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Tuesday, October 26, 2010


A brief aside about Sherlock Holmes

I was chatting on the Slacktivist blog recently (much recommended, blogger and community both), and it being a digressive sort of place, the subject of Sherlock Holmes came up. I put in a penn'orth, and a nice commenter asked if she could either paste it on her blog or link to it on mine. Well, she's welcome to do either, but since it seemed to be a well-liked comment, I thought I'd put it here anyway.

The subject that came up was the issue of Sherlock Holmes's famous lack of interest in Girls. Romance is a common subplot in many kinds of genre fiction, detective stories included; heck, I wrote a detective novel and included a romance of sorts myself. The Sherlock Holmes stories, however, keep romance notably absent. Watson has a romance in the second novel, The Sign of the Four, then quietly marries, settles down, gets widowed, sometimes mentions a wife again after that (consistency being ... well, I'll mention that later) and that's about it. Holmes, on the other hand, shows pretty much no interest in the fairer sex. Some readers interpret this as homosexuality, others as asexuality. My take is, it's a matter of writing convenience - and that trying to read too much into it, or indeed into many things in the Holmes stories, will probably lead you up a blind alley.

This was my comment:

I'd say that trying to characterise Sherlock Holmes too closely based on single incidents or stories seems a bit Forth-Bridge-painting. Arthur Conan Doyle himself wasn't particularly concerned with consistency and sometimes contradicted himself (I believe, for instance, Watson's bullet wound was sometimes in his leg and sometimes in his shoulder). It wasn't a coherent structure, it was a loose-woven bunch of short stories knocked out by an author who wasn't particularly attached to his creation and seemed to approach them on a one-at-a-time basis. Perhaps ironically for stories about a rigorous detective with a keen eye for detail, an impressionistic sense of them is probably truer to their spirit than a rigorous assembly of details.

That said...

[Someone commented] To be fair, not only was Sherlock, by all accounts, assexual, but condescension to women was kind of a big thing, back in the Victorian era.

From the stories I've read - which isn't all of them, because man there are a lot - the impression I had was that while the attitude towards women was about as consistent as everything else in the Sherlock Holmes file, Holmes's attitude was often characterised as a sort of brother-for-hire. There's a story (I forget which [note - it's 'A Case of Identity', I now find) that ends with Holmes telling a conman that if the gulled woman had 'a brother or a friend' that man ought to horsewhip him, then notices a riding crop and chases him out of the room; there's another ('The Solitary Cyclist', I think) where Holmes keeps repeating that he wouldn't want a sister of his accepting the dodgy-sounding job that the client brings to his attention; in The Sign of the Four, Mary Morstan employs Holmes and Watson to accompany her to a doubtful assignation having been told she can bring 'two friends' if she wishes. Protection is often characterised as either a brother or a friend.

In an environment where women weren't independent, 'a brother or a friend' fulfils a role we wouldn't associate with the phrase nowadays. Which is to say, a representative of her interests, in a way that may range from bodyguard to legal spokesman, and whose lack of marital interest in her - let's not forget that married women had only gained the legal right to their own property in 1882, a mere five years before the first Holmes story, and husbands still had a lot of economic power over wives - means that he can be trusted not to exploit her financially as well as sexually. With female clients, at least, that seems to be the position Holmes is often portrayed as taking: a kind of temporary male relative for women who don't have any suitable male relatives handy.

In a way, it possibly freed Conan Doyle up to have Homes see both male and female clients. A male detective who took a sexual interest in vulnerable female clients would be rather creepy, and in the Victorian era would also raise the issue of propriety. Besides that, an era where wifehood was also the destination of women in most people's eyes would make it difficult to write stories in which a man goes to trouble for a woman without people expecting a romantic angle. Characterising Holmes as not particularly interested in sex takes the issue off the table and lets Conan Doyle get on with writing about the detective work with a more varied allowable clientele.

I'd speculate that the Irene Adler plot - the only story ['A Scandal in Bohemia'] in which Holmes shows anything resembling personal interest in a woman - was brought up as a way of addressing and then dismissing the issue. It was, after all, the first Holmes short story. There's something dispatchful about that: "Okay, I'm going to start writing short stories about this detective, and for those of you wondering whether I'm going to write about him finding romance - no, okay? Here's a situation where I float the possibility of romance, it doesn't happen, and the narrator explicitly tells you it's not going to happen again. So, have we got that out of the way? Right, let's get on with talking about clues."

