Contrary to some modern interpretations, the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, the famous fictional detectives created by Victorian author Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t have homosexual overtones, and might better be labeled as a bromance.
That’s the thesis that landed Chadron State College senior English major Rachel Mitchell the opportunity for a poster presentation at the prestigious North American Victorian Studies Association Conference in Columbus, Ohio, last month.
“My research went into how contemporary media changed the relationship that John Watson and Sherlock Holmes had, saying ‘Oh, they are a homosexual couple.’ I was looking at it more as a homo-social relationship,” said Mitchell of Riverton, Wyoming.
Mitchell was one of just 19 undergraduates invited to attend the annual conference, which attracts experts in Victorian studies from colleges and universities across the country.
CSC English faculty Dr. Kimberly Cox and Dr. Mary Clai Jones were also invited presenters at the conference. In a panel discussion about representations of sexual violence in Victorian literature, Cox spoke of her research on how novelists of the period used uninvited grabbing of female character’s hands to represent the threat of rape. Jones took part in a roundtable discussion about female fantasy writers of the 1890s and 1920s that focused on a recently published book that includes a chapter of her research about writer Marie Corelli.
A Sherlock Holmes and mystery story fan from the time she was young, Mitchell had a significant amount of research to back up her presentation. In addition to close readings of all of Doyle’s stories, a college-sponsored trip to the Lilly Library Collection at Indiana University last spring gave her the opportunity to examine the first Sherlock Holmes mysteries as they were originally published, as well as letters and papers from Doyle.
“I had a lot of original illustrations that Doyle worked on,” she said. “He actually had his dad illustrate ‘Sign of the Four,’ the second Holmes story.”
The tendency of some modern reworkings of Doyle’s tales to make a homosexual relationship out of the friendship between the brilliant, but eccentric, detective and the military veteran doctor stems from an uneasiness with male-male friendships in contemporary culture, Mitchell said.
“There is maybe a stigma around men having friendships in a more serious context,” she said. “In comedy and fantasy fiction it’s completely acceptable, but when we go into a dramatic realm, we are uneasy. The stigma around just having regular bromances is what I used in my paper.”
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Mitchell said she was grateful for the opportunity to show her work to respected experts in Victorian studies and pleased with the responses she received.
“People were really open to my ideas,” she said. “They were all really positive about my work and said to continue my research.”
Attending the conference also provided opportunities for Mitchell to connect with professionals in various fields of literature and academic publishing, said Cox, who nominated her for inclusion on the program.
“It’s an opportunity for networking and professionalization on a national scale,” she said.
The experience will have long-term benefits for Mitchell, who plans to eventually earn a Ph.D. in Native American Literature and would like to teach at a university.
“Attending a premier national conference as an undergraduate gave her the chance to see how her future field of study will impact students, publishing and other scholars,” Jones said.
Attending academic conferences like this also has value for faculty members, and the other students they teach, Cox and Jones agreed.
“I met a number of academic publishers who offer distance internships that are open to students,” Cox said. “For our literature majors such an internship while an undergraduate would help build their professional futures.”
Meeting professors and other professionals in the humanities field was an inspiring part of attending the conference, said Mitchell, whose ambitions include writing her own creative pieces.
“People who do humanities want to help others and see people succeed,” she said. “The big community that is out there, that is what I took away.”