The Blanched Soldier

Portrait of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget (1904)

The Blanched Soldier

Our Man Godfrey: Godfrey, Godfrey, haven’t we had a Godfrey before? No, not the one who married Irene Adler … (by the way, in the Hollywood movie My Man Godfrey, Godfrey marries an Irene too; I wonder if the screenwriter read “A Scandal in Bohemia,” but that’s another story).

Another Godfrey: The one I was thinking of was the one in “The Missing Three-Quarter.” In fact, he is the missing three-quarter. So a missing Godfrey there and another one here. If you want a missing man, he has to be a Godfrey, I suppose (though originally it was going to be a different name, I learn from Klinger).

But why? I don’t mean why does the name have to be Godfrey, but why do each of these Godfreys go missing? I note a similarity in the two stories: in both cases Godfrey has a good friend who is looking for him. So is “The Blanched Soldier,” like “The Missing Three-Quarter,” about friendship? I think so. In both a good friend goes looking for the missing Godfrey. In “The Blanched Soldier,” as if to bring home the point, someone else has gone missing: Watson. Watson has deserted me for a wife, says Sherlock Holmes. In “The Missing Three-Quarter” that Godfrey has also deserted his friend for a wife. In this story, though, the latest Godfrey has deserted for – well, because of illness. A skin condition. Leprosy (maybe).

Leprosy? Or maybe it’s not leprosy, maybe it’s only pseudo-leprosy. Now, the first story this one reminded me of is the one just before, “The Illustrious Client,” in which Kitty Winter’s face is described as leprous and Shinwell Johnson also has a skin condition – not to mention the bad skin condition Baron Gruner ends up with. Is Doyle suddenly obsessed with skin conditions? And horror? Is this some sort of delayed reaction to World War I, as some suggest?

Horror: The blanched soldier at the window, like something out of Wuthering Heights. And leprosy. But it isn’t leprosy (probably). So, wait. In “The Illustrious Client,” the problem was that a real danger was being ignored (Violet is blithely going to go ahead with marriage to a predator), but here what seems like danger isn’t. Well, that’s okay then, we can just relax. Maybe we need to read these two stories in tandem: don’t ignore real dangers, but don’t get upset over false ones?

And danger from whom? Godfrey has been to Africa. Always something bad out of Africa? Though note that it’s a Boer hospital that he stumbles into, where he sleeps in the leper’s bed. Don’t go sleeping with lepers (people did think leprosy was sexually transmitted – though of course Godfrey didn’t have sex in the bed). And Boer lepers, not native Africans, but Dutch, another set of rival Europeans. Is there danger out of Europe? That’s what I thought the message of “The Illustrious Client” was. But here the danger turns out to be illusory. In fact, it’s thinking there is a danger that is the danger: if you think you’re going to come down with an awful skin condition, you will. If you think there is danger, you could create it with your thinking: sounds a bit like how World War I came about: if you mobilize for war out of fear of war, then you’ll get war.

But back to friendship: Chris Redmond’s father says the absence of Watson means we lose the usual Holmes-Watson interchange. But do we? James Dodd seems to fill in nicely, first by being amazed at the standard Holmesian parlour tricks (You’re from South Africa, the Middlesex Corps, etc. etc.) and then by getting in a Watsonian jab when he plunges into his story midstream and in response to Holmes’s bafflement says, But I thought you knew everything.

         So a friend can be replaced? But Holmes does seem to miss his Watson, and perhaps the point of the story is to tell us that the two should not be separated, certainly not for a marriage. James Dodd won’t give up his friend to illness. Should Holmes give up his to marriage? Is marriage an illness? Of course, in this story what we seem to have is a pseudo-illness. Perhaps Watson’s marriage is a pseudo-marriage?

When you have eliminated all which is impossible: That old quote, recycled from The Sign of the Four, but not so convincingly deployed here. What’s so impossible about Godfrey being insane or even a criminal? No, the dice are loaded here in favour of leprosy, because it is somehow important to get leprosy into this story, as in the story before. The strange obsession I have already noted.

         Still, Holmes deduces well here, though it is a bit of a misfire to ask about the newspaper which, if it had been the Lancet or the British Medical Journal, might have told him something. But instead it was the Spectator. So why bother even telling us about it? I suppose to let us know that that would have been further proof that the “keeper” in the garden was a medical man. But Holmes knew this was a medical man without that proof; was the deductive theorizing enough in this case? That would seem to go against all of Holmes’s usual emphasis on the facts. Oh, well, I suppose there just had to be leprosy, or pseudo-leprosy.

Bleached skin: One of the symptoms of the disease. And the disease, or something, has turned Godfrey Emsworth, a “frank, manly lad,” into “something slinking … furtive … guilty.” If “The Illustrious Client” showed us a predatory masculinity in Baron Gruner, here we have something much weaker. Is this a danger Conan Doyle sees, upstanding manly Brits being laid waste by foreign diseases? But it’s just a pseudo-disease, so maybe not.

But where are the women? There’s a phantom whom Watson has married. There’s Emsworth’s mother and the butler’s wife. In “The Missing Three-Quarter” there was an important female presence at the end which explained all: the dying wife. The men in that story are trying to save her. Here there’s no woman to save; the person who is sick is not the wife of the missing man; it is the missing man himself, and perhaps even though the illness is waved away at the very end, the story is betraying some anxiety about the health of British men. It is the missing man in this case who needs caring for or rescue, and who is indeed rescued more than once: by the doctor in the leper hospital and now by more doctors, along with Sherlock Holmes and his friend, and even his gruff but protective father.

         Once upon a time, it was Godfrey who could do the protecting, saving his friend Dodd in battle. “He was a fine man,” says the butler, but now … One critic I’ve read (Joseph Kestner) sees postwar anxiety in the later stories, reflecting a dissolution of “patriarchal structures.” Is that what’s going on? Is it the end of patriarchy that this story foresees? Though if it is, it’s strange that there are no women around to pick up the pieces.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.

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