Mrs Hudson is simultaneously the most important and the most ignored female character in the Sherlock Holmes stories. On the one hand, she is the one female who has a constant recurring role. On the other hand, her only role to take care of the main characters. I can only remember one instance in which she actually has a plot relevant dialogue with Holmes, and that is when she tells him about a possible case. Otherwise ACD considered her so unimportant that she is suddenly named Mrs Turner in one story. There have been countless explanations for this slip, but let’s be honest here, he simply didn’t care about this character at all, she was just a plot device.
And the various adaptations have continued the trend. In a way, they even made it worse, because more often than not Mrs Hudson is portrayed as the house keeper of Holmes. But in canon she is, as BBC Sherlock rightly points out, the landlady.
Even though Mrs Hudson turns up in most of the adaptations, she is rarely more than a prop. The only version I can think of which has kind of a personality is the version in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” – or, as I like to call it, the Soviet version. Certainly one of the best adaptations, and not only is Mrs Hudson portrayed correctly as landlady, she is also shown to be a very resolute woman. But a full-fletched character, she is not.
The Mrs Hudson in Sherlock is, though. Before we even get to see her, the show sets a sign that she is supposed to be a little bit more than what we are used to, when Sherlock reveals that she gives him a special deal because he ensured that her husband ended up on death row in Florida. It is nearly surprising that she turns out to be one of those old ladies who really thrive in caring for others. I think most of us know a person like this, someone who just loves to do something for you and can become a little bit annoying if they take care of task you either wanted to do yourself or never wanted to get done in the first place, but is also quite handy to have around. Those lovable persons who will do everything they can for you as long as it is on their own comfort zone.
There are feminists who would like to ban those characters from the media because they feel that they are sending the wrong message, but I think that they need to be there. Female representation can’t just consist of action women. But you need to find the right balance with them. It is just wrong to pretend that if you are nice and helpful you are liked by everyone and will always get the same help in return, because that’s not how humans are. But it is also important to treat a character like this with respect. Sherlock hits exactly the right balance in this regard. Because it shows quite believable how much Sherlock and John take Mrs Hudson’s help as a given. At the same time, though, it is never suggested that their actions are right, and there are multiple scenes in which the show says “here is the line, you should respect people who show you that much love”. And to be honest, it is funny when John calls out Sherlock for being too mean to her, or they both call out Mycroft, just to turn around and tell her “shut up” themselves.
Now, it takes a while to get there. In the first season Mrs Hudson is pretty much a walking punch-line. But even there she already has a healthy dose of snark. But in the very first episode of season two it is shown that one should never underestimate Mrs Hudson when she hides important data from one of Sherlock’s enemies. Even if she doesn’t have the power to defend herself, she is never helpless in a sense that she would just give in when she faces a bad situations.
A lot of details about Mrs Hudson are just thrown into the background, but they make her character so much more layered. For example, in the first episode she talks about herbal soothers for her hip when she is faced with a drugs bust, in the ninth episode we learn through Magnussen’s files that one of her weaknesses is marijuana. But others are laid out in the open. In the third season, she reveals that her marriage was built more on desire than love, and that she might have been involved with the drug cartel of her husband. There are also a number of allusions to a wild youth as table dancer.
Why is all this important? Because this Mrs Hudson is, unlike all the other ones, more than just a prop. She wasn’t a landlady her whole life, she has a past, she has opinions and she is resourceful. And she is one of three person’s in the world Sherlock is truly protective off. Not because she necessarily needs his protection (let’s face it, she would have a much quieter life without him around), but because he truly cares for her, even if he has a strange way to show it.
She is a side-character and she will always be “just” a side-character until someone green-lights a show about Sherlock Holmes from her perspective. But until that day, Sherlock deserves some credit for giving this character a backstory and a voice.
Quote: “Just this once. I am your landlady, not your house keeper.”
Best Moment: Hiding evidence when her attackers think that she is just having a cry.
Since I mentioned the Soviet version, here is my recommendation for it. As far as Victorian adaptations go, I think it is the best. It is not as slavish to the source text as the Granada version, it is mostly a collection of the highlights of the Sherlock Holmes stories, seamlessly connected with each other. And it actually might have my favourite Watson…even though Freeman is very close and might take the top spot one day.