This time around I will take a little bit broader view than usually. It would take too many articles to discuss every single female which ever turns up in the Sherlock Holmes stories. But I would be amiss to not discuss how they usually fare in adaptations, especially since it is actually fairly easy to give an overview of them. Other than Mrs. Hudson they are all women who Holmes encounters during his cases. And most of them can easily be sorted into three groups.
The most common variant is the abused woman. This seems to be a theme which Doyle apparently really cared about. They are either under the control of their husband or a father figure and they often fall victim to nefarious schemes from their abusers because they are a source of money. The general stance is a deep understanding for the suffering of those women and scorn for those who mistreat them. In “The Adventures of the Abbey Grange” Holmes even decides to let a man, who has murdered the abusive husband of his beloved in defence of her, to get away scot-free.
The second variant is the dutiful, loving wife. If those woman take questionable actions, it always happens to protect the reputation of their husband or to hide a potentially damaging truth from them. And again, it feels as if there is a social commentary in a lot of those stories. Doyle certainly puts the love marriage above the in Victorian times way more common marriages of conveniences, which were more a business transaction than anything else – one in which the wife usually ended up the looser. In all the stories there is exactly one in case in which a woman which can be considered “evil” turns up, and that is The Three Gables, which is strangely also the only story in which the concept of love is questioned.
But the most interesting characters are in the third group. Independent, unmarried woman, who have a certain measure of control over their own life. It is telling that both Mary Morstan and Irene Adler fall into this group – though they both end up properly married by the end of their stories, making the transition to the dutiful, loving wife. Notably those are all woman who were left fending on their own. Those who are born into riches on the other hand are portrayed as naïve and prone to falling for false promises.
I think the most remarkable character is Violet Hunter from The Copper Beeches. This story is particularly interesting because it feels as if Doyle actually wanted to write a story about her and not about Sherlock Holmes. Just try it, remove Holmes and Watson from the story, and you realize that it barely changes. It is the story of a young woman, who is pressured into taking a job due to a lack of other options, even though her new employer acts very suspicious. She ensures that she has someone she can call for help by visiting Sherlock Holmes before leaving town, but the actual investigation is done by her. She is the one who carefully catalogues all the events which happen in the house, she is the one who hides a mirror in her hand in order to collect even more information. Without her bravery and initiative, Sherlock Holmes would have never solved this case. This becomes especially evident if you watch the Granada take on her.
Interestingly the show tends to have a lower opinion of woman than Doyle himself had. It is not above changing a character which is a victim in the original story into an accomplice in the adaptation of The Greek Interpreter. It also adds an ending to the story of Lady Frances Carfax, saying that her mind was broken by the events of the case, but she is now in the loving care of a suitor she rejected in the past. It is framed like a happy end, but I think that the notion is just incredible creepy. This is actually fairly common in a number of adaptations. Few try to expand on the side-roles, but those who do have the tendency to pile the sexism typical for their time on the sexism from the Victorian era.
But when it comes to Violet Hunter, the Granada adaptation is spot on. It plays out every scene which is described in the book, even though it means that she has as much if not more screen-time than Holmes himself. But she is such a brave and smart character that I certainly don’t mind spending time with her (in fact, The Copper Beeches is one of my favourite episodes of the show). Interestingly, Violet Hunter is also the one self-confident, independent spirit which doesn’t end up happily married, neither in canon, nor in the adaptation. She becomes the leader of a school with a good reputation, which is as much of a career as a woman back than could realistically have. The BBC show hasn’t adapted this particular story yet, though I hope that it will one day. I wonder how a modern Violet Hunter would look like. Perhaps a career woman, who needs Sherlock’s help in order to get rid of a business rival?
So far, the BBC adaptation has done a fairly good job in showcasing the side-characters from canon. Especially remarkable is Janine in this regard. In canon her character is not more than half a sentences. Just someone Sherlock Holmes uses in a way that even Doctor Watson disapproves of. In the Granada version, they handle the matter by portraying said character as kind of a gold digger, as someone who sleeps around and suggest that there might be later compensation. It is nevertheless another case in which the Granada take is a little bit galling, because it kind of justifies Holmes actions by more or less saying “well, she wasn’t a nice woman anyway”.
The modern approach takes some elements from the Granada version. Janine is a gold-digger, too. And she is sexual active (though apparently not with Sherlock), but in her case it is not portrayed as a black mark against her, but as something perfectly natural for a woman her age. Why shouldn’t she have a little bit of fun? And why shouldn’t she get her revenge for what Sherlock did, making some money in the process? The show is very adamant that whatever her character flaws are, Sherlock had still no right to use her that way. In a TV-landscape in which routinely the misdeeds of males are excused by portraying the wronged female as irrational harpy, this is a refreshing take.
Quote: “Sherlock Holmes, you are a back-stabbin’, heartless, manipulative bastard.”