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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” – where 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 “it 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, until “[A 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 for equality. 
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: The 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, "The worst 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 whole?
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, “softer 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.

 F. Nightingale, an eminent woman of the époque, wrote: “I could not satisfy this [vivacious] nature bty spending a life with [the man I love] making society and arranging domestic things. Voluntarily to put it out of my power […] ever to seize the chance of forming for myself a true and rich life [by marriage!] would seem like suicide to me." – compare: H.L. Beals: “The Victorian Family", p. 346 (among others); in: H. Grisewood et al.:  Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians. [Text]
from:Viola Klein: “The Emancipation of Women - Its Motives and Achievements, p.264, in: H. Grisewood et al.: Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians. [Text]
compare: V. Klein (‘Emancipation of Women‘), p. 267.[Text]
from: : V. Klein (‘Emancipation of Women‘), p. 267 (among others).  [Text]
[…It] is unfair to dismiss him at an opponent of women’s rights. Unlike many men of his time, he made some attempt to understand the plight of women in a repressive society […].” – compare: D. Stashower (Teller of Tales), pp.131, including further information. [Text]
In this story, an avaricious step-father courts his step-daughter in disguise to keep her from leaving her family.[Text]
Mary’s mother keeps her late husband’s business “with Mr. Hardy, the foreman; but when [the stepfather] came he made her sell the business […]"; the two women even obey his wish that they should “never[…] go anywhere.(exemplification from the text). [Text]
 Holmes: “And since you draw so large a sum […] , you no doubt travel a little and indulge yourself in every way. […]. [No], Mr. Holmes, [I’m sure] you understand that as long as I live at home I don’t wish to be a burden to them, and so they have the use of the money just while I am staying with them. Of course, this is only just for the time.” (ibid.).  [Text]
compare: Sandra Kromm (Feminist Appraisal), pp.281-282.  [Text]
Patronising as his attitudes may be, Holmes definitely fulfils the role of a caring father. – Compare: S. Kromm (Feminist Appraisal), pp.279-281. [Text]
Holmes: If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman [Text]
Holmes in “The Adventure of Charles  Augustus  Milverton”. [Text]
She resists various attempts to outmanoeuvre her, leads a comparably independent live and knows how to succeed in a world dominated by men. [Text]
Watson’s final remarks: “He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, […], it is always under the honourable title of the woman." (from: A Scandal In Bohemia”). [Text]
Watson’s phrase in: “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Due to the general conception of the Canon and the moral views of the era, vivid descriptions of affectionate relationships - or even matrimonial life!- rarely appear in ‘his’ accounts.[Text]
see: Sandra Kromm (‘Feminist Appraisal’), p. 267; p.275. Ms. Kromm’s views are, however, extremely debatable. [Text]
A lack of openness proofs fatal in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”, whereas “The Yellow Face indicates a way towards positive solutions of dilemmas in a marriage. [Text]
Author's Logo · Author: Paul - Christoph Trüper, 2004  - 2006.
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