Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Feminist Three

Mary Morstan, Irene Adler, and Violet Hunter

Last week, I tried my best to argue that the Sherlock Holmes stories are fabulously feminist. But, as I didn’t offer many reasons, I basically asked that you, dear readers, take my word for it. This week, I am giving you three good reasons. Their names are Irene Adler, Mary Morstan, and Violet Hunter.

Since I tend to approach this chronologically, I will start with Mary. Miss Mary Morstan is the first significant female character to appear in the Sherlock Holmes stories, being the client who brings her case to Holmes in The Sign of Four. She tends to be listed as a “minor character,” but she gets more page time then Professor Moriarty.[1]  She goes to Holmes with inquiries regarding the unsolved disappearance of her father and mysterious letters she has been receiving in the mail. It all sets off what I consider the ultimate Sherlock Holmes adventure.[2] It has everything! Cocaine, The Baker Street Irregulars, colonial commentary, a mega-creepy locked room murder, incompetent police, lost Indian treasure, romance, and a boat chase on the Thames! Mary is not an obtusely feminist character, but she is a confident, brave young woman. As a witness to the “Tragedy of Pondicherry Lodge,” she accompanies Holmes and Watson during the first, and creepiest, leg of the adventure. She ends up the future Mrs. Watson by the end of the story, which means we get an adorable, swoony Watson and an endearingly jealous Sherlock.[3]

Beyond her significance to the story, Mary is relatively unremarkable.[4] She is just a pleasant and idealized version of the self sufficient New Woman. Conan Doyle does a lot with themes regarding the new, urban middle class, a phenomenon that was just coming to fruition in the late 19th century. Holmes and Watson are middle class heroes, and the women who play parts in their adventures are usually unmarried and self-sufficient.[5] Mary is the ultimate example of the character type, and that, in it itself, lends her significance.

After Mary and Watson have settled down, Holmes gets his chance at romance, or rather, his approximation of romance, with the entirely remarkable Irene Adler. Before Irene’s debut in A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock is a sexist.[6] His primary reasons are that he has trouble reading women,[7] combined with a little jealousy over Watson’s new lady friend. A choice gem from The Sign of Four; "Women are never to be entirely trusted,--not the best of them."[8] He is also apt to make light of women’s intellectual capacities, which means that, as much as I love Holmes, before Scandal, he’s a bit of an asshole. I say before Scandal because an incredible individual by the name of Irene Alder shows him what’s what.

While dressed as a man. 

Irene Adler is an American by way of New Jersey, a “well-known adventuress,” famed opera singer, and expert blackmailer of rich jerks. She is not so much a New Woman as a Super Woman, almost a sort of artistic Nelly Bly. Irene is also bright enough to outsmart Holmes, which is saying something. She, as the arguable antagonist of the case, wins in the end. Without revealing too much on the plot, I will also commend her for some resourceful cross-dressing, explaining “Male costume is nothing new to me. I often take advantage of the freedom which it gives me.” By the end of it all, Holmes, ever humble, has fallen for the female version of himself, enshrining her as “the woman.” She never reappears, but Irene single handily cures Holmes of his sexism with her awesome.[9]  By constructing a character with prejudices, then dismantling those prejudices with an amazing female character, Doyle was being pretty darn feminist.

Violet, doing some detective work of her own.

The last of the three female characters I will be looking at this week is Violet Hunter, another self-employed New Woman, and heroine of The Copper Beeches, a deliciously creepy little mystery about twisted goings on in the English countryside. When Violet first comes to Baker Street with concerns over a sketchy governess position she has been offered, Watson remarks she seems to be a young lady who is very well able to take care of herself." Holmes agrees. In fact, her intelligence causes him to become emotionally invested in Violet’s situation, prompting Watson to actively ship the pair. Violet doesn’t end up with Holmes, but she does end up facing the majority of the mystery’s frightening details, and uncovering clues, on her own. Violet Hunter appears in only one story, but like Miss Adler, Violet is a true one hit wonder, reminding us that the best, most self-assured and confident supporting characters in the Sherlock Holmes stories are always women.

[1] On the basis of page time, ALL characters other than Holmes and Watson are “minor.”

[2] The Hound of the Baskervilles just isn’t quintessentially Holmes. It’s how unexpected it is that makes it so amazing.

[3] Not nearly as immaturely jealous as RDJ Holmes though. His reaction was way too boy’s club. One of my many problems with the film.

[4] Although, once married, she is wonderfully understanding regarding Watson’s continued attachment to his weird friend. That in itself is pretty remarkable.

[5] If they are not, there is always some very conscience thematic commentary on the fact. But we’ll discuss that next week.  

[6] This does not mean that Doyle is a sexist. I assume that I don’t have to explain to you, dear reader, that an author doesn’t often share the worldview of their characters. But I have had to do this before.

[7] Most likely a byproduct of his Aspergers syndrome.  Yes, I know that is the diagnosis de jour, but yes, he has it.

[8] “I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment.” You know something, Watson? Kinda wish you had.

[9] “He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.”

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