The heroines of the Sherlock Holmes stories

15 March 2016

By Pan Macmillan

Michelle Birkby, author of The House at Baker Street, explains how the female characters are often the overlooked heroines of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.

Sherlock Holmes was not a whole-hearted admirer of women. He disliked and distrusted them. He found them inscrutable, could not understand their motives, and generally though them a waste of time. Well, until he was beaten by Irene Adler, anyway, when his attitude began to change. However, the Holmes stories are full of independent, clever women who earn their own living, insist on their right to marry whom they choose (and divorce their husbands too) and are resourceful and brave. Here are five women who are the heroines in their Sherlock Holmes stories.

Mrs Ferguson - the Sussex Vampire

We are never told Mrs Ferguson’s name, only that she is foreign, exotic and beautiful. When she is caught seemingly sucking blood from a wound on her baby’s neck, everyone’s thoughts fly to vampirism. But Holmes refuses to believe in anything so fanciful, and as it turns out, he is right.

Mrs Ferguson wasn’t sucking blood, she was sucking poison out of a wound on her baby’s neck – a wound caused by her husband’s son by his first marriage. Despite the accusations against her, and the real risk of losing both her family and freedom, perhaps even her life, she refused to tell her husband his son was trying to kill the new baby, knowing that it would break his heart. She risks everything to save those she loves.

Violet Hunter - The Copper Beeches

Violet is an out of work governess who is offered a very unusual job. She is to be governess to a small, and very nasty boy in a house called The Copper Beeches, in the middle of the countryside. She must also wear an electric-blue dress when asked, and cut her luxuriant red hair short. After consulting with Mr Holmes – who repeatedly says no sister of his would take such a job – she does take up the position, whilst saying she will contact Sherlock Holmes if she feels she needs help.

As it turns out, Violet is in danger. But she is not intimidated. She starts to investigate for herself, gathering clues, venturing into the forbidden parts of the house, subtly questioning her mysterious employers. As she says, her curiosity is almost as strong as her fears. Holmes says to her ‘you seem to have acted all through this like a brave and sensible girl’ and calls her a quite exceptional woman – high praise from Sherlock Holmes. Having escaped from this frightening house to consult with Mr Holmes, she is prepared to go back alone, knowing herself to be in danger, to solve the case. In fact, she does most of the detective work in this story, even if the men shut her out for the final denouement. Holmes is so impressed by Violet that Dr Watson expects more from the relationship, and is disappointed that he manifests no further interest in her.

Annie Harrison - The Naval Treaty

Holmes can immediately tell from Annie’s handwriting that she is a woman of rare character with an exceptional nature. Annie is engaged to Percy Phelps who is suspected of stealing a vital document, and has a complete breakdown as a result. Annie nurses him through his madness, Annie believes him and Annie gives him the strength to carry on. It is Annie, not Percy, that Holmes trusts above everyone else in the case. He asks her to stay in a specific room all day, and then leave it and lock it only at night, and to tell no-one why. It seems like a simple task, but it is directly due to Annie’s actions that the case is solved. She is a prime example of the quiet but strong women that Holmes relies upon.

Unknown Society Woman - Charles Augustus Milverton

This is one of those women who, like Kitty Winter or Sophie Kratides, could be seen as a heroine or a villain depending on your point of view.

Charles Augustus Milverton is a blackmailer. He is one of Sherlock Holmes’ most formidable allies. Mr Holmes calls him the worst man in London, and agrees to try to retrieve the letters of a lady that Milverton holds. After getting engaged to Milverton’s housemaid (purely as part of the case) Holmes gains access to the house, and he and Watson go to burgle it – but they have miscalculated and are on the brink of being caught by Milverton robbing his safe. It would mean the downfall and ruin of both Holmes and Watson.

But at that moment a woman enters for a meeting with Milverton. She is a former victim whose husband died with a broken heart after Milverton revealed his wife’s secret. She cries ‘I will free the world of a poisonous thing!’ and shoots Milverton several times.

Holmes refuses to investigate the case for the police, saying that his sympathies are with the criminal rather than the victim. He later shows Watson a picture of a lady very high society – she is the shooter. She committed a crime, but in Holmes’ eyes she is a heroine who saved Holmes, his client, and dozens of others.

Mrs Hudson

My favourite Holmes heroine, in many ways. She looks after Holmes, no matter how difficult he is being (although Watson says he can also be very charming and courteous to Mrs Hudson). She runs for help when he is ill, and watches over him. She keeps him fed and warm and comfortable, and puts up with all his eccentricities, such as shooting the Queen’s initials into her wall. If, as I think she is, she is Martha in The Final Bow, she goes undercover into a German’s spy’s house as a housekeeper.

In The Empty House, Sherlock Holmes has returned from the dead. However, he is still being hunted by the notorious sniper, Colonel Sebastian Moran, so he lays a trap for Moran. He places a wax head of himself in the window of 221b, and he and Watson sit and wait in the house opposite to wait for the sniper. Watson is told not to go near the window, as it is too dangerous. Watson also notices that the wax head moves, and Holmes tells him that Mrs Hudson has gone into the sitting room eight times to move the head to simulate life. She has gone into this room – which Holmes expects to be shot at – on her hand and knees, and not been seen once.
The sniper arrives, and the wax head is shot and shattered. Mrs Hudson takes this incident very calmly, considering she is close enough to observe where the bullets landed.

This proves Mrs Hudson is more than just a housekeeper. She is brave and clever enough to be depended on by Holmes, she is unconcerned by gunfire, even when crawling around the line of fire and she is calm under remarkable pressure – calmer than Watson is. What an intriguing woman she is. No wonder I had to write about her.

The House at Baker Street 
It's time for Mrs Hudson and Mary Watson to emerge from the shadows and stand in the spotlight. 

When Sherlock Holmes turns down the case of persecuted Laura Shirley, Mrs Hudson - the landlady of Baker Street - and Mary Watson - the wife of Dr Watson - resolve to take on the investigation themselves. From the kitchen of 221b, the two women begin their inquiries and enlist the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars and the infamous Irene Adler.

A trail of clues leads them to the darkest corners of Whitechapel, where the fearsome Ripper supposedly still stalks. They soon discover Laura Shirley is not the only woman at risk - the lives of many others are in danger too.

Conan Doyle's heroines finally step into the limelight in this brilliant new take on the Sherlock Holmes adventures. 

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