wellingtongoose (wellingtongoose) wrote,

The Holmes Brothers - Equal but Different

Fandom accentuated their similarities without really looking too deeply into their fundamental differences. I think Sherlock and Mycroft deserve an analysis that looks into them as individuals

  • Why at first glance Sherlock and Mycroft appear similar

  • Why they have a close relationship but one that is formed in adulthood and still developing. 

  • The fundamental differences in their choice of careers

  • Their personalities - Sherlock is not a distorted reflection of Mycroft.

  • What this can tell us about their actual childhood


(credit tenshi-inverse)

“I completely disagree with the bit I bolded. Mycroft and Sherlock are extremely similar, personality-wise. In fact, as I’ve written before, Sherlock’s personality and skills are so similar to Mycroft’s that it leads me to believe that Mycroft was the primary influence in shaping who Sherlock is today”

 - Thecutteralicia (full post here

My personal view is the Sherlock and Mycroft suffer from “the mathmo effect” (which by the way is not a recognised medical condition).

They are two incredibly intelligent people who are equally removed from the social “norm”. Because they are standard deviations away from the “norm” it is much easier to picture them as linked entities. 

In essence because they are so different from everyone else, this accentuates their similarities and plays down their differences to the point that we think because they are so different from us, they must be the same as each other.

Not that Mycroft and Sherlock don’t have similarities – like any two people who are raised in the same stratum of society there is a very good probability that they will have some similarities: e.g. their intelligence, outward emotional detachment, choice of profession, deduction (which is will tackle in part 2).

I do believe the Holmes Brothers have a strong emotional bond but it’s not one that developed in childhood – it’s one that developed as adults and is still developing.

There is also a great deal of differences underneath apparent similarities that do in the end make them very different people, to the extent that I don’t think Mycroft is “Sherlock Plus” or the Sherlock is “Mycroft Lite”



(credit to luluha)

I personally do not think Mycroft and Sherlock’s personalities are actually similar.

Sherlock does not care that he is different from other people; in fact he treats it almost as a sign of divine providence. He does not even try to behave politely, sociable or normally even when there is much to be gained from it. Think how much easier his relationship with the Scotland Yard team would be. Think how many more interesting cases he would get if the other DIs were more willing to work with him. He is contemptuous, antisocial and downright rude because he can be and because that is who he is. 

I do not believe for a moment that Sherlock has a psychiatric illness that prevents him from behaving like a nice, civilised person. He simply chooses not to and it is our choices that make us who we are. 

Mycroft in contrast has embraced these social niceties and his position in society. He fits into the fabric of his society and demonstrates all the manners and grace that are expected of a man in his position. This is an essential part of his job but it is also something that he has chosen to do and not something he appears to distain or finds inconvenient.  

Sherlock is not reflecting Mycroft. In fact he is being himself. Even if Mycroft had never been born Sherlock would still have the same personality he does (explained later). 

As for emotions, I personally cannot see any strong evidence that Mycroft possess “a pretty immature, almost childish, view of human relationships” as Sherlock does. I would be happy if someone corrected me.

Mycroft certainly has a ruthless approach to human relationships worthy of Machiavelli. Yes, caring is not an advantage – Sun Tzu, Julius Caesar, James Bond and Harry Pierce from Spooks would have told us the same thing. It doesn’t mean that they or Mycroft suffer from the same deficiency in understanding human relationships as Sherlock.  At no point is Mycroft actually confused by human relationships the way Sherlock is – he just can’t always predict Sherlock as well as he thinks he can (re: end of ASiB)

Mycroft’s emotional detachment is not exactly that same as Sherlock’s either. He is “not more closed off than Sherlock”. He is emotionally reserved in a different way.

Sherlock is refuses to be interested in people; he’s interested in consistent parts of the body and experiments involving bodies but not people. His relationship with John shows us that he can reach out to people, his empathy is intact, and he doesn’t have a mental illness. What he does have is a general complete disinterested in the complexities of human relationships and how to use them to his advantage. He has absolutely no motivation to demonstrate emotional attachment to anyone because he doesn’t deem it to be important. Sherlock is capable of normal human behaviour but he just can’t be bother negotiating the social niceties of everyday life. It is only through his friendship with John does he start to evolve and develop.

Mycroft’s choice of profession suggests that he is indeed interested in people and their normal relationships to each other. Mycroft’s reserve is not something completely unique to him, there is a whole stratum of British society that functions exactly as he does but not as Sherlock does (Sherlock is the oddball, they are not odd and odder). Mycroft’s reserve is very much the polite reserve one would expect a Victorian gentleman to display. The ideals of the “stiff upper lip” and “no public displays of emotion” are still entrenched in some parts of British society. His emotional distance does not at any point cause people to view him as socially inept or rude or sociopathic. For example his behaviour with Harry the Equerry appears to be entirely appropriate: somewhat formal distance with a casual undertone, politeness with an affectionate undertone.


