Masaryk University Faculty of Arts

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature
Klára Danielová

Victorian Women and Their Representation in Selected Sherlock Holmes Stories
Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: PhDr. Lidia Kyzlinková, CSc., M.Litt.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Klára Danielová

I would like to thank my supervisor, PhDr. Lidia Kyzlinková, CSc., M.Litt., for her patience and kindness with which she assisted me with writing my thesis.

Introduction 5

I. Victorian Women 8

I.1 Victorian England and Her Women 8

I.2 Working-Class Women: The Issues of Class and Occupation 9

I.3 Upper-Class Women: Their Home and Social Responsibilities 11

I.4 The Middle Class and the Issues of Homemaking 12

I.5 Free Time Activities and the Double Standard 15

I.6 Women’s Education: Prejudice and Development 17

I.7 Married Women: Their Rights and Property 20

I.8 Victorian Marriage: Making and Purpose 22

I.9 Married Life: The Issues of Sex and Divorce 23

I.10 Spinsters, Bachelors and Their Social Status 25

II. The Representation of Women in Selected Sherlock Holmes Stories 27

II. I The Case of Arthur Conan Doyle and Detective Fiction 27

II.2 The Adventures of Doyle, Watson, Holmes and Their Women 28

II.3 The Case of Middle-Class Women 32

II.4 The Problem of Women’s Employment and Education 34

II.5 The Case of the Woman Criminal 37

II.6 The Problem of the Woman in Love 39

II.7 The Issues of Women of Property and Divorce 41

Conclusion 44

Bibliography 48

Appendix: The Stories Examined and Their Abbreviations 50

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes ranks among the most significant Great Detectives, and this character’s adventures have been extremely popular since their first appearance. Apart from ingenious puzzles, the stories capture the atmosphere of Victorian England, her people and culture; and although nineteenth-century detective fiction is generally considered to have been written by men, for men and about men, in my thesis I try to demonstrate that it is also for women and about women. There is a considerable number of female characters depicted in the stories analysed and the reader can find many pieces of information on Victorian women and their lives at the end of the nineteenth century.

My thesis is divided into two major parts. The first part is connected with the social history of the period, and as the main source of information I use The Victorian Home (1977) by Jenni Calder. In this part I examine England of the second half of the nineteenth century, the setting of most Doyle’s stories. I focus on women and their social position and rights; I analyse differences between women of various social classes; I examine the prejudices women had to face and the acts of Parliament that considerably affected women’s lives.

The first part is further divided into ten subchapters in which I discuss the points mentioned above in greater detail. For example, I discuss lives of working-class women; I examine the effects of middle-class philosophy on the working class and why society considered working women a threat to the social order. I also deal with upper-class women and women of aristocratic background and contrast responsibilities of women in cities and in the country. In connection with middle-class women, I focus on the cult of domesticity and servants who helped confine women to the roles of supervisors. I further discuss the concept of Victorian home; I analyse which free time activities were considered proper for women and I also examine the double standard for men and women as far as entertainment was concerned. I describe the kind of education girls received at home; I discuss the prejudice against female education in general and further education in particular. Various kinds of schools are described together with jobs that were believed suitable for women. Finally, married women’s rights are analysed, and the issues of sex and divorce, and spinsters and bachelors examined.

In the second main part of my thesis, I concentrate on the representation of women in Sherlock Holmes stories. I examine how women are portrayed and my aim is to find evidence for my points in the first part of the thesis and prove that the representation of women in the stories is fairly realistic and that the stories could serve as a source of information on Victorian women.

All the short stories examined in my thesis are taken from the collection, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories (1985), published by Chancellor Press1. In greater detail, I analyse predominantly female characters from fifteen short stories. When I refer to those characters, I also use abbreviations of the stories titles as follows: “A Scandal in Bohemia” (SIB), “A Case of Identity” (CI), “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (AOSB), “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” (BC), “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” (CB), “The Adventure of the Crooked Man (CM)”, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” (DM), “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” (SC), “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” (CAM), “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” (AG), “The Adventure of the Second Stain” (SS), “The Adventure of the Red Circle” (RC), “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” (DLFC), “The Problem of Thor Bridge” (TB), “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (SV).2

The second part of my thesis is further divided into seven subchapters. First, I introduce Doyle and his detective stories, discussing real models for the main protagonists and the author’s relationship to his detective. Next, I attempt to consider Doyle, Watson and Holmes and their relationships with women. I elaborate on details from Doyle’s life that are captured in the stories. Then I focus on the representation of middle class-women, household servants and the cult of domesticity. Further, I examine the heroines and the jobs they do; I also discuss female education and intelligence. Female criminals, the frequent theme of blackmailing and elaborating on the myth of English women as incorruptible beings are the focus of the following subchapters as well as love and marriage and the social class and wealth in the choice of a future spouse. Finally, I explore the changes in society caused by new laws, with focus on the Women’s property acts and divorce reform.

In the conclusion I compare my findings from the first part with those of the second part, and I demonstrate how historical facts are represented in Holmes stories. I try to prove that the representation of women faithfully reflects the situation in Victorian England.

