Ideal and Real Female Experience in Sherlock Holmes' Stories

The Conventional View of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is typically seen as both a conventional Victorian gentleman and a man of science who solves crimes by collecting facts and evidence. Social reformer is not a phrase used to describe the impetus for his work. But let us consider how these two aspects of Holmes’ character aid him in uncovering the dangers of female existence in the Victorian domestic sphere that engendered crime and invoked a need for change. 

Ian Ousby points out, “the detective novel is an expression of the modern belief in rational and scientific inquiry” (viii). Ousby also notes that “19th century science was about the reconstruction of past events by following the principles of inductive logic and noting patterns of causation” (154). This definition of 19th century science could as easily be used to define how mysteries are solved: a crime is reconstructed with logic, looking for probable causes and effects. An understanding and enthusiasm for this scientific method is the foundation of Holmes’ approach to solving crimes. Critics such as Marcello Truzzi have suggested that Holmes’ method lies at the heart of his enduring popularity.

                      The image of Holmes in epitomizing the application of
                      rationality and scientific method to human behavior is
                      certainly a major factor in the detective’s ability to
                      capture the world’s imagination. (55)

In the very first of the Sherlock Holmes’ stories, “A Study in Scarlet”, we learn of Holmes’ devotion to science. A medical assistant named Stamford suggests that Dr. Watson meet Sherlock Holmes as they are both seeking a roommate.

                          Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches
                          to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little
                          pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence,
                          you understand, but simply out of a Spirit of inquiry in order to
                          have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him Justice, I think
                          that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He
                          appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge. (9)

Holmes and Dr. Watson are then introduced to each other in a chemistry laboratory when Holmes informs him he has just perfected a test to identify dried blood on fabric that, without this test, could as easily be confused with rust or fruit stains and either free or condemn a suspect. Holmes reinforces the necessity of ascertaining facts many times in the ensuing stories, usually to Dr. Watson. Truzzi points out how often Holmes does. 

                           It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.
                           Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories,
                           instead of theories to suit facts. (SCAN)

                           It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts.(SECO)
                           It is a capital mistake to theorize before you had all
                           the evidence. (STUD)

                            …it is an error to argue in front of your data. You find
                            yourself insensibly twisting them round to fit your
                            theories. (WIST)

                          …how dangerous it is to reason from insufficient data.(SPEC)

            Although the stories never offer a specific statement of his method, Holmes’  insistence on establishing facts is part of the triad of qualities that he believed made a good detective. “…(1) knowledge, (2) the power of observation, and (3) the power of deduction” (Truzzi, 62). Holmes’ objective in using the power of observation shows an awareness of the tendency for subjectivity to color our conclusions.

                                I make a point of never having any prejudices and of
                                following docilely wherever fact may lead me. (REIG)

                                …It is of first importance …not to allow your judgment
                                to be biased by personal qualities. (SIGN) (63-64)

Holmes’ conscious intent to be objective will be particularly important concerning women’s actions in the stories we will analyze. Is he able to act on his intent? Does he act differently towards women in the stories that others do, especially other men? Or are Holmes’ attitudes and actions conventionally Victorian and male.

            In his study of the detective story, Julian Symons notes that while Arthur Conan Doyle was “a super-typical Victorian, a bluff Imperialist extrovert…” (67), his creation, Sherlock Holmes, was more unconventional.  Holmes “…outrages several of the period’s conventions…” (68) by his regular use of cocaine, sometimes three injections daily, and his pride in his ignorance of subjects such as literature, philosophy and astronomy, at a time when knowledge was highly valued in the culture. Can such an unconventional man fail to sympathize with women who do not always behave conventionally? Symons further theorizes that Holmes’ habit of ignoring or claiming not to understand women’s feelings and behavior should not be misconstrued as misogyny. Symons sees it as a strategic choice by Doyle in aid of establishing Holmes objectivity as a detective and consistent with Holmes’ attitude to both sexes. “Doyle was not in the least misanthropic or misogynistic but he recognized in his readers the need for Holmes to be immune from ordinary human weaknesses and passions” (69). Holmes tells Watson something similar when he tells him that a “…client is to me a mere unit, a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. (SIGN)

