brave, and turned out to be all three…well, then I applaud her with all my heart.