Ideal and Real Female Experience in Sherlock Holmes' Stories


The popularity of crime fiction in the Victorian era can be attributed to a cultivated appetite for details of immoral behavior and violent acts created by a steady supply of published reports of actual crime and criminals beginning with the Newgate Calendar. This monthly published listing of the crimes, trials and punishments of criminals including executions expanded into fictional accounts of crime as presented in the Newgate novels which flourished between the 1830's to the early 1840's. Richard Altick has observed that journalism also played an important role. Altick notes that journalism between 1823 and 1837, aided by a group of sensational criminal cases, "was ready and eager to exploit crime, even ordinary crime, as it had never been exploited before" (17).   So popular were stories of crime, that fiction writers as well known as Dickens were attracted to write in the genre because of the promise of a large reading audience.  See The Popularity of Detective Fiction in the Victorian Era.

Crime fiction, intentionally or not, can reveal issues of social justice such as lack of access to education, ability to make a living, or rights to property. Mystery readers of the 20th century are familiar with the exploration of social issues at the root of crime. Many contemporary authors consciously created characters and story lines to highlight inequities in society and strata of society. Tony Hillerman explored crime both on and off the Navajo reservation of Joe Leaphorn; in England, P.D. James’ suspects and perpetrators are often quietly desperate characters marginalized because of illness, class or sex; Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins considered how racism affected crime in mid-20th century America, and Stieg Larsson’s unforgettable Lisbeth Salander, herself a victim of a corrupt Swedish legal system, helps uncover serial killers and sex traffickers. But even a century before mystery writers intentionally explored issues of social justice, the mystery story revealed such concerns. Consider for example, that icon of Victorian mystery fiction, Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes with his methodological devotion to scientific method is not usually seen as a social reformer. Yet Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories reveal issues of domestic violence and limited or non-existent legal rights ranging form property, divorce and control of their bodies in the female experience of the Victorian era. Holmes’ devotion to a scientific method facilitated by collecting facts and evidence steer him, unlike others in the stories such as the police or Dr. Watson, away from conventional thinking about women and their abilities and capacities, to construct a narrative that illuminates the truth of each crime. Michael Atkinson points out that Holmes “speciality is to provide a radical and new rereading of the “obvious” and “commonplace” as well as the puzzling. His refusal to accept the conventional meanings of things is a chief appeal of his stories…”(2). In select stories, Holmes’ method reframes the narrative of the crime to show a feminine reality at odds with the Victorian ideal of female experience. See The Conventional View of Sherlock Holmes.

The conventional expectation of Victorian female experience is best captured in Coventry Patmore’s narrative poem of the era, “Angel in the House.” Patmore’s idealized view of women and their natural roles supports a picture of women as self-sacrificing wives and mothers devoted to the interests of their husband and children, focused entirely on the domestic sphere. Yet the Sherlock Holmes’ stories show the reader an entirely different female experience, even as, or maybe because, women attempt to fulfill those expectations and maintain that ideal. In addition, the Holmes’ stories we will consider illustrate admirable qualities of a different kind of woman, one in sharp contrast to the ‘Angel’, one who points to the New Woman. See The Idealized View of the Victorian Woman.

This project analyzes eight Sherlock Holmes’ stories that contain crimes by or concerning women and show how they reveal female Victorian experience that contradicts the conventional view of women’s reality of that era. The stories include: The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”; “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”; “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”; The Hound of the Baskervilles”; “The Adventure of the Second Stain”: “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”; and “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The stories will be grouped by issue and include: Unmarried Women and Right to Property; Married Women & Right to Property; Domestic Violence; The Victorian Female Reputation; and The New Woman. See Unmarried Women & The Right to Property.




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