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'Dr. Watson's Christian Name' by Dorothy L. Sayers

Happy Epiphany/Twelfth Night/Sherlock Holmes's birthday (Observed)! In honor of the last, and because it was a plot point in last night's episode of Sherlock, I present Dorothy L. Sayers's essay which originally put forth the Hamish Hypothesis. (This post is also available on tumblr.)

Dr. Watson's Christian Name
A Brief Contribution to the Exegetical Literature of Sherlock Holmes

Dorothy L. Sayers

It has always been a matter of astonishment to Dr. Watson's friends, and perhaps of a little malicious amusement to his detractors, to observe that his wife1 apparently did not know her own husband's name. There can be no possible doubt that Watson's first Christian name was John. The name "John H. Watson" appears, conspicuously and in capital letters, on the title page of A Study in Scarlet,2 and it is not for one moment to be supposed that Watson, proudly contemplating the proofs of his first literary venture, would have allowed it to go forth into the world under a name that was not his. Yet in 1891 we find Watson publishing the story of The Man with the Twisted Lip, in the course of which Mrs. Watson addresses him as "James."

Mr. H. W. Bell (Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, p. 66, n. 2) has been unable to account for this, and despairingly suggests that it is a mere printer's error. "Watson," he remarks, with much truth, "was a very careless reader of proof." But if he had read the proofs at all, this particular error could not have failed to catch his eye. A man's own name is a subject on which he is sensitive; nothing is more exasperating than to be "called out of one's name." Moreover, in December, 1891, Mary Watson was still alive. Tenderly devoted as she was to her husband, she could not have failed to read his stories attentively on publication in the Strand Magazine, and she would have undoubtedly drawn his attention to an error so ridiculous and immediately reflecting on herself. In the month immediately preceding, the Doctor had made another trivial slip in connection with his wife's affairs; he said that during the period of the adventure of The Five Orange Pips Mrs. Watson was visiting her mother. Mrs. Watson, who was of course an orphan, (Sign of Four), evidently took pains to point out this error and see that the careless author made a note of it; for on the publication of the collected Adventures in 1892 the word "mother" is duly corrected to "aunt."3 On such dull matters as dates and historical facts the dear woman would offer no comment, but on any detail affecting her domestic life she would pounce like a tigress. Yet the name "James" was left unaltered in all succeeding editions of the story.

How are we to explain this?

The solution is probably to be sought in a direction which has been too little explored by the commentators. In fact, the whole subject of Dr. Watson's second Christian name has been treated with a levity and a carelessness which are a positive disgrace to scholarship.

Mr. S. C. Roberts (Dr. Watson, p. 9) suggests, without an atom of evidence, that Watson's mother was "a devout woman with Tractarian leanings," merely in order to presume that her son was named "John Henry" after the great Newman himself. If there were, in Dr. Watson's character, the slightest trace of Tractarian sympathies, or even of strong anti-Tractarian sympathies, the suggestion might carry some weight, for no one could be brought up in an atmosphere of Tractarian fervour without reacting to it in one way or another. But Watson's religious views remain completely colourless. Of Holmes' beliefs we know little, but of Dr. Watson's, nothing. The hypothesis is purely frivolous.

Mr. H. W. Bell, with his wonted scholarly caution, rejects the Newman theory. "It must be objected," he says (Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, loc. cit), "that Newman had become a Catholic in 1845, seven years before the date which Mr. Roberts proposes for Watson's birth. If Mrs. Watson had indeed had…Tractarian leanings…she would hardly have named her son after the illustrious convert." But Mr. Bell makes no efford to solve the problem himself, although the observation actually forms part of his note about the name "James." The true solution was staring him in the face, and if he had given the matter proper attention he must have seen it. But he dismissed "James" as a typographical error and went on his way, leaving the Watsons still enveloped in a cloud of ridicule.

Mr. T. S. Blakeney behaves still more absurdly. Postulating a composite James-John authorship, he calls for a J. M. Robertson to "sift the accretions of the pseudo-Watson from the core of matter deriving solely from the hand of the veritable John Henry"—forgetting that John Henry Watson is even more conjectural than Jesus Barabbas,4 and thus making the fabulous name into a guarantee of the genuine identity. Illogicality could go no further.5

There is only one plain conclusion to be drawn from the facts. Only one name will reconcile the appellation James with the initial letter H. The doctor's full name was John Hamish Watson.

