Published in the Journal of the American
Academy of Dermatology, 9(4):614-618, 1983.
Ladies of the Canon
Marilynne McKay, M.D.
Presented at the annual meeting of the Sir James Saunders Society, New Orleans, LA, December, 1982.
For those of you who are relatively new to this sort of gathering, welcome! To the loyal members of the Society, hail! The almost-legendary exploits of Sherlock Holmes have been a beacon to many over the years, but perhaps no other branch of medicine has such cause to study carefully the teachings of the master as do the members of our specialty. Each day in the clinic we refine our visual sense, honing our proficiency to observe and deduce the truth from what lies before us. Like Holmes, at times we must persist in our investigations despite the protestations of our clients, the patients, who insist that things cannot possibly be as they so obviously seem. That a vigorous Sherlockian Society is to be found in the ranks of the American Academy of Dermatology should come as no surprise. We have been meeting for many years now and shall continue, I hope, for many more (hear, hear!).
As this year's topic, I have chosen a subject dear to my heart, and, I suspect, to yours as well—the Ladies of the Canon. Women figure prominently in a number of the Sacred Writings, and I suspect that there are several reasons for this: first, of course, is their natural tendency toward involvement in crimes of passion, which were the most interesting to Holmes; second, his chronicler Watson's fascination with members of the opposite sex; and, third, a peculiarly fair-minded attitude about women in general throughout the Canon. Despite the fact that much is made of Watson's view of Holmes as a misogynist, the Ladies of the Canon are hardly stereotyped as the insipid creatures we tend to think of as characteristic of Victorian times. In fact, these ladies stand up bravely when compared to the siliconized, pneumatic consorts of recent detective fiction.
Queen Victoria herself was a strong regent, and her determination and strength after the death of her beloved Albert served as a model for English womanhood, even as the American frontier was simultaneously molding its own independent females. This year, our Society has had the pleasure of rejuvenating its collective memory with the epitome of the Victorian feminine ideal—Irene Adler, the American heroine of A Scandal in Bohemia. It is small wonder that the woman, as she is known forever after, "eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex" to Holmes. She was not only beautiful, but also quick-witted, intelligent, and noble in character—despite Watson's comment on her "dubious and questionable memory," Holmes rightfully considered her a worthy opponent. Whether he requested her photograph in the end as a sentimental souvenir or, as some have proposed, for future criminal identification is quite immaterial—he, too, wished to remember her. Despite Holmes' considerable ego, he certainly had enough perspective to appreciate a Nice Touch when he saw it. He was certainly not overfond of his client, the King of Bohemia, and Irene Adler's solution was neat and appropriate; it must have pleased Holmes' artistic nature for all to turn out as it did, though he might have liked to have had a greater hand in the result. Irene Adler was unquestionably unique, and Holmes showed excellent taste in honoring her as the woman—and First Lady of the Canon.
As we venture through the Sacred Writings, there are a number of remarkable women to be encountered: a particularly tragic figure is The Veiled Lodger, Eugenia Ronder. A magnificent woman, she was married young to a huge porcine brute of a man who ran a traveling circus. Though she had a hand in plotting her husband's murder, she received immediate retribution after the event in the form of a mauling by the show's lion. Abandoned by her lover, her face a ruin to look upon, she remained veiled and in seclusion for seven years. Deeply touched by her tale, Holmes sensed that she was seriously considering suicide, and warned her that her life was not her own-"the example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons in an impatient world." In gratitude, she bravely sent him the prussic acid with which she had intended to do her worst.
And who can forget the two female protagonists of The Problem of Thor Bridge? The saintly Grace Dunbar, of whom Watson said,
I could never forget the effect which she produced upon me ... one felt as one looked at that strong, clear-cut, and yet sensitive face, that even should she be capable of some impetuous deed, none the less there was an innate nobility of character which would make her influence always for the good.
Employed as a governess by Gibson the Gold King, she innocently inspired the jealousy of his Brazilian wife, Maria—a woman "rare and wonderful in her beauty…passionate, wholehearted, tropical, and ill-balanced," who became mad and committed suicide with a pistol at Thor Bridge. Holmes admitted, and we must concur, that Maria showed "a remarkable subtlety of mind" in contriving for Grace Dunbar to be accused of murder when the weapon was found in Grace's wardrobe closet. It was left for Holmes to correctly duplicate events with another rock, another string, and Watson's gun.
