“Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.”1
Holmes to Watson, The Sign of Four
No one should underestimate anyone else, because we are all capable of surprising each other and moving beyond those prejudices that would seek to define us.
Sherlock Holmes’ view on women is his prejudice and for one so highly critical of other’s capacities for observation, Arthur Conan Doyle reveals an elephantine blind spot in his character’s third outing.
In June 1891, The Strand magazine published A Scandal in Bohemia as the first of twelve short stories, released one at a time each month, containing the exploits of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Two novels preceded this batch, A Study in Scarlet, first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887, and The Sign of Four, first published in Lippincott’s Magazine in February 1890. Within these first forays of Sherlock Holmes, of whom Conan Doyle would eventually write a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories, an incredibly clear picture is given of the self-proclaimed consulting detective’s abilities and limits.
Famously, in A Study in Scarlet, Watson went to the bother of writing a list, of his new friend and co-lodger in 221B Baker Street, in order to try and make sense of Holmes’ unusual knowledge surfeit and deficit in different arenas of human intellectual endeavour:
“Sherlock Holmes — his limits.
- Knowledge of literature – nil.
- Knowledge of philosophy – nil.
- Knowledge of astronomy – nil.
- Knowledge of politics – feeble.
- Knowledge of botany – variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
- Knowledge of geology – practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he received them.
- Knowledge of chemistry – profound.
- Knowledge of anatomy – accurate, but unsystematic.
- Knowledge of sensational Literature – immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
- Plays the violin well.
- Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
- Has a good practical knowledge of British law.”2
Watson then throws the list into the fire in frustration and despair at attempting to grapple with Holmes’ bizarre spheres of interest. However, as is well-known in literary circles, such a device does serve to provide illustration of the character it portrays even if it is reportedly dashed to oblivion by its author. Holmes is given his own treatment and placed under the microscope.
In addition to Watson’s list, Conan Doyle gives us many defining characteristics of his creation. In the same novel, we see Holmes’ strict adherence to the scientific method when questioned by Watson concerning his unwillingness to speculate as to why Tobias Gregson had summoned them to 3 Lauriston Gardens. “No data… It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement”3, Holmes explains. Conan Doyle also presents in the same text, Holmes’ complete agreement with Gregson, to the point of regarding it as a virtue, that one must never overlook items that might appear trivial: “To a great mind, nothing is little.”4 Thoroughness gets added to Holmes’ asset portfolio as Conan Doyle continues to craft his character. Next, though, comes a moment whereby Holmes becomes made flesh and Conan Doyle avoids the pitfall of producing a two-dimensional dramatis persona.
When attempting to prove that a box containing two pills is connected with the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson, Holmes cuts one of the pills in half, dissolves it in milk and places the saucer of contents in front of a dying terrier which Watson was due to put down. Expecting the pill to contain poison, Holmes is irritated to see no adverse effect on the dog. The scene is played out in front of Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade, as well as Watson. Holmes, of course, is keen to demonstrate his powers to all of the above. Thwarted, Holmes gnaws at his lip, drums his fingers and after ‘pacing wildly up and down the room’, he seizes upon the cause of his problem, cuts up the other pill and dissolves it into the remaining milk in the saucer. At first lick, the terrier shivers and takes it last breath. Holmes then exclaims, “I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.”5 In so saying, Conan Doyle demonstrates that Holmes is cognisant that even he can make errors and that when following the scientific method it becomes necessary to formulate a new theory to both explain the previously known facts as well as the latest piece of information that caused the error. Holmes, then, can be seen to have humility and also the scientific tenacity to see things differently as he has so far understood them to be.
In The Sign of Four, in the chapter headed ‘The Science of Deduction’, Conan Doyle resumes addressing Holmes skillset via the revelation that Holmes has written a monograph concerning the tracing of footsteps and another “upon the influence of a trade upon the form of a hand, with lithotypes of the hands of slaters, sailors, cork-cutters, compositors, weavers, and diamond polishers.”6 Holmes also conducts, at Watson’s request, a demonstration of his powers of observation upon a watch previously owed by Watson’s father and elder brother, which causes Watson to accuse Holmes of conducting inquiries into the history of his unhappy brother, so successful is Holmes at performing deductions from minutiae.
The picture Conan Doyle paints of Holmes within his first two outings is rich and nuanced. We find a self-assured workaholic at the peak of his profession and abilities, whose gifts extend to being able to observe and deduce from the smallest details in a manner that seems to betray an element of super-human powers – so proficient is he at dominating his chosen discipline. Consequently, it is all the more startling to discover that Holmes should have any prejudices at all. One would think that he would have obliterated such blind spots from his life in order not to hamper his mastery over his work.
To regard women as a class of their own, and fall prey to the standards of the time, where in everything else he shows himself to be above the common herd is quite surprising. However, one really needs to say ‘hats off’ to Conan Doyle for realising that he had driven Holmes into a dead-end of male stereotypes and that such a position needed urgently to be challenged. Or maybe, Conan Doyle wasn’t that politically aware and ahead of his time to foreground the matter. Perhaps, he just wanted to give Holmes a comeuppance? As is well known, the author had a rather troubled relationship with his creation and, indeed, did try to kill him off at the Reichenbach Falls a few years later. Either way, the presentation given in A Scandal in Bohemia is one where quite clearly Holmes is outwitted and left in second place by Irene Adler, whom forever afterwards he was to call ‘the woman’. Importantly, though, it is his prejudice that is shown up, caught short and found wanting.