[End of comment]

It's my experience that readers will often want to know about romance. A lot of the questions I get about my first novel (spoiler alert) are about what will happen to the heroine and her boyfriend, a question I left open at the end of the novel. I left the question open deliberately, and if I ever did write a sequel (which I really don't think I will) then I'd incline not to reunite them: I think I could get a more interesting story that way. But readers usually want to hear that they will get back together. We usually want romance in our lives, so it's not surprising that we often want it in our fiction.

But if you want to write fiction about something else, particularly genre fiction, and you don't want to put romance in it, that readerly desire can be a nuisance. Conan Doyle was notably casual about what happened to his creation - famously, when the American actor William Gillette asked if he'd mind a love interest being introduced into a play adaptation of the Holmes stories, Conan Doyle cabled back crisply, 'Marry him, murder him, do what you like with him.' - but writing romance in those stories evidently didn't interest him.

I wonder, too, if another reason was that it might have put a crimp on Holmes's eccentricities - which surely were one of the more fun things to write. The stories rest on the strong assumption that domestic order is a female province; in 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle', for instance, Holmes deduces that a man's wife no longer loves him because:

This hat has not been brushed for weeks. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week's accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife's affection.

Holmes's tendency to keep tobacco in a slipper and shoot 'a patriotic V.R.' into the wall of his flat and lie around taking cocaine and fill the air with smoke and run chemical experiments at home and spend his morning hours trying to impale pig carcasses and so on - all the lively details that make him such an enjoyable character - are, in a Victorian era, essentially the qualities of a bachelor. A wife would not put up with such behaviour - or if she did, would be an unusual enough personality that she would risk upstaging him. The absence of a wife allows Conan Doyle free rein with Holmes and his little ways, as well as the convenient freedom to pursue his cases at all hours, go in and out in disguise, and generally pursue the plot unimpeded.

Holmes sometimes views women with condescension and sometimes with admiration - or more specifically, he tends to react to them on an individual basis, only occasionally generalises about them (the idea that a woman will try to rescue that which she values most when her house is on fire crops up in 'A Scandal in Bohemia', for instance, though I'm not sure what he thinks a man would do), but shows no particular interest in The Sex. On the whole, though, he ignores them. And part of this is because, in an era where educated and professional women were a rarity, intellectual companionship was largely a male business, and a man with no particular sexual interest in women was a man absent the major reason to interest himself in what any given woman thought or felt. Watson is written a normal heterosexual man of his era, and shows an attitude to women best described as gallantry: he refrains from exploitation (only proposing to his wife when it's clear he isn't doing it for money, for instance), notices beauty with an admiring rather than a predatory eye, doesn't assume women are stupid but seems to have a certain protective attitude nonetheless. Holmes likewise is prepared to be protective and has no time for men who mistreat women (consider 'The Speckled Band', where he's blithely unconcerned at having driven a poisonous snake to bite a man who physically abuses his own stepdaughter), but it's more a matter of principle than interest. Hired, he becomes a temporary brother; discharged, he goes back to his previous habits. Sisters aren't allowed to nag you about how to tidy up your room, and in a world where women are charged with the keeping of convention, bachelordom is the comfortable province of non-conformity.

Some serial writers like to show their characters developing over time and some like to keep them constant. Conan Doyle was of the latter variety, a convenient position for a writer who evidently didn't feel it worth the hassle of checking back over previous work to see if it was consistent. The Holmes stories are actually not that repetitive except in the structure of crime/resolution - the curtain rises on our heroes doing really quite a wide range of things - and Holmes's erratic habits and catholic tastes allowed Conan Doyle to keep things various without having to show his detective changing much over time. In fact, immunity to outside influence is one of Holmes's character traits: he's written as a self-created man who deliberately forgets things that don't suit his goals (I believe it's in A Study in Scarlet where he declares an intention to forget that the sun goes round the earth): showing him changing as life goes on would undermine one of his foundational traits. Again, the presence of a wife - and, in a world without much in the way of reliable contraception, the subsequent question of children - would interfere with Holmes's self-sufficient constancy.

"Who drags the fiery artist down? / Who keeps the pioneer in town? / Who hates to let the seaman roam? / It is the wife, it is the home," as Clarence Day Jr had it, and bad luck to the sexist bum. But Holmes is a creation of crusty bachelorhood in that tradition: when women were expected to be limited in scope and intellect, they would also be a plot inconvenience. Holmes has a home, but the absence of women allows to keep it in volatile disarray and leave it whenever he chooses. Introduce a wife, and we'd be looking at an entirely different character.