            Rosemary Jann argues that while Holmes is unconventional as a detective, he still behaves with a typical male attitude of Victorian men towards women (95). Joseph Kestner goes even further and suggests that Holmes and Watson “served to model male gender behavior” (7) at a point in the 19th century when concerns ranging from the changing role of women to England’s position in the world were creating anxieties throughout society. Neither of these well-argued positions are at odds with the proposition that Holmes reveals the truth of feminine experience in Victorian England.

     Jann is correct to say that Holmes does typify the attitudes and behaviors of an English gentleman. Holmes often shows sympathy for the situations of women in many of his cases. He calms the fears of young women like Helen Stoner in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. He advises Violet Hunter in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” not to accept the governess’ job she is considering because he agrees with her that its’ conditions are odd. In this, he appears to be acting like a true Victorian gentleman offering support and advice to young ladies in need. But note that Holmes does not dismiss Helen Stoner’s fears as irrational because she has little evidence to support her feelings. Although she cannot see the connections among the facts she gives Holmes, Holmes quickly sees her danger as a young woman about to marry and deny her stepfather future access to her money. Nor does he wash his hands of Violet Hunter when she decides to take the governess job. He recognizes that she has no other means of supporting herself and offers his services if anything else should happen to alarm her. In stories such as “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” and “The Adventure of the Second Stain” Holmes sees beyond woman as a type to the individual women he is dealing with: strong, intelligent, and willing to take huge risks to save the men they love and keep themselves out of the courts. In fact, Holmes appears to admire the strong women he encounters who take action to save their marriages and reputations, actions including espionage and murder that defy their passive and domestic Victorian roles. In this aspect, Holmes would not reflect the attitude of the conventional Victorian man who valued a meek, submissive, passive domestic creature.

Other male characters like Watson and members of various police forces constantly offer a contrast to Holmes attitude towards women, referring us back to Kestner’s proposition that Holmes and Watson model male behavior. True, both are English gentlemen who behave in a specific way to the women they encounter. But Holmes and Watson do not consistently behave the same way to women. Watson and most other men in the stories respond to female characters with stereotypical attitudes about how women behave and what they are or are not capable of, but Sherlock Holmes ultimately does not when he is in pursuit of the truth. This is not to say that he does not express conventional ideas about women or, more usually, claims that he is simply unable to understand them. But in many of his stories, by using his scientific method, also a narrative construction, to solve a mystery with reconstructive logic, Holmes goes beyond the superficial and the conventional to both find the truth of a crime and reveal the truth of feminine experience in relation to that crime. Considering Kestner’s assertion further, while Watson always models conventional male attitudes and behavior of a Victorian gentleman, Holmes, whether intentionally or not, demonstrates a different attitude towards women, one that may reflect the coming New Woman. This is never more true than in “A Scandal in Bohemia” that introduces Irene Adler, a woman who more closely models the characteristics of the New Woman than any other female character in the stories. Since Watson tells us that Holmes admires her greatly, even though she has denied him success in the case, we must assume that he admires the qualities of independence, action, and freedom of movement and choice she embodies. If Irene Adler is the New Woman, is Sherlock Holmes the New Man, or on his way to becoming so?

            Although Sherlock Holmes is not a social reformer intent on uncovering the injustices done to women in Victorian England, he does not need to be. His behavior as a gentleman to women that includes sympathy and support is a kind of veneer of good manners of the time. His reliance on scientific discovery, based on his reliance on facts, observation and deduction allows him to reconstruct situations to uncover the truth of female experience. Holmes’ dedication to reconstructing a crime from evidence frees him from conventional male Victorian attitudes about women, allowing him, and the reader, to see the reality of female Victorian experience.

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