Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: "Ms Holmes of Baker Street: The Truth About Sherlock" by Alan C. Bradley

Guest post by Chris Nuttall.

Was Sherlock Holmes a Woman?

My first response to the suggestion that Sherlock Holmes had been a woman was to laugh, and indeed I half-expected the book to be a series of wishful thinking and poor ideas, rather than a serious study. I did the authors an injustice, however, and Ms Holmes is surprisingly clear and well argued, although in the end I did not find it convincing. The idea of Holmes being a man is so firmly fixed in the public mind that the idea that he might have been a woman is somehow ridiculous.

But never mind that. The central part of the book examines every one of the cases with an eye to proving, as the title suggests, that Holmes was in fact a woman. They cast doubt on everything from Holmes’ relationship with Mary Morstan (Mary Watson; Watson’s wife), to Holmes’s vaunted fighting abilities, to his treatment of Watson. Their suggestions include the possibility that Holmes was pregnant, and perhaps even a mother, twice, and ask searching questions about what really happened after Moriarty fell to his death at the Falls. Would Holmes, apparently a brave man, really have fled London for three years in fear for his life…or was (s)he pregnant, perhaps even with Moran’s child? It is an interesting theory, but in the end, I find that it doesn’t hang together very well.

It wasn’t unknown for a woman to disguise herself as a man and go out into a purely male sphere. It would have been hard enough for the legendary women who joined the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (although I have heard references and some fiction relating to them, I don’t have a source and they may be completely mythical), but Holmes was, for a large part of his life, living with a male…and, not just any male, but a medical doctor. Indeed, Watson’s concerns over how Holmes abused himself (Cocaine, for ex) form a major part of the canon. Holmes acknowledged, in "Dying Detective", that Watson was skilled. While Watson was unimaginative, even he would have had problems missing the clues, or perhaps, as the authors suggest, in his later life he was aware of it, maybe even deserting Mary – who might not have died after all – for Sherlock.

The clues relating to Mary are rather vague. It is difficult, even today, for a man to know how to react to a friend’s wife. Holmes, a lifelong bachelor, might have been reluctant to have more to do with Mary than he had to, indeed, he certainly showed little interest in any other women, with the possible exception of Irene Adler. While there is a great deal of confusion surrounding just how many wives Watson had, or even what happened to Mary, I don’t think that it is easy to suggest that Holmes was jealous of Mary, and indeed, I’m sure there was a reference to Holmes being the best man at their wedding.

The suggestion that Holmes was pregnant just before Moriarty’s death seems unlikely. Moriarty’s snide remark about Holmes having less frontal development than he expected, while gazing at Holmes’s pockets, was more likely an example of him being snide, as he suggests that Holmes isn’t particularly clever to finger firearms in his pockets. Indeed, Holmes seems to have spent most of that time being careful to avoid drawing Watson into real danger, and as we know, the world assumed that Holmes died at the falls with Moriarty. There are plenty of inconsistencies in the account, but it is stretching things to suggest that Holmes and Moran made a truce there, or even that Holmes did anything other than he suggested.

The other points can be dismissed fairly easily. There is no evidence that Sherlock was not a member of the Diogenes Club and indeed, he remarked that it was a soothing atmosphere, hardly something that would arise from him being an unwelcome guest at the club. The idea that Mycroft had blackballed him, an act that would have raised eyebrows given that Mycroft used Holmes at least twice to investigate for him, seems unlikely. There are few reasons to doubt Holmes’ fighting skills. Holmes’ so-called menstrual cycle coincides with my own feelings while writing – bursts of frantic and furious activity followed by lassitude – and I assure you that I do have a penis. It wasn’t uncommon, up until fairly recently, for two men to room together; Hoover and Clyde Tolson, for example, were close enough to arouse suspicions of homosexuality. I would find it easier to accept that Holmes and Watson were homosexual lovers than one of them being a woman.

Standing back from accepting that Holmes was real, it is easier to understand some of the problems. Conan-Doyle never imagined that he would write so many Holmes stories and didn’t consider the series he wrote as a related set of stories, merely stories that shared a background. The discrepancies in the canon – the issue of Watson’s wives, for example – were caused by Conan-Doyle merely picking the arrangement that sounded right for each story, sometimes trying another format – IMHO, the story narrated by Holmes himself is unreadable – and never treating Holmes as a real character. (If nothing else, Watson’s reputation for discretion must have suffered badly when he started to publish his accounts of the cases.) The canon can never be reconciled because Doyle never intended for it to be reconciled.

Of course, that does take away half the fun…

This book, despite my negative comments, is interesting, thought-provoking, and indeed, as Holmes might put it, fascinating. It does not convince me, however, and may not convince others.

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Chris Nuttall blogs at The Chrishanger. His books can be found on Amazon Kindle.

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