The Liberation of Mary in Sherlock Holmes

Feb 28, 2015 | 2015 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Kathleen Kaska

Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Kathleen’s Sherlock Holmes trivia book.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, Mary Morstan arrived on Holmes’s doorstep seeking help solving the mysterious disappearance of her father, Captain Arthur Morstan. Upon her entrance to 221B Baker Street, Watson described her as having a firm step and composed manner. “…a blonde young lady, small, dainty, well gloved, and dressed in perfect taste”; or what you would expect of a woman from the Victorian era. He wrote further: “In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents [was Watson bragging here?], I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature.” The good doctor was clearly smitten. book

Upon conclusion of the case, Watson proposed marriage to Mary. She eagerly accepted.

After that first appearance, we hear little of Mary. Watson refers to her as his wife, but not by name. Because of time discrepancies in the Canon, it’s possible that Mary was Watson’s second wife. She apparently died during the three years of Holmes’s Great Hiatus. Other than what we learned about her in the novel, she faded as did so many of ACD’s characters: Wiggins, Billy, Mycroft, and even Mrs. Hudson (relegated to a brief mention now and then).

As a mystery writer, I’ve always felt that Mary Morstan would have enhanced the Canon if given the opportunity. Even Holmes thought so when, at the end of the story, he said that Mary “might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way.” The reason she faded into the background, according to Holmes and probably ACD, was that “…love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason…” In other words, women in love can’t think straight, therefore, they don’t have much to offer in a man’s crime-solving world.

sherlock Enter a different Mary in BBC’s Sherlock series, set in current times. Mary Elizabeth Morstan (Amanda Abbington), who marries Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) during Holmes’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) hiatus, is a modern, liberated woman. This Mary not only comes with a middle name, but with an entire life–actually doubles lives. She’s brave, confident, cunning, and smart enough to match wits with Holmes. Well, a former assassin (a fact not known to Dr. Watson until after the wedding) who created a new life for herself would have to be. Upon learning of her past, Dr. Watson is a bit upset and disappointed. Mary presents him with a jump drive labeled A.G.R.A., containing her entire life as a “bad” girl. Despite concealing her past from her husband, and shooting Sherlock, Dr. Watson, even more Victorian than his original character, burns the jump drive without reading it, forgives Mary and accepts her for whomever she is. I like this Mary.

sherlockBut it’s the Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) in Guy Ritchie’s second Holmes’ film, The Game of Shadows, who really deserves applause. The movie, like the Canon, is set in the late 1800s, but this Mary is a character whose emotions don’t clog her brain. And the only time she wears gloves in the film are ones that match her traveling coat when she and Watson (Jude Law) board the train to their honeymoon. She keeps her wits about her when Mycroft (Stephen Fry) rescues her from the river after his younger brother (Robert Downey, Jr.) throws her off the train. She doesn’t shriek when Mycroft, wearing nothing but a smile, greets her at his home the next morning. And this Mary helps crack Professor James Moriarty’s (Jared Harris) secret code and save the world.

Ritchie’s third film will be released soon and I venture to guess that if Mary Morstan makes an appearance, she’ll do a great deal more than darn her husband’s socks.

To enter to win a copy of The Sherlock Holmes Trivia & Quiz Book, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Mary,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 7, 2015. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.

Check out other mystery articles (including more on Sherlock Holmes), reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Click on this link to purchase this book and you will be supporting an indie bookstore & a portion goes to help support KRL.

Kathleen Kaska writes the Classic Mystery Triviography Series. ™ The Sherlock Holmes Triviography and Quiz Book was a finalist for the 2013 EPIC award in nonfiction. Kathleen also writes the award-winning Sydney Lockhart Mysteries. Her latest, Murder at the Driskill, features a twelve-year-old female Sherlock Holmes impersonator. When not writing or reading Holmes, Kathleen spends time traveling the country’s back roads, looking for new venues for her mysteries, and bird watching. Her passion for birds led to publication of her nonfiction book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story (University Press of Florida 2012). You can learn more on their website.


  1. I love to hear from Holmes fans who their favorite Mary is. Thanks for having me at Kings River Life.

  2. There’s been a lot of discussion about how many wives John Watson had (and why one of them called him “James” once), but not quite as much about Mary herself. Good to see some here!

  3. Hi Sandra, You’re correction. Dr. Watson’s wife does call him “James” in “The Adventure of the Man with the Twisted Lip,” one of my favorite Holmes stories.

  4. I love Holmes and his sidekick~this book sounds great! Thank you for the review and the contest.

  5. We have a winner
    Lorie Ham, KRL Publisher


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