Holmes’ prejudice regarding women plays and dances around the edges of objectification, with Conan Doyle giving him such remarks as, “She is the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet. So say the Serpentine Mews to a man.”7 Which deftly lets Holmes off the ‘objectifying-women’ hook because he is apparently merely reporting what other men think, as opposed to giving any particular insight, or interruption, into what Watson described as his “cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.”8
Where Holmes does fall completely into the trap of prejudice, though, is in his regard of women that conceives of them as a set with no real personal individuation. This viewpoint makes him see ‘them’ in a two-dimensional way that presumes to understand ‘them’ better than they can understand themselves. Such an attitude makes him state to Watson generalisations like, “Women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting,”9 as remarked when discussing where Adler has contrived to hide the compromising photograph of her and the King of Bohemia. (The photograph dating from a time when the king was a mere crown prince and in love with Adler, whom he described as the “well-known adventuress”10). Holmes, then, further inculcates himself by confidently bragging, “I will get her to show me,”11 when Watson naturally asked how he will find the photograph when five attempts, initiated by others in the King’s employ have failed.
As the story progresses and follows Holmes’ carefully laid out plans, Adler does indeed ‘show’ him where she has secreted the photograph, when the call of “fire”12 is raised by Watson and other Holmesian actors in the street and a plumbers smoke rocket is set off in her sitting room, containing a seemingly injured Holmes disguised as a “simple-minded non-conformist clergyman.”13 In his discussion, after the fact, Holmes explains his theory to Watson’s ever open ear: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse… A married woman grabs at her baby – an unmarried one reaches for her jewel box.”14 On the back of his success, though, Holmes starts to get his comeuppance.
Thrilled by the events conforming to his theory, Holmes massively underestimates Adler and overlooks that she might actually think and behave in a way different than the one Holmes has prescribed for women. Believing that he is firmly in control of the situation, because he ‘won’ the first round, and thinking he knows how women will behave, Holmes decides that the coup d’état of revealing the location of the photograph to the King of Bohemia can wait until eight the following morning. This is because he believes Adler won’t have risen for the day by that time and they will have unimpeded access to the sitting room and its contents. Convinced of his own mastery of how Adler, as a woman, will think, he volunteers this second round plan to Watson openly in the street just as Adler walks behind them disguised as a “slim youth in an ulster”15 who even says “Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.”16
One assumes that upon over-hearing Holmes’ indiscretion as to voicing his plan, Adler decides to flee the nest and leave her house in the depths of the night, taking the photograph with her to “the Continent.”17 The cause of this chain of events, which Holmes did not compute, is presumably her realisation that she betrayed the hiding place of the photograph and acting upon her own thoughts and behaviour and not those of Holmes’ thoughts upon the ‘doings of women’.
To give Holmes his credit, though, he realises his error, almost instantaneously, when he reads her letter to him, left in the hiding place, and vocalises this in dialogue to the King, who witnessing the turn of events, proclaims “Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity she was not on my level?”18 To which Holmes replies, “From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to Your Majesty.”19 By which Conan Doyle makes clear that Adler surpasses both the King and Holmes, because Watson concludes the story with “the best plans of Mr Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit.”20
It is a shame Holmes never speaks to Adler after his newfound respect for her. Possibly, then he would have regarded her with a moral attitude as opposed to a prejudiced one. But then, does Holmes regard anyone with a moral attitude? Certainly, various police inspectors are always given short shrift by him and Watson is only very sparsely accorded something akin to respect for his intelligence. Holmes’ brother Mycroft is perhaps the only person whom Holmes gets close to regarding with a moral, as opposed to prejudiced, attitude. In The Bruce-Partington Plans Holmes states of his brother: “He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living.”21 However, with the possible exception of Mycroft, most encounters in Holmes’ life are ones whereby the other person gets reduced to an almost quantifiable set of behaviours which Holmes can identify and understand in such a way that he feels he has a better grasp of the other than they have themselves. The result being, in the majority of the time, that he is right. And yet, even this set of highly thought-out prejudices can come unstuck in their overconfidence and dealing with the Irene Adlers of the world.
Several lessons can be learned here. Holmes seems to learn his in that he clearly understands he has underestimated Adler. Another possible one, that strikes a blow for feminism, is that he shouldn’t have underestimated those he so firmly and collectively prejudiced: women. For me, however, there is one final critical lesson that everyone can take from this early ‘warts ‘n’ all’ Sherlock Holmes tale: no one should underestimate anyone else, because we are all capable of surprising each other and standing beyond those prejudices that would seek to define us.
- Doyle, A. C. The Sign of Four, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels. Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 311.
- Doyle, A. C. A Study in Scarlet, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels. Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 34-35,
- Ibid, 51.
- Ibid, 102.
- Ibid., 116-117.
- Doyle, A. C. The Sign of Four, included in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels. Edited with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger, W. W. Norton and Company, 2006, 220.
- Doyle, A. C. A Scandal in Bohemia included in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Penguin Books, 1981, 20.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 26.
- See ibid., 27.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 29
- Ibid., 30.
- Ibid., 31
- Ibid., 32.
- Doyle, A. C. The Bruce Partington Plans included in His Last Bow, Penguin Popular Classics, 1997, 85.