Unmarried Women & The Right to Property: "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" & The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"
Two Sherlock Holmes’ stories illustrate the contrast between the image of safety and protection that family is intended to provide women and the fear and danger that can be their reality: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” and "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” The impetus for the crimes that are committed and for the dangers the unmarried women face in the stories is because of money they have inherited. Holmes dispels supernatural suggestions, confronts ruthless controlling family patriarchs, and invades the personal domestic spaces of two households to ascertain the facts of both cases. His reliance on his method strips away the veneer of sacred domestic boundaries and ideals to reveal actual peril for young women with property. Ian Ousby views both “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” as examples of stories where Holmes “plays the role of a latter-day knight errant,” (166), rescuing young women in tales of sentimental melodrama. But this reading is insufficient to describe the very real stakes and dangers that the young women in these two stories face and diminishes the courage and independence they exhibit in attempting to control their own lives and maintain what rights they may have.
The passage of the Property Laws of 1870 and 1882 gave married women right to their property after marriage. Before 1870, any personal property a woman possessed became her husband’s upon marriage. But single women did have rights to their property, both before and after the passage of the Property Laws. Sherlock Holmes discovers those rights in fact make them targets for murder by the very figures who are meant to protect them. Three of the young women in both stories have been left an inheritance by their mothers. Those inheritances are managed by fathers or stepfathers who we learn have been using the inheritances to support their lifestyles, choosing not to work when they could or to augment their own financial resources. When marriages are imminent, the stepfathers go to drastic lengths to keep the incomes they have come to rely on by murder, kidnapping and intimidation.
Helen Stoner, the surviving sister in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” gives Holmes three vital pieces of information in her first meeting with him, although she does not see the connections among them: how she will have access to her money in six weeks after her marriage; that her stepfather currently controls the inheritance left to her by her mother; and finally, that her sister died within a fortnight of her own marriage. From these facts, Holmes cuts through the suggestion of a supernatural source for the strange music in the night and dangerous exotic animals that roam the grounds where Helen lives and that fill her with fear and terror even though her stepfather dismisses her feelings as irrational. Nonetheless, Helen is determined not to suffer the same fate as her sister and employs Sherlock Holmes to help her.
The daughter of the house in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”, on the other hand, knows exactly why she is being kept prisoner in the attic of her house. The housekeeper of the Copper Beeches informs Holmes that Miss Alice has been made ill to the point of death and kept locked in an upstairs attic until she agrees to sign away her property rights to her father even if she should marry. Alice has resolutely refused, even risking her health to do so.
The main plot of “The Adventure of The Copper Beeches” however concerns a second unmarried young woman, Violet Hunter. As the main catalyst of the story, Jann notes that Violet’s “courage and self-reliance are virtually unprecedented among women in the Holmes canon” (123). Hired to be a governess at the Copper Beeches, Violet discovers that she has actually been chosen to impersonate the imprisoned daughter of the house because of their similar appearance. Hunter’s situation offers a direct comparison to Alice’s. Violet is an independent young woman making her own living, without the supposed protection and guidance that a family should provide. Violet looks for that guidance elsewhere, first to the head of the agency which finds her positions and then to Sherlock Holmes to help her decide if she should take an assignment that seems strange because her salary would be exorbitant and she must cut off her hair to get the job. The head of the employment agency, Miss Sloper, tells Violet that if she doesn’t take the situation they will take her off their rolls, meaning she will have a hard time finding any jobs in future. And when an uneasy Holmes suggests she not take the position, Violet notes the excellent salary and that she has no other offers, little food in her cupboard and bills to pay. Violet Hunter turns out to be just as vulnerable to the family patriarch in “The Copper Beeches” as the daughter of the house because her independence is so tenuous that she is forced to take a questionable position because of coercion by the head of the employment agency and her own need to earn a living.
Both stories concern an unmarried woman’s right to property and the custom of such property being managed by family members or guardians such as a father or stepfather. Helen Stoner and Alice Rucastle are without the protection of home and family that is expected and instead are exploited for their inheritances. Even the independent Violet Hunter, perhaps a version of the emerging New Woman of the Victorian era, is also vulnerable to exploitation. Her self-sufficiency relies on the virtue of strangers. Miss Sloper, who might have been expected to be protective of the young women in her ranks, demonstrates a quick willingness to force Violet to take a position that a seasoned employer should see is questionable, or to lose her association with the agency. Like Helen Stoner and Alice, Violet finds support for her rights and her choices by employing Sherlock Holmes. Helen and Alice Rucastle regain the rights to their financial property and Violet survives the Copper Beeches, is responsible for helping to free Alice, and goes on to run her own school.