3. Sherlock Holmes – Rooted in Reality
3.2. Gender Roles
A survey on gender relationships and roles in A.C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes narratives, interpreted in the historical context . With exemplary sources and extracts from A.C. Doyle’s original texts.
In my opinion, it is worthwhile to look at gender stereotypes in the
Canon, because they mirror the way people usually treated each other as
well as the general atmosphere in a society that was so very different
from our own.
It was hard luck for an intelligent, lively girl to be born
during the Victorian Era when women could hardly hope to lead an active
life (1) , as their fight for
equality was still to be won.
“The raising middle classes” –
most Sherlockian stories are set
“had put a premium on the idleness of their women […] Apart from bearing children, the social function of the bourgeois woman was to be a living testimony to her husband social status. [Accordingly, her virtues] did not include either industry or intelligence.” (2)
In a way, this was an unpleasant situation for both sides as
made natural social intercourse between the sexes almost impossible”
although this does not mean to say that all women opposed their
inferior role (3). In the
course of the years, however, the situation of women gradually
improved, mainly under the influence of the Industrial Revolution,
new type of women] to whom competent work had given self-confidence and
strength” could no longer be ignored, so that the female half of
the population eventually profited from the epochal changes of the age
as well. (4)
This typical image of women as feeble creatures, which has become a conservative cliché these days, is also predominant in the Canon, even if it goes hand in hand with Conan Doyle’s believe that women were to be treated as individuals of their own right in many respects.
The Story “A Case of Identity” (6)
is a price example for that. Its female protagonist, Miss Mary
Sutherland, holds typical views on her position as a woman and her
story speaks of oppression as well as small victories in the struggle
It is obvious from the story that a woman is, as a rule, not allowed to make her own decisions – either her husband or some other man has the right to do that for her (7) – and that Mary accepts this situation as she avoids criticising her father openly. Even though she is working for money, she is all but independent from her family so that her father – as the reader learns in the end – is in an excellent position to abuse his daughter for his own purposes. She even sacrifices her own dreams on behalf of her parents. (8)
This important role of the family is typical of the Age, just as the father’s claims that
“a woman should be happy in her family’s
circle” or the commonplace that
“there was no use denying
anything to a woman, for she would have her way.” Mary does not
question either of them. She is, in a way, the typically obedient,
modest and innocent Victorian girl.
Yet, the story draws heavily on an achievement of the emancipation:
father’s plot against his daughter became necessary because of the Married
Woman’s Property Act (1882), which entitled women to keep their
property when they married.
There are two more Sherlockian stories dealing with a similar problem: The famous tale “A Speckled Band” and “The Adventure of the Copper Breaches.” In all these cases, Holmes is up against egotistical fathers who try to prevent their daughters’ marriages, as they would threaten their own income.(9) The fact that Holmes is ready to assist these women (10) gives evidence of Conan Doyle’s sense of fairness and respect for the other sex – even though this story ends with an anti-feminist stereotype.(11)
Considering the outcome of the affair, a (modern) reader will
probably notice how the Victorian conventions serve as an excellent
disguise for egocentric misbehavior in this case: A young woman of our
time would – I believe – be more critical about her father or a lover
like Hosmer Angel, she might free herself from her vow more easily then
Mary and therefore suffer less from the consequences of the plot.
To me, this is quite a shocking thought, as it reveals one of the many drawbacks of a rigid morality such as the Victorian.
Another story which hints at this dark side of conventions and adds
an interesting facet to the image of women in the Canon is the “The
Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”: jealousy has never
chased to exist, of course, but in a more tolerant era,
man in London” (12)
would probably have been less successful at blackmailing people. The
story is particularly interesting as it is not Holmes but a former
victim this time which beats the criminal: Neither soft-hearted nor
helpless, she kills the man that destroyed her life.
In the very first Sherlockian short story, the detective tries to work against a woman, who proofs to be of even sterner stuff and beats him in the end. As Irene Adler (i.e. Eagle) is both, intelligent and independent (13), one might say that she “
eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.”
indeed – at least in the World of Holmes . Because of
her extraordinary gifts, she even wins the detective’s admiration and
forces him to reconsider some of his opinions on women. (14)
From a critic’s point of view, it is remarkable that the Canon allows such exemptions, even if these outstanding women fulfil different stereotypes in their own way, too: either that of the revengeful woman committing an act of violence or – in Irene’s case – that of the seductive and clever women causing trouble to men in high positions.
What, then, characterises gender relationships in the Canon as a
In my opinion, it is evident that stories stem from a time when the gap between both sexes was far wider then it is today, and men believed they were entitled to dominate in most areas of life. Some interesting stories capitalise on bizarre situations that resulted from this inequality. As Holmes’ character is dominated by reason,
passions” (15) as
love play a minor role and to some, the detective even symbolises the
oppression of the so-called ‘female principles’ in Western societies. (16)
Undoubtedly, most woman act from a inferior position in the Canon as well as in reality at Conan- Doyle’s time. The texts tend to agree with the ‘traditional’ gender roles of the époque, and yet, they argue for an atmosphere of fairness and trust between the sexes.(17)
Even if this is a very dubious position from our present point of view, there are more than enough reasons for a modern feminist to adore Sherlock Holmes, and to some women, the charm of a ‘Golden Past’ as it appears in the stories might appeal despite the many disadvantages the Age had in store for their female ancestors.