The Scene in the Morgue - an Alternative Perspective


The brothers do have a caring relationship but one that really only started as adults because when we see them interact there is a distance and a discomfort there. 

There is frankly no discomfort between Sherlock and John, or Sherlock and Mrs Hudson, or Sherlock and Angelo for that matter. Sherlock only met these people as an adult and did share any childhood experience with them. In fact they come from different walks of life to Sherlock and yet we see he manages to display care and empathy towards John and Mrs Hudson. 

Sherlock does look to Mycroft for emotional guidance because he’s his older brother not because he believes Mycroft has the answers to his "salvation". 

The scene shows us that they can't open up to each other not that they can't open up to anyone. This does not look to me like a deep emotional bond made in childhood that somehow went wrong. 

I have no evidence that the popular fan theory "something bad happened in their childhood making them resent each other" is wrong but there is also no evidence that they had a deep emotional bond in childhood to destroy either. 

As I was told repeatedly during my research project - "don't go looking for things that don't exist". Instead of speculating what went disastrously wrong in a previous good childhood relationship, do we have evidence such a relationship really existed in the first place?

"I'll be mother" literally means "I will pour tea" in the context Mycroft uses it in. 

If Sherlock can summarise his childhood in three words, this does not bode well for the amount of time they spent together. Mycroft might have just done his duty as an elder brother and nothing more. "I'll be mother" does not necessarily mean Mycroft raised Sherlock (which is unlikely - explained later). It could just mean Mycroft was bossy, controlling mother-hen of an older brother when he was around and Sherlock despised it.

The way he says it certainly implies that it was not something he remembers fondly or that he remembers much of at all. 

Could the reason that Sherlock and Mycroft don't really talk about their childhood (and possibly only have one memorable photo together) is that they simply didn't spend much time together

It's just as plausible as the other accepted theory that they were incredibly close and then something went wrong. You do not need to be best friends in childhood  to love your brother because even when you grow up, he is still your brother. 

It is only when you become an adult and have to leave the security of childhood that you realise the world is a lonely place and family is really all we have in the end. 

Nothing is going to change the fact they are brothers and as adults they would appreciate this more than they did as children, which is why Sherlock in his moment of need is looking to his brother – who is probably the only family he has left.

“Mycroft is clearly attempting to comfort Sherlock, but he just has no idea how to go about it, and he’s uncomfortable trying. But he wants to, because he loves Sherlock” - thecutteralicia

I agree Mycroft utterly fails to comfort Sherlock. I think this is because firstly, he really doesn’t know Sherlock as well as he thinks because their relationship is still developing, and secondly, because his upbringing (most likely at a boarding school) didn’t give him much emotion experience to fall back on.

If Mycroft did indeed go to boarding school somewhere between the age of 7-13, he would have basically missed nearly all of Sherlock's formative years because he was away at school. He may love his brother deeply but how well does he know Sherlock on an emotional level?

Mycroft might be able to deduce much about Sherlock but even so our hero is incredibly complex. Sherlock is still emotionally developing himself throughout the series and at times he doesn't really know what he should be feeling. 

In the morgue Mycroft thinks that being emotionally open with Sherlock will not work so instead opts for something much more logical – so logical it’s almost anti-social. It sounds uncharacteristically tactless for Mycroft. Mycroft is trying to put himself into Sherlock’s mind and reflect how he thinks Sherlock would comfort him in this situation.

I believe their relationship is one that is still developing. At the end of ASiB Mycroft fails to predict that Sherlock might have travelled across the world to save Irene not because he can’t read people – but because he hasn’t yet realised how complex a person Sherlock really is.



(credit to suhnarl)

I personally think if Mycroft actually raised Sherlock through their formative years, Sherlock would be much more similar to Mycroft at least superficially – polite, reserved, social adept etc. These skills that can be learnt rather than innate attributes.

Psychiatrists (not psychologists) believe that personality and personality disorders are essentially fixed from birth or very soon afterwards. There is very little childhood nurture can do to change the underlying personality or personality disorder. However coping mechanisms for life are learnt not ingrained. Children raised together usually develop the same coping mechanisms despite different personalities. Mycroft and Sherlock have two very different ways of coping with life, which makes me think they spent significant amounts of time in separate non-home environments.  

I agree they didn’t have much parental guidance but this is more likely because they were both away to boarding school at an early age. The Holmes Brothers appear to belong to the social stratum that does send their sons to prep school. For more theories on the Holmes Family Fortune, read this

Their outward demeanours are two very different adaptations to institutional life that psychiatrists see in large orphanages (and boarding schools). Mycroft blends in with the crowd (the reason we think he stands out is because we don’t hang out with his crowd). He makes himself the epitome of the stereotype, at least superficially, and sets himself up a role model for aspiring others as well as praise from the instigators of this stereotype (i.e. teachers/orphanage carer etc.)