Another governess of Canonical note is Violet Hunter, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches . Holmes, Watson notes, was favorably impressed by her manner and speech, though he does not specifically comment on her face, "freckled like a Plover's egg." Violet herself readily pointed out her best feature to him: "…as you may observe, Mr. Holmes, my hair is somewhat luxuriant, and of a rather peculiar tint of chestnut. It has been considered artistic." Holmes actually showed a surprising degree of personal interest in the bold Miss Hunter: he seemed genuinely concerned for her safety at her new position at the Copper Beeches. He went so far as to proclaim it "not the situation for a sister of mine," and assured her that "at any time, day or night, a telegram would bring me down to your help." And when he was summoned, he actually postponed an analysis of the acetones to "be at his best in the morning." He encouragingly commented, "You seem to have acted all through this matter like a brave and sensible girl, Miss Hunter, and I should not ask …one more feat of you if I did not think you quite an exceptional woman." Having overheard such goings-on, Watson was understandably very disappointed when Holmes apparently manifested no further interest in Violet or her artistic hair when the case was closed—he tells us, however, that she eventually ended up as the successful headmistress of a private school. Neither we nor Watson know, of course, whether Holmes really lost touch—or whether he continued to put aside his chemicals from time to time in response to the odd telegram. Dr. Richard Asher1 has raised the interesting speculation that it was actually the rich spinster, Violet Hunter, who sent Holmes that old gold snuffbox with the amethyst on the lid—for, after all, why should the King of Bohemia later be so generous to Holmes after his rudeness when they parted?
The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton also brings us two memorable ladies—the more so because they both remain nameless. The pulse quickens at the scene in Milverton's study late that night when Holmes and Watson crept in to seek the blackmailer's collection of letters. At the owner's approach, they are forced to hide, but are able to see clearly as he himself is surprised by the entrance of the Dark Lady of Appledore Towers—she has a handsome face with a curved nose, strong dark eyebrows, hard glittering eyes, and a straight thin-lipped mouth set in a dangerous smile. "It is I," she says, "the woman whose life you ruined!" …and she pumps several rounds of lead into the villain. Grinding her heel into his face for good measure, she leaves him dead, enabling a shaken Holmes and Watson to burn the entire collection of letters before they flee. They later recognize a photograph of the Dark Lady—the wife of a great nobleman and statesman, recently deceased. Of course, they say nothing. The other woman in the story is Milverton's housemaid—who has the dubious distinction of being the only woman, so far as we know, to be engaged to marry Holmes. She does not know him as Holmes, though, but as "Escott, a plumber with a rising business" (always a good recommendation, it would seem). Watson rather stuffily admits that Holmes had, when he liked, a "peculiarly ingratiating way with women, and he very readily established terms of confidence with them." Holmes used his situation with the housemaid to gain information about the premises, and then "rejoiced to say that he had a hated rival, who would certainly cut him out the instant that his back was turned."
The housemaid affair again raises the long-continued speculation about Holmes' involvement with women—Watson always resolutely maintained that Holmes was totally barren of any emotion in that regard. Of course, Watson himself was a pushover for a pretty face or a lady in distress—small wonder that Holmes' equanimity was read by Watson as disinterest. Holmes constantly chided Watson about the romanticizing of his case histories, and on several occasions deliberately kept Watson in the dark about his activities "for his own good." It is quite logical that Holmes allowed Watson to persist in, and even encouraged, his belief that Holmes had no interest at all in the fair sex. As Holmes said in The Sign of Four, "Some facts should be suppressed, or at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them." Given Watson's notorious ability to overlook the significance of the most obvious clue laid out before him, Holmes was undoubtedly amused at times by the naively prudish doctor's perceptions—I suspect that he often edited his friend's manuscripts as much to spare Watson subsequent embarrassment as to be certain that the facts were fully reported. Because of this, it is rare that we obtain a glimpse of Holmes unabridged, as it were, by editorial obfuscation. It is certainly not requisite to most reader's enjoyment of the Sacred Writings that Holmes be considered immaculate—I think it can safely be assumed that a man who dallied with poisons, smoked, drank, and took cocaine was hardly likely to have neglected other areas of potentially dangerous experimentation. Interestingly enough, it may have been this very experimentation that put Holmes off the traditional ideas of love and marriage. Just as he was attracted to the dark side of London and the non-medical uses of cocaine, he may well have had a fascination with unsuitable ladies of dubious character. After all, as he assured Watson, "the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money." It would appear highly plausible that his avoidance of romantic entanglement was simply self-defense—very likely a result of one or more unhappy experiences (or close calls!).
For example, it is thought by some to be quite apparent that he had a fling with the adventurous Isadora Klein of Three Gables fame. You recall that he had to search his famous file for biographic information when Irene Adler's name came up—it was quite unnecessary for Isadora:
Does the name convey nothing to you, Watson? She was, of course, the celebrated beauty. There was never a woman to touch her… pure Spanish, the real blood of the masterful Conquistadores. She married the aged German sugar king, Klein, and presently found herself the richest as well as the most lovely widow upon earth.
(Was it perhaps Isadora rather than coal tar derivatives which engaged Holmes in the south of France?) He goes on,
…there was an interval of adventure when she pleased her own tastes. She had several lovers, but she was the 'belle dame sans merci' of fiction. When her caprice is satisfied, the matter is ended, and if the other party in the matter can't take her word for it she knows how to bring it home to him.