Hamish is, of course, the Scottish form of James. There is no reason to feel any surprise that Dr. Watson should bear a Scottish name. Sturdily and essentially English as he was, he may well, like most English people, have had a Scottish ancestor in his family tree. The English are probably the only people in the world who actually make a boast of mongrel ancestry. The words "hundred per cent. English" are never heard on true English lips, for the English know well enough that their cross-breeding is their strength. Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Jews cling to the purity of their descent, realising that to blend their nationality is to lose it. But English blood is so strong that one drop of it will make the whole blend English. A hundred Scottish ancestors, nay, even a Scottish mother, would in no way affect the indomitable Englishry of Dr. Watson.

In fact, there is some slight evidence for a Scots strain in Watson. It may not be mere coincidence that led Holmes (a shrewd student of national character) to select the adjective "pawky" for the vein of humour which Watson displayed during the adventure of The Valley of Fear and which took his distinguished friend a little aback. Watson's mother may have been a Scot—not, I think, a Highland woman, but a native of Eastern Scotland6—and it may have pleased her to give a Scottish name to her son.

But there is no real need to assume Scottish descent to explain a Scottish name. The English, with their romantic love of the outlandish, their tendency to concoct a mixed genealogy for themselves, and their incurable disdain for other people's racial sensitiveness, are notorious for their habit of annexing foreign names, merely because they think them pretty or poetical. The suburbs of London swarm with Douglases and Donalds, Malcolms and Ians, whose ancestors never crossed the border, with Patricks and Brians and Sheilas who owe nothing to Erin, with Gwladyses whose names are spelled according to fancy and not to inheritance, and with other exotics still more remote. The combination John Hamish Watson has nothing about it that need disconcert us.

Nor is it at all unusual for a wife to call her husband by his second name, in preference to his first. It is a pretty thought that he should be known to her by a name which is not the common property of the outside world. Possibly Mrs. Watson did not care for the name John. It was painfully connected in her mind with Major John Sholto, who had helped to ruin her father and bring about his death. "Johnnie" would be open to the same objection; besides, no one with any sense of the fitting would call Dr. Watson "Johnnie." There seems to be nothing specially objectionable about "Jack," but it may have seemed to her too flippant and jaunty. The probability, however, is that she preferred to cut out all association with "John." There remained the choice between "Hamish" and a pet-name. "Hamish" seemed to her perhaps a little highfalutin. By playfully re-Englishing it to "James" she found for her husband a pet-name which was his own name as well; a name by which no one else would think of calling him, a name free from the tiresome skittishness of the ordinary pet-name, and a name eminently suitable to his solid and sober character.7

It would be natural enough that Dr. Watson, accustomed for over three years to being called "James" by his wife, should automatically incorporate the name into his story when reproducing the dialogue between Mary and himself—forgetting that, to the uninstructed reader, it might present an odd appearance. Nor would Mrs. Watson correct it. To her, the doctor was "her James"; that she should be supposed to call him by any other name would seem to her unnatural; almost improper. Smilingly she perused the pages of the Strand, delighted to recognize herself and her home life accurately portrayed in all the glory of print.


1His first wife, and only true love, Mary, née Morstan. There is a conspiracy afoot to provide Watson with as many wives as Henry VIII, but, however this may be, only one is ever mentioned by him and only one left any abiding memory in his heart.

2It also appears, plainly marked in capitals, at the foot of the sketch-plan illustrating The Priory School.

3It appears from this that Watson, with a shyness not uncommon in authors, did not show his wife either his manuscript or his proofs. After publication, he would probably leave the Strand carelessly lying about the house to be dutifully perused by Mary, to his deprecatory astonishment.

4For the complicated structure of deduction built by Drews and others upon this highly disreputable reading, see Thorburn, Mythical Interpretations of the Gospels, pp. 264 sqq.

5It is only justice to add that Mr. S. C. Roberts lost no time in pointing out this lamentable confusion between "objective data and legitimate surmise" and depreciating it with equal firmness and courtesy (Observer, October 30th, 1932).

6The true Highlander is a Celt—quick-tempered, poetical, and humourless—everything that Watson was not. Dourness and pawkiness belong to the Aberdeen side of the country.

7An interesting parallel case of the interchangeability of "James" and "Hamish" occurs in Mrs. Wood's novel, The Channings: "The eldest son of the family, James; or, as he was invariably styled, Hamish." This book was extremely popular in the 'nineties, achieving its hundred-and-fortieth thousand in 1985, and may actually have suggested the idea to Mrs. Watson.

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