This is how he gains attention. Unfortunately this method takes considerable amount of self-discipline, sacrifice and time.

Sherlock is not like Mycroft – he craves attention but he wants everything quickly. The speediest way to stand out in a sea of identically dressed boys to to rebel. I think that Sherlock had a fairly good idea of just how disgusting and painful some of his remarks are – and that’s why he says them (re Sally’s knees). He likes the shock factor, the power of being able to devastate with just a few words fired like bullets. This is both his attention spinner and his defence mechanism.

The brothers’ emotional detachment as I’ve said before is different. Mycroft’s emotional detachment is the “healthy norm” old British institutions still subconsciously foster. Underneath this regime most people have been able to emotionally mature. I mean Winston Churchill, product of Harrow, was an incredibly detached person (despite what propaganda says) but no one has yet accused him of being emotionally immature. However their displays of emotion seem to be incredibly cold to modern viewers because our perceptions what normal emotional behaviour should be have moved on. Mycroft’s reserve is almost a throwback to an older time – like the rest of him.

Sherlock’s emotional detachment has everything to do with the fact that he’s not very good with people (as he must have discovered very early on) so he doesn’t try. He’s not used to something he’s not able to accomplish quickly so he gives up on it entirely. He has never learned the art of the polite reserve. In fact he’s never really emotionally matured because his personality simply wasn’t suited to ethos of the British public schools.  He's extremely intelligent but also stubborn to a fault and has absolutely no flexibility when it come to what he wants. Not the best fit for the average 1980s preparatory school - the general ethos back then was that children were blank pieces of clay to be moulded rather than individuals to be cultivated. 

Remember prep schools take children from age 7-13. You have seven year olds leaving their parents and their home, entering a school where the staff to pupil ratio is around 1:15. This might sound good for a day school, but in boarding schools there isn't enough time or people power to ensure that every child gets the "parental" attention they would otherwise get at home. If the regime, for want of better word, doesn't suit the child's personality, that child really does become an outcast. Not to mention the long and hideous tradition of bullying that does plague boarding schools as much any other school, only the victims do not get to escape at the end of the day. These outcasts never get a chance to emotionally develop because they are not included in the communal development that occurs in institutions. On an affective level they do not "move up with the class" as it were. 

I personally felt watching Sherlock was almost like watching an extremely intelligent child running around in an adult body. I wonder if anyone else has, but his behaviour is rather typical of young adults who leave institutions having failed to emotionally develop, often due to no fault of their own. Sherlock like many people who leave institutions would benefit from counselling. 

Careers and Skill sets


The Holmes Brothers consciously chose work that requires fundamentally different skills sets, although some skills on the surface do overlap.

Being a good doctor requires deduction skills (differential diagnosis, think House), acting skills (you try truly being cheerful after the fiftieth patient), the ability to manipulate people (into giving up their addictions), intelligence etc. It also has a fundamental principle of helping/saving others and protecting the weak as one might say of consulting detective/the British Government.

This does not mean that at its core the fundamental ethos or skill set for doctors is anything like that of a consulting detective/the British Government, nor that Sherlock/Mycroft would choose to play doctor. It also doesn't mean the reason for people pursuing a career in medicine is anything similar to the reasons for pursuing a career as a consulting detective. 

Even if Mycroft and Sherlock shared the exact same career this does not make them automatically copies of each other.

As a future doctor – I thought the medical profession attracted one particularly type of person – caring, conscientious, and sympathetic. I can honestly say this is a completely delusion. Doctors run the whole gallant of personalities from the Mother Teresa-esque to the utterly emotionally detached. As you would expect doctors do not get along with each other, in fact we quarrel like the Holmes Brothers. It does not take a childhood shared together to reduce people to toddlers in an argument. 

We are not shown enough about Mycroft’s work but by the sounds of it he runs the British Government (I have speculated on what he actually does here). Crucially Mycroft’s work involves manipulating people and we see that he demonstrates the quality extremely well on John (getting him to take the case in TGG).

I assume his job (hobnobbing with the Royal family included) requires a great deal of interpersonal skills – not just acting skills, or intelligence or the ability to deduce. On the international stage you have to be able to build relationships with enemies and allies alike - reach out across cultures and continents to find the similarities that all humans share. To work within the British Government you need to make connections, allies acquaintances that last for years to decades (remember how the Queen is a very old friend, Mycroft isn’t taking about her age) and then you need to be able to exploit them over an even longer time frame. Political alliances are temporary and politicians come and go but at the core there are people who remain for decades. The government in the UK is not as fluid or socially mobile as people think, it is still the staunch bastion of the few and the privileged

In short Mycroft has to understand and be able to manipulate other people's emotions/desires over a very long period of time. 

