A married woman’s reputation in the Victorian era could be destroyed by any indication that she’d so much as expressed affection for another man before her marriage. This illusion of singular devotion was so strong a social norm that a man could make his living blackmailing women with information of previous alliances as in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” And in “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” a wife commits espionage to keep her husband from knowing about an innocent first love.
Rosemary Jann notes that “the Victorian lady can be blackmailed for even her most innocent romantic dalliances because her virginity is essential to her value in the marriage exchange: the mere hint of compromised emotions damages her chances of making a good match” (106). But the selected Holmes’ stories indicate that danger to a woman’s reputation lasts even after marriage. Neither of these cases concern a prior sexual relationship before marriage; merely that the woman’s affections had been directed elsewhere before she met her husband. By the 20th century, the concept of dating a variety of potential partners before selecting a mate would become common, but in Victorian England, a woman’s husband was expected to have been the only man with whom she had ever had a romantic attachment. These two stories also offer two strong female characters who are willing to act in their defense and who deprive Holmes of complete success in each case to different degrees. In “The Adventure of the Second Stain” Holmes uses his deductive methods to construct a narrative from the facts he discovers that lead him to the criminal, but he cannot recover the document he seeks with the main female character’s assistance. But in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” an unnamed woman assists Holmes in completing his case by taking it out of his hands.
In “The Adventure of the Second Stain”, Holmes and Watson are visited by the prime minister of England and Trelawney Hope, his Secretary of European Affairs, who reports that an important paper has been taken from the Secretary’s personal papers at his home the previous night. Holmes refuses to help them until they give him their total confidence and reveal that the contents of the document could start a war. Holmes agrees to try to retrieve the document. When they depart, the wife of the Secretary arrives: Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope. She explains that she and her husband share everything except for his work issues. But she knows that a paper has been taken from their house and she asks Holmes to tell her what has been stolen. Holmes refuses but can confirm that her husband’s career will suffer if it is not retrieved and that there may be terrible public consequences as well. When she leaves, Holmes expresses his bewilderment at the ways of women. While Watson thinks her wifely concern only natural, Holmes notes “her manner, her suppressed excitement, her restlessness, her tenacity in asking questions. Remember she comes of a caste who do not lightly show emotion” (216). He also notes how she kept the light behind her so that they couldn’t read her facial expressions. Holmes claims that he does not understand women but he recognizes human behavior and Lady Hilda’s actions suggest to him that she may know more than she will tell him. Holmes amasses the facts including the death of a foreign agent nearby who had two female visitors before he was fatally stabbed. Holmes comes to the conclusion that Lady Hilda is the only person who could have stolen the paper from her husband, and that she may still have it. But, as in the initial scene with the Prime Minister and her husband, he cannot help her unless she tells him everything. Lady Hilda reveals that she was blackmailed to steal the paper because of a love letter to another man when she was a girl. As incredible as this sounds to a twenty-first century reader, she explains that if her love letter had been made public, her husband “would have thought it criminal. Had he read that letter his confidence would have been forever destroyed” (224). When Holmes suggests she should have taken her husband into her confidence, she explains:
Lady Hilda gives Holmes the letter and he returns it to her husband’s papers with a slight of hand, trying to make him believe it was there all along.
I could not, Mr. Holmes, I could not! On the one side seemed
certain ruin, on the other, terrible as it seemed to take my
husband’s paper, still in a matter of politics I could not understand
the consequences, while in a matter of love and trust they were
only too clear to me. I did it, Mr. Holmes! (225)
In “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, Sherlock Holmes is presented in a different role. He is not working to uncover a mystery but has been engaged to negotiate with a blackmailer for Lady Eva Blackwell. She is about to marry into nobility but is being blackmailed by Milverton with an indiscreet love letter from her past. Milverton will send the letter to the groom if the bride does not pay him to return the letter to her, confident that the groom will end the engagement upon reading the letter. Holmes has been asked to negotiate a lower price than demanded because Lady Eva does not have the kind of money Milverton demands. Holmes leaves the reader in little doubt of the kind of man Milverton is and how he feels about him as he and Watson await the meeting.
Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand
before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithering, gliding, venomous
creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s
how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my
career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have
for this fellow….He is the king of all blackmailers. Heaven help the man,
and still more, the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the
power of Milverton! With a smiling face and a heart of marble, he will
squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry.” (113)
When Milverton refuses to negotiate a lower price, Holmes breaks into his house to steal the letter back for Lady Eva. But he and Watson are forced to conceal themselves in Milverton’s study when he enters the room unexpectedly and when a woman with a revolver enters the room as well, they watch her shoot Milverton dead.
Watson moves to intercede but feels Holmes hand on his wrist. “I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining grip – that it was no affair of ours, that justice had overtaken a villain.” (123)
“It is I,” she said, “the woman whose life you ruined…you sent the
letters to my husband, and …he broke his gallant heart and died…
I begged and prayed you for mercy and you laughed in my face…
You will ruin no more lives as you have ruined mine. You will
wring no more hearts as you have wrung mine. I will free the
world of a poisonous thing. Take that, you hound – and that –
and that – and that!—and that?” (122-3)
Note that the solution to his original problem of obtaining the letter from Milverton for a reasonable price is delivered to him. With the departure of the avenging woman and Milverton, Holmes seizes the opportunity to save his client and many other potential victims. He “…filled his two arms with bundles of letters and poured them all into the fire. Again and again he did it, until the safe was empty” (123). Not only does Holmes solve Lady Eva’s dilemma but he removes the possibility that anyone else could use the contents of Milverton’s safe for blackmail. His sympathy for the situation of the victims of blackmail and his admiration for the woman’s actions may explain why once again he does not expose Milverton’s killer to the police. When Holmes is asked the next morning to help the police discover Milverton’s murderer, he refuses. He tells Lestrade of Scotland Yard “that I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge” (125).