Of course, wives aren't the only option in the real world, but they are in this particular fiction. A mistress would be less of a disruption to the merry chaos of Baker Street, but would be an offence to Victorian propriety, and prostitutes are right outside the realm of the mentionable. Unrequited love is a possibility, but despite his eccentricities Holmes is eligible - a financially independent gentleman of good character and abilites - so too much in the way of refusal, apart from the dispatchful Ms Adler, would (especially in an era where marriage was supposed to be women's main aim, and to refuse a man would tend to imply either a preferred rival or something seriously wrong with him) undermine the crucial character detail of competence. (In 'Charles Augustus Milverton', for instance, Holmes courts a housemaid to get information: it's simply assumed that so competent a man can gain the affections of a woman if he chooses to try.) Non-connubial romance, never mind sex, would be remarkable enough in this setting that it would, again, pull focus from the main point of the stories, which is the detection.

So I don't think that characterising Holmes as gay, asexual or really anything else quite gets the point. He's simply the protagonist of detective fiction in a world where women had few rights and were more easily ignorable.

You know my methods, Watson, and women would get in their way.

I couldn't agree more. I'd just add that the time in which Doyle was writing was also one in which personal details could more easily remain private without exciting much notice. Today, we expect details about characters' private lives (and those of our politicians, as well). We know what Andrew Greeley's detective priest thinks about church politics, the role of women, and various points of theology. I'm fairly sure we know his favorite whiskey and the names of at least some of his nieces and nephews. Chesterton's Father Brown shows up and solves crimes. If he comments on religion at all, his remarks are general and fairly predictable. Does he get along well with his superior? What is his opinion of the pope under whom he serves or of the Anglican priest down the street? Why did he become a priest? We don't know, and Chesterton's audience presumably didn't worry about it.

The new Sherlock had to deal with the possibility of a sexual subtext because we're used to looking for such things. As a result, much as Adler is brought up and dismissed in the original stories, a Holmes/Watson sexual relationship is brought up and dismissed in the 21st century series.
Yay. Thanks!
One of the interesting things about women in Holmes stories is that the women were people who existed in the public (as opposed to private) realm. The stories are not about the agonies of a woman making the right choices are a husband they are about women who have problems dealing with those problems in much the same way as men did--by going to an expert. And yes, the expert(s) interacted with them as 'brothers for hire' (a lovely concept) but the stories did not end with the moral that "women shouldn't go out in the world."
@mmy: Yes, that's a good point. There's one story where Holmes wags his finger patronisingly at a female criminal, I think, but there's no disrespect for female clients - or at least, his respect for them is conditional on their intelligence, which is the same as with the male clients. (In 'The Red Headed League', for instance, if I remember right, Holmes is perfectly happy remarking to Watson that their male client isn't very bright.) The distinction is usually to do with women's social vulnerability rather than their inherent nature.

Possibly writing detective stories means you have to think about how people would act, and stories based on sexist stereotypes wouldn't be very satisfying. Among other things, it would drastically limit the variety of female clients you had: once you'd run through moppet in distress, femme fatale and middle-aged termagant, you'd be pretty much stuck.

And as to patronising a female criminal ... well. It struck a jarring note for me because Conan Doyle is usually rather better than that. But in his mild defence, Holmes is prepared to talk down to male criminals as well: for instance, there's the 'shrimp' in 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle', who has 'not got blood enough to go in for felony with impunity' - so being patronised isn't an exclusively female preserve. It's only a mild defence, but still. And I suppose you could also make the point that the female criminal Holmes patronises - I forget which story - has actually bested him.
What about Wilkie Collins? His Moonstone and Woman in White are said to be excellent mystery novels. I admit, I found them problematic because of the sexist stereotyping(read: barely managed to refrain from throwing them across the room). But still, as mystery novels, they work. Much though I hate to admit it.
Personally I found The Moonstone fairly unproblematic and The Woman in White impossible. Marian Halcombe seems to be seen by many as a proto-feminist, but to me she seems an Uncle Tom: she despises women in general, despises them obsessively - she can't shut up about how rubbish women usually are - and demands to be treated as an exception. This is not feminism.

Possibly it was difficult for a male writer of that era to see it in other terms, but on the other hand, I think The Moonstone manages to portray some women of character and integrity - the Verinder women, for instance - without having to harp on gender. This may simply be an instance of the fact that writers generally make better points when they stop trying to make points and start just writing characters, but for whatever reason, I felt okay about that.

I had another problem with The Woman In White, which is that it took an overly indulgent view of the Victorian trope I think of as 'Two Girls, One Sap.' (Because I have a low mind.) But I think I'll make a new blog post about that...
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