Is this the voice of experience we hear? When Douglas Maberley, "the most striking man in London," is smitten and rejected by a woman, writes a rather revealing novel, then dies of a broken heart, Holmes seems to know just where to go. He takes Watson along, "for it is safer to have a witness when you are dealing with such a lady as Isadora Klein." Watson was quite taken with her (naturally),
…so roguish and exquisite did she look as she stood before us with a challenging smile that I felt of all Holmes' criminals, this was the one whom he would find it hardest to face.
But Holmes maintains an icy facade long enough to crumble the proud beauty, at which point he shrugs and relents, saying, "Well, well, I suppose I shall have to compound a felony, as usual…" He actually "wags a cautionary finger" (!) as he enjoins her to "have a care, for you can't play with edged tools forever without cutting those dainty hands." A certain "pawky humour" on the part of the master, indeed—had he finally had his long-awaited chance to get the upper hand? Though I think it highly doubtful that his own heart had ever been broken or even nicked by Isadora, she was badly in need of a lesson—and it is to Holmes' credit that he was in a position to teach it.
Of course, women were apt to throw themselves at Holmes as well—Violet Hunter was a case in point, but the most scandalous of them all had to be Mrs. St. Clair, wife of The Man With the Twisted Lip. Dr. Asher called our attention to her behavior some years ago, and I am afraid he was right on the mark.2 She was so flagrant in her attention that it was a wonder that even Watson did not notice what was going on. I am sure you recall the tale which begins with Holmes' chance meeting with Watson in an opium den one evening, when he spontaneously invites his old friend to come along to Kent. It seems that while Holmes was investigating the disappearance of Mr. St. Clair in downtown London, Mrs. St. Clair had insisted that Holmes settle in with her (Kent being seven miles out in the country, mind you!). Watson goes along for the ride, as usual, and notes that his friend seems "lost in thought" for a good distance. Holmes finally comes around and admits that he "was wondering what I should say to this dear little woman to-night when she meets me at the door." Watson describes their arrival:
As we approached, the door flew open, and a little blonde woman stood with her figure outlined against the flood of light, clad in some sort of slight mousseline de soie, with a touch of fluffy pink chiffon at her neck and wrists.
A pretty picture, indeed—but of an anxious wife or a bold seductress?
…one hand upon the door, one half-raised in her eagerness, her body slightly bent, her head and face protruded, with eager eyes and parted lips, a standing question.
Not too subtle for the interpretation of Dr. Asher, or this gathering either, I am sure. She gave “a cry which sank into a groan” on seeing the two of them—and Holmes shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Poor Watson interprets her cry as one of hope that it was her husband with Holmes and her groan as one of disappointment, but I suspect only the latter to be true. Holmes's gesture is quite clear: as a wife myself, I certainly recognize the shrug of a man who has brought along an unplanned-for guest—and well he might think long and hard about what he should say when met at the door!
Watson cheerfully expresses pleasure at the lady's hospitality—a well-lit dining room with a cold supper laid out, and a large and comfortable double-bedded room—but it never occurs to him that it was planned without him in mind. He both falls asleep and arises to the sight of Holmes sitting up on a divan of cushions—and assumes that he sat up all night smoking. Yet Watson himself says that, in the morning, "Holmes chuckled to himself as he spoke, his eyes twinkled, and he seemed a different man to the sombre thinker of the previous night." If a night of smoking was what made me feel that way, I assure you that I should never have quit! Though his mood may have been due to any of several possible happenings, one hardly knows exactly what to think—we must again look to Holmes' own words, "Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them." I bring up these two latter instances only to illustrate the point that there are all sorts of women in the Canon—and to deny that Holmes might choose to investigate the charms of one or two could only detract from the reputation of the Greatest Detective in the World.
But time grows short today, and we may have only brief glimpses of other singular women—spirited Violet Smith, The Solitary Cyclist, who when threatened by a persistent follower, suddenly whisked her wheels round and dashed straight at him! Or the graceful golden-haired Mary Fraser of The Abbey Grange, whose drunkard husband stuck her with hat pins, set her dog on fire, and heaved a decanter at her maid, the latter offense proving to be his undoing, as the maid informed an admirer of Mary's of her plight. Holmes and Watson sentimentally sided with the maid and let the sailor who murdered the husband go free, though they cautioned him to lay low for a year before coming back to marry Mary. And, finally, we must not forget ". . . a certain gracious lady . . . in whose interest Holmes had once been fortunate enough to carry out a small commission," receiving a remarkably fine emerald tie-pin as a present. (The fact that Holmes had gone down to Windsor after recovering The Bruce-Partington Plans gave Watson to fancy that he could guess at that lady's august name….)
So… to the Ladies of the Canon! We each have our favorites: Lucy Ferrier, Mary Morstan, Hatty Doran, Effie Munro, Elsie Cubitt, Martha Hudson, Victoria, all the Violets . . . to the Ladies! The Sacred Writings glow with your presences—and Holmes and Watson have enriched your lives!
I . Asher R: Holmes and the fair sex. Sherlock Holmes Journal, vol. 2, No. 3, Summer, 1955.
2. Baring-Gould WS: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York, 1967, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., vol. I.