The Sherlock Holmes Fandom: Dawn of the Shipping Wars

On IMDb there’s a report that one Andrea Plunket, furious over Downey and Law’s interviews playing up possible homoerotic subtext in the Sherlock Holmes canon, is threatening to withdraw sequel permissions if Guy Ritchie keeps this up.

Plunket comments, “It would be drastic, but I would withdraw permission for more films to be made if they feel that is a theme they wish to bring out in the future. I am not hostile to homosexuals, but I am to anyone who is not true to the spirit of the books.”

Dear Ms. Plunket: allow me to introduce you to the concept of shipping wars. Because you’ve just put your foot right into one of the longest ones in unofficial existence—one that is, in fact, over a century old at the time of this writing.

For those who’ve never heard of the phrase “shipping war”: this is fandom lingo for flamewars disagreements amongst fans about intimate relationships between fictional characters. Various opinions on character pairings—canon or not, bizarre or not, straight or not—are also referred to as “ships.” You may have heard of references to the Hermione/Harry ship and the Hermione/Ron ship in Harry Potter fandom; this is what that means.

While the narrative of Harry Potter is a very consistently established piece of character-building (complete with official retcons and an extremely devoted creator with years of world-building notes that rival Tolkien’s for Middle Earth’s), the Sherlock Holmes canon in comparison is quite a bizarre piece of work. You can find plenty of examples of Consistency/Schmonsistency, such as:

  • Is Watson’s first name “John” or “James” and why does his wife Mary call him the latter in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”? Surely she knows his first name by now. Surely.

  • Where does Watson exactly live? He’s got a bedroom at Baker Street since A Study in Scarlett and “A Scandal in Bohemia”, the first Holmes novelette and first Holmes story in the canon respectively.  But he also seemingly refers to the Baker Street lodgings as belonging only to Holmes (“A Case of Identity”) and that was before he got engaged to be married in The Sign of Four. After the marriage ends and Holmes returns (long story), he’s back to housing in the Baker Street rooms, but also refers in several stories during this period to rooms in Queen Anne street, and that’s after he’s sold his practice and the house he lives in. Even after accounting for the jagged timeline that is the canon when considered in printed order.

  • Watson refers to Holmes’ expressionless mask lifting “for the first time” when it’s happened twice in the canon (“Case of the Devil’s Foot”, “The Three Garridebs”). Something so earth-shattering, as he implies both times, you think he’d remember (especially if the relationship is just platonic).

  • Holmes is melancholy during the canon, and is remembered mostly for that. But on the other hand, there are a number of occasions when Holmes is downright expressive, with eyes all a-twinkle and a grin on his face (numerous times, as in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”, “The Beryl Coronet”, and more), plus there was that time in The Hound of the Baskervilles when he was dancing with joy. 

Really, the canon taken as a whole is such a mess that you could use any of it to support any ship you like.  And if people can do it, they’ve done it. In spades. For over a hundred years.

Let’s take something less controversial (well, slightly less controversial), such as Watson’s marriage, which people generally can’t get around. Obviously you have Watson/Mary. But throughout the canon you have numerous ladies declaring their most-devoted love to Watson, the most explicit occurring all the way back in A Study in Scarlet. People have come up with alternate ships along what I’ll call the “straight” Watson line, including Watson/Ferrier (A Study in Scarlet), Watson/Morrison (“The Man with the Twisted Lip”), and even Watson/Hudson (as in Mrs. Hudson, the aging landlady of Baker Street). There’s much flamewarring recounting amongst fans of straight Watson of how many wives he had, coming up with anything from one to six.  Add in attempts to count the affairs Watson may have had over the years (anywhere from one to possibly over twenty), and you have a lot of ships.

Thus there’s far from a consensus as to what the canon has to say, exactly, about Watson’s straight relationships, apart from that he was definitely married to Mary for some time.

Now, let’s look at ships involving straight Holmes. The most famous of these is Holmes/Adler, getting a lot of play in fanfiction pastiches written thereafter, and indeed, there’s a fair part of fandom that believes Holmes and Adler were the biological parents of Nero Wolfe (long, long story). However, Holmes/Adler gets shown in the canon exactly once. And even so, it’s not exactly what you might call an intimate relationship, or even a flirting one. Or even a relationship. And she’s married (not that this technically stops straight Watson, some of the fandom thinks, so would it stop Holmes?). In fact, he witnesses (in the official sense) her marriage to a lawyer.

Mind you, he takes her picture as his only reward from the king involved in that story, and that by itself (along with other possible cues, but that’s the strongest one) fuels hundreds of stories, books, essays, and radio/movie adaptations, all out of canon, and all not by either Doyle (Adrian Doyle wrote some pastiches, and they are so held in copyright, unlike the original stories).

There are other straight Holmes ships: Holmes/Hunter (“The Copper Beeches”, although this does technically get shot down in the same story), Holmes/Stoner (“The Speckled Band”), and others, sometimes crossing over into straight Watson ship land, prompting not so much shipping wars as twilight skirmishes on the isle of “Possibly You Are Stretching the Text a Little.”

Then there’s the most controversial kind of Holmes canon ship: the gay Holmes ships. Yes, plural; gay Watson not required except for Holmes/Watson—which, of these, has the most amount of possible support in-canon, although we’re gonna cover a disturbing detail in all that in a bit. There’s also Holmes/Trevor (“Adventure of the Gloria Scott”) and Holmes/Moriarty (there’s a certain amount of fascination between the two, and the events of “The Final Problem” reach such Ritchie-movie levels of nonsensical that it would almost be a mercy if the confusion were the result of Holmes and Moriarty getting all hot and bothered about each other).

Of course, gay Holmes ships face a tough problem: namely, “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”, wherein Doyle reaches the same heights of homophobia as the anti-Mormonism of A Study in Scarlet and the racism in The Sign of Four, Valley of Fear, and “The Adventure of the Three Gables” (the last somewhat mitigated by “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”, which does not actually involve those of East Asian descent).

However, as we’ve all seen in recent news history, just because you’re homophobic doesn’t mean you’re not homosexual; and it follows that just because you’re homophobic doesn’t mean you won’t subconsciously/accidentally/naively insert homoerotic context into your stories.

Some people like to “straighten” the Holmes/Watson ship with the alternate ship, Watson-is-a-woman/Holmes, and the alternate-alternate ship, Holmes-is-a-woman/Watson. 

(Truly, there is an ecological niche here for the Holmes-is-a-woman/Watson-is-a-woman gay ship, but I haven’t seen one yet.)

If you want my opinion…. personally, I think the two strongest Holmes ships are either (a) he’s asexual (a very special class of ship indeed, possibly a deep submarine, given that people want to pair characters all the time; not to be confused with the very rare narcissistic ship), or (b) gay Holmes/Watson, because of the amount of canon text that can be brought to support it.

And frankly, don’t you think Holmes and Watson make a cute couple?


Picture copyright © gailf548. Creative Commons Attribution License.



Arachne Jericho writes about science fiction and fantasy, and other topics determined by 1d20, at Spontaneous ∂erivation. She also thinks waaay too much about Sherlock Holmes. She reviews at Tor.com on a semi-biweekly basis and thinks Hwatson is Hwat and very nearly canon.

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