Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 April 2021
The action of ‘The Noble Bachelor’ starts with Watson reading the day's newspapers, and Holmes reading his correspondence. Both, coincidentally, find themselves reading about the same case. Holmes has a letter requesting his services from Lord St Simon, the noble bachelor of the story's title. Watson, meanwhile, reads aloud a story headlined ‘Singular Occurrence at a Fashionable Wedding’. We learn that Lord St Simon is a bachelor no more, having just married the American heiress Hatty Doran; however, the bridal party had barely sat down for the wedding breakfast when Hatty, claiming indisposition, left the table, and disappeared, causing Holmes to comment, ‘They often vanish before the ceremony, and occasionally during the honeymoon; but I cannot call to mind anything quite so prompt as this’ (Adventures, 225). Foul play is suspected, leading to the arrest of Flora Miller, one of Lord St Simon's former lovers who tried to force her way into the wedding breakfast, ‘alleging that she had some claim upon Lord St Simon’ (225).
This rather eventful wedding ceremony is one of several that feature in the early stories. Another happier (but still peculiar) wedding is narrated by Holmes in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’: while disguised as a groom, he witnesses, in the legal and the ordinary sense of the term, the hasty marriage of Irene Adler and Godfrey Norton. Other weddings are frustrated, either by violence (‘The Speckled Band’, ‘The Copper Beeches’) or deception (‘A Case of Identity’, in which it is the groom rather than the bride who disappears, this time before the ceremony.) Other marriages are in prospect, such as James McCarthy's to Alice Turner at the end of ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’, and Watson's own, to Mary Morstan, Holmes's client in The Sign of Four. Indeed, Watson narrates the matrimonial shenanigans of ‘The Noble Bachelor’ just weeks before tying the knot himself, which helps to explain why he was so drawn to what otherwise might seem to be a matter of mere society gossip.
This fascination with marriage might seem surprising, given Conan Doyle's negative views about the importance accorded to it by other writers. In an 1890 article, ‘Mr Stevenson's Methods in Fiction’, he wrote:
In British fiction, nine books out of ten have held up love and marriage as the be-all and end-all of life. Yet we know, in actual practice, that this is not so.