Married Women & The Right to Property: "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist"
“The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” offers another, and more disturbing, variation on the theme of women valued only for the property they own. In this Holmes’ story, a young governess, Violet Smith, is kidnapped so that a man who wants her considerable fortune can force her into a marriage ceremony. The kidnapper behaves as if the control of her person, or her body, is sufficient for the control of her money. He is not totally wrong, as marriage, until the passage of the Property Laws of 1870 and 1882, meant the transfer of a women’s property to her husband to use as he chose. Women essentially disappeared as separate legal entities from their husbands under the condition known as coverture, whereby husband and wife were treated as one person, the wife’s interests and property subsumed under the husband’s. The kidnapper in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” does not even pretend that he needs the consent or willingness of the young woman to marry her. Nor does he pretend to love Miss Smith or care for her feelings; his motive for marriage is simply to gain her property. As crude an act as it is, it lays bare the simple fact that possession of a woman’s body through marriage is possession of her property. The forced marriage may appear sensational and unbelievable, but it begs comparison with the custom of arranged marriages in Victorian England. How much control did young women really have if their marriage choices were effectively made for them, whether directly or guided by parents or parental figures. While, as Holmes points out to Watson, a forced marriage is not legal, does her consent make much difference if no other choices are available to a young unmarried woman and she is expected to obey her family?
Other examples of treating women as property still existed in the Victorian era. For example, although not a common occurrence, a newspaper could still publish a story that reflected a deeply held view that wives were property. As late as 1899, only four years before Conan Doyle wrote “The Adventure of The Solitary Cyclist”, The Illustrated Police News, reported a story of a man selling his wife. So Conan Doyle’s depiction of a forced marriage may not be as fantastical as it appears.
The idea of treating a woman as property is further supported by the fact that until 1891, a married woman had no right to deny her husband access to her body. Once married, her body, like her property, was his. Conan Doyle did not venture into this territory with any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” he comes as close as might be possible to offering the general public a version of the reality of women treated as property.