This interpersonal skill set is something that Sherlock does not care enough to demonstrate, it’s not important or interesting to him. He has deliberately chosen a job where his dealings with people are fluid and temporary. Sherlock’s unique profession does not require him to have good interpersonal skills – ever, although they would certainly help his clients. He does not need or want to build or break human relationships like Mycroft does. Lestrade needs him and is prepared to tolerate Sherlock’s blatant contempt. Sherlock is able to get all the cases he wants via clients and Lestrade without being socially adept and he knows this. He can be emotionally supportive when he wants to (i.e.  comforting Mrs Hudson) but most of the time he doesn't bother. 

Sherlock is only interested in analysing the facts. In his line of business the facts do speak for themselves and Sherlock likes this. He has not wanted to bother his intellect with the inconsequential complexities of human relationships or psychology. Whereas, Mycroft’s job is all about the people and pulling their emotional strings. In fact he appears to be very good at doing this. The only time we see him messing up on the "dealing with emotions front" is when he's dealing with Sherlock's emotions in the morgue. Now what does that tell use about how well and how long he's known his brother? 

Mycroft’s abilities are not a natural extension of Sherlock’s. He may be more adept at socialising with people, but I doubt Sherlock would think this is an improvement on his abilities. Sherlock’s antisocial behaviour is not a flaw in his personality that can be improved on; it’s something that he consciously chooses to be because he can get away with it.


Motivation and Gratification - What Makes you Tick?


Sherlock is a man who likes concrete problems with concrete solutions. He pursues puzzles that have a correct answer and he pursues that answer relentlessly. Mycroft on the other hand chooses to work in an environment where there is no correct answer. There are many complex subtleties in the interpersonal relationships Mycroft’s job requires him to foster. In the real world, there are hardly any scenarios with a correct/ideal solution. He chooses to live in a world where negotiation, compromise and diplomacy are vital and he positively thrives on it.

Yes they chose jobs that are intellectually challenging, that requires them to solve problems but that is not something they have in common with each other, it's something they have in common with a great deal of humanity. 

Would you prefer a repetitive, monotonous job where you didn't have to use your brain at all? Is there a profession you can think of that doesn't require you to solve problems? 

Mycroft and Sherlock are both great thinkers but this comes from the fact that they are vastly more intelligent than everyone else – Mycroft perhaps being even more intelligent than Sherlock. Intelligence is not a personality trait, great intelligence does not equate to the foundations of a strong relationship.

Take the Nobel Prize Laureates at Cambridge, how well do you think they get on with each other or other equally brilliant scientists who haven’t been awarded nobel prizes?  The answer is not great; the amount of petty argument that goes on would make an outsider think all research was conducted by toddlers.

Also you do not have to share a childhood with each other to regress to parent and child when arguing. The Holmes Brother’s exchange in Buckingham Palace reminded me initially of two professors, who shall remain nameless, arguing about lab space. Which role one ends up playing has everything to do with one's personality and very little to do with one's previous history. 

Sherlock, I am quite convinced, has failed to emotionally mature. Mycroft on the other hand aspired to be a role model from day one (explained later). Even if they had never met as children - their argument style is going to end up being exactly the same once they really get going. 

Just because you happen to be separated from the rest of humanity by a great sea of intelligence, this does not mean you will naturally be the same as with the other guys trapped on your little island.

As to the other ability the Holmes Brother have in common – deduction. In part 2 (reply to thenorwoodbuilder) I point out why it’s not a rare ability and also why it’s entirely possible Mycroft and Sherlock learnt it much later in life, separately.

Other Metas in the Series:

1. James Bond was a Civil Servant too...

    What Mycroft really does in his "minor government position" and just who his "masters" are 

2. Irene's Royal Flush

    Reading between the lines during Mycroft and Irene's confrontation to reveal the full extent of Irene's genius!

3. Checkmate Endgame

    What exactly happened after Sherlock cracked Irene's phone? How did Sherlock manage to save Irene?

4. The Holmes Family Fortune

    Ever wonder where Mycroft gets all his money from and where his mansion in AsiB is actually situation?

5. A Good Old Fashioned Education

    Where did Mycroft and Sherlock go to school? Why it is unlikely they were home schooled and what their school life would have been like.

Oxbridge - Camford? Sherlock's University Life

    Many fans think that Sherlock went to Cambridge - so what would his life have been like at this University and what subjects would have been studied?

Tags: character: mycroft holmes, meta: mycroft holmes, meta: sherlock holmes

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    There is no evidence that the founders actually built Hogwarts Castle, and the castle was not purpose built to house a school ( Hogwarts: the…

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