Ideal and Real Female Experience in Sherlock Holmes' Stories

Domestic Violence: "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" & "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

Domestic violence was not unknown in the Victorian era. In “A Case of Identity”, Watson points out to Holmes how common an occurrence domestic violence was by picking up a newspaper and pointing out a random story.

            “Here is the first heading to which I come. ‘A husband’s cruelty to
            his wife.’ There is half a column of print, but I know without reading
            it that it is all perfectly familiar to me. There is, of course, the other
            woman, the drink, the push, the blow, the bruise, the sympathetic
            sister or landlady. The crudest of writers could invent nothing more
            crude.” (225)

As Jina Moon points out in her recent book, Domestic Violence in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction (2016), numerous scholars have studied the issue, offered a variety of analysis of its causes, and charted the growing recognition that legal interventions were needed to protect Victorian women and children in the domestic realm. (Doggett, 1993; Foyster, 2005; Hammerton, 1995; Stone, 1990) For example, the Marriage Divorce Act of 1857, gave women the right to divorce and, for the first time, offered a legal route to escape violence. But for women to act on the new law required means to proceed with divorce action such as access to money for solicitors. Other concerns included the public exposure of their private affairs, and their life after divorce including supporting themselves and possible loss of access to their children. As Jinn notes, even when the public and the courts began to address the need for laws to protect women and children from domestic violence, efforts were directed to the lower classes; the middle and upper classes were perceived to be without this ill. Both “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” illustrate the situation of middle and upper class women trapped with abusive husbands. In one case, Holmes discovers an abused wife secondarily in relation to the main mystery; in another it is at the heart of a murder. In both cases, his scientific method leads to the exposure of domestic violence.

In “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” the recognition of domestic abuse in an upper class household is made difficult by the misdirection of the victim herself and complicated by a story of unrequited love. Yet Holmes insistence that all the facts must be accounted for leads him to unearth the truth about the death of Lord Brackenstall including the abuse his wife has endured, and to take justice into his own hands. Holmes restates his approach at the story’s start when he derides Dr. Watson for treating their cases like stories, even as Holmes is about to illustrate his own narrative powers in constructing the true story of the crime.

            …I must admit, Watson that you have some power of selection, which
            atones for much which I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of
            looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a
            scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and
            even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the
            utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details
            which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader. (192)

Initially Holmes is called to help the police because Lord Brackenstall has been murdered and his wife found unconscious in their country house. By the time Holmes and Watson arrive at Abbey Grange however, Lady Brackenstall has recovered and given the police a satisfactory account of what has happened. The police accept her story that robbers broke in and killed her husband and then plundered the dining room of it’s valuable silver. When the sleeve of her gown slides down to reveal injuries on her wrist, Holmes is the first to notice and suggest she has been injured in the attack. Oddly, she assures him that the bruises have nothing to do with the events of the night.

As a lady, and a victim, Mary Brackenstall is treated with sympathy and her words as credible. She offers a reasonable story to explain the facts. But small details at the scene of the crime such as a cut service bell rope and three wine glasses raise questions for Holmes. He tells Watson that he cannot give up the case.

            I simply can’t leave that case in this condition. Every instinct that I
            possess cries out against it. It’s wrong –it’s all wrong—I’ll swear that
            it’s wrong. And yet the lady’s story is complete, the maid’s corroboration
            was sufficient, the detail fairly exact. What have I to put up against that?
            Three wine glasses, that is all. (198)

Holmes’ insistence that some minor facts he has observed about wine glasses and a cut bell rope are not satisfied by Lady Mary’s story push him to investigate further. But he recognizes that Lady Mary has nerve and intelligence and has offered the police a satisfactory explanation.

His insistence that the evidentiary details he has identified must be accounted for propels him to discover the truth that Lady Brackenstall has been living in fear of her alcoholic, abusive husband throughout her marriage. The marks on her arms are from one of his recent physical attacks. Deciding that the bell rope was cut with a knife like that used by sailors, he tracks down the captain of the ship Lady Mary sailed on from Australia and finds her true love, Captain Jack Crocker. From Crocker, Holmes learns that he killed Brackenstall in angry defense of Mary as her husband assaulted her. When Holmes decides the couple is telling the truth and that Crocker’s motive is foremost to keep Mary out of the courts, Holmes plays judge and jury with Dr. Watson’s aide, helping the couple to shield the real story from the police. As Virginia Morris points out in her analysis of women criminals in Victorian fiction, Holmes decision to shield Lady Mary and Jack Crocker “is a direct condemnation of the injustices women suffer from abusive men and rigid social codes” (151).

In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” one of Conan Doyle’s best-known stories, Holmes applies his method of collecting facts to dispel the supernatural belief at the basis of a family curse. In doing so, Holmes discovers another wife who lives in fear of her husband. This story is significant simply as an example of how Holmes creates a new narrative by rejecting the combination of superstition and divine justice that frames the curse and by his devotion to finding the facts that expose the truth despite the weight of decades of belief and the daunting landscape of fog and bog which supports it. As Thoms notes “…through his superior intelligence he contrives the pattern of poetic justice, transforming bewildering mystery (which camouflages the criminal’s actions) into an artful design that expresses the detective’s mastery” (122).

Holmes’ dedication to scientific evidence is briefly replaced by fury however when he discovers Beryl Stapleton, the wife of the main suspect, semi-conscious and tied to a pillar in the center of a room lined with glass cases where her husband keeps his butterfly and moth collection. Presenting Beryl Stapleton as one more item in her husband’s collection of living things that he has captured, killed and fixed in place for posterity underscores the power he has had to control her life and her person and how very close to death she has come. Without Holmes’ dedication to dispel the myth of the hound with factual explanations for everything that has happened, Beryl Stapleton may have died. Her situation is a more dramatic and vivid depiction of an abused wife than Mary Brackenstall’s, but given the revelations that are yet to come in the 20th century about the prevalence and kinds of domestic abuse that existed, Conan Doyle’s depiction may not seem so sensational. In fact, it appears to foreshadow what will become a major social issue of the 20th century.


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