I.1 Victorian England and Her Women

Women in Victorian England were believed to be inferior to men; they “were subjected to their [men’s] authority in many ways” (Fletcher 108) and their legal status was similar to that of children. Their fathers, husbands or other male relatives were their legal representatives and it was men who were in charge of women’s property for almost all the nineteenth century. Women were not allowed to vote and were not legal guardians of their children. A Victorian woman “would be stoical, motherly, submissive and chaste” (Paxman 228); “[I]nnocence and inexperience and a cultivated fragility were the characteristic attributes of the Victorian girl” (Klein 264). The division of sexes was clear; men and women knew that their roles were different and accepted that they were, “even within marriage, obliged [them] to lead separate and unequal lives until they died” (Paxman 212). The man was the bread-winner; the woman was confined to domesticity. As domestic beings, most women were denied education because it was considered unnecessary. Women were not found in professions or skilled trade; if they worked, they worked in jobs where no higher education was required. At home they were expected to be amiable companions and not partners with whom men would discuss business or politics.

The main role of every woman was the role of a mother and a home-maker, which were roles believed to be congenital to women. “It was the wife who made the home, who cared for her children within it, who brought her husband back to it when work was done, who provided the hot dinners and created the atmosphere of comfort and protection” (Calder 27).Women were automatically expected to become ideal wives and mothers and were brought up to be charming angels who were “ideally, both decorative and useful” (Calder 9) and whose main target in life was finding a suitable husband. Unmarried women, failing their mission to bring up a new generation of offspring, were considered conspicuous and a danger to the stability of society, in which the family unit was the foundation stone. However, the status of women and their rights and duties cannot be generalized since they varied according to the social class a woman came from.
I.2 Working Class Women: The Issues of Class and Occupation

In the mid-century, “around 75 per cent of the population was working class” (Calder 70) and “millions of families all over the country lived on a borderline between poverty and squalor” (Calder 65). As a result, the working class was considered a threat to the social order and values advanced by the middle class. Consequently, the working class was pressed into acquirement of middle-class values that were expected to transform the ignorant mass of the underprivileged into decent people.

According to the middle-class philosophy, it was the woman who made “all the difference between a rioting striker and a hard-working labouring man” (Calder 70). It was believed that the woman who stayed at home and devoted her entire time to looking after her children and making her home a clean and cosy place was the core of the orderly family; and the man whose wife made his home a comfortable and tidy place was not likely to go out into streets and look for diversions there.1 On the other hand, how could a woman create an attractive home for her husband if she had to go out to work? A woman spending twelve or more hours a day working was be able to create a tidy home for her husband; make a decent meal for him and take care of their children after she returned home.2 Homes of working women were therefore usually untidy, their children neglected and their husbands seeking amusement in the streets. A working woman could not create a real home for her family, which ramined the main argument in debates over female employment. “The employment of women was [thus] widely condemned. It was seen as an offence to feminine decency, as a threat to the family and as leading directly to immorality” (Calder 67). “The fact that men and women mingled freely in their work was highly improper and bound to lead to all kinds of dubious activities” (Calder 69). The middle class presented this philosophy to the working class but did not realize that the money women brought home, although their wages were generally smaller than that of their husbands, could make all the difference between starvation and decent living.

To be able to go out to work, working mothers would often pay “a few shillings a week to a child-minder, usually an elderly and often incapable woman or a very young girl” (Calder 29). “It was not unusual for a nine year old to be left in charge of a baby” (Calder 67). Because working women could not afford to pay for servants, they had to perform all the household chores themselves, which, at the time of no ready water supply and no mechanical aids, was very demanding and time-consuming. Long hours and the working conditions were such “as positively to produce an ignorance of even the most rudimentary arts of homemaking” (Fletcher 87). The result was the dirt, essential to the working class housing, diseases and problems of alcoholism and prostitution. And, according to the middle class ideal, it was the working woman who was to blame. She could not prevent her husband from running out of home in the evenings; she could not teach her daughters the basics of domestic economy and household chores and, as the result, it was the working woman who prevented the working class from improving its status and living conditions in general.

I.3 Upper-Class Women: Their Homes and Social Responsibilities

On the opposite side of the social ladder, there were women from the upper middle class and of aristocratic background. Analogous to working class women, upper-middle class and aristocratic women had their duties and tasks to attend to. This was most easily visible in the country where the lady had responsibility for her tenants. Although it varied, the responsibilities the landed gentry was expected to exert might include “caring for the sick and helpless, assisting with local schooling [and] donating money for local causes” (Calder 46). As a result, upper-class country women were quite busy and could see themselves useful. The situation in towns was different since women there were devoid of these responsibilities and their activities were restricted to homemaking.

However, their homemaking responsibilities were limited too. These women did not perform the domestic chores. Upper-middle class women had a range of servants at hand and the woman’s function was mostly supervisory. The woman gave orders in the morning and during the day she oversaw if they were carried out properly. If a woman employed a housekeeper, she did not have to attend to everyday household affairs at all. Even though the supervisory element should not be diminished, such women were at leisure most of their time and their function became more or less social.

An everyday task of upper-middle-class women was accepting visitors and paying visits. There were given hours of the day during which women admitted visitors and returned the visits. Visiting was not an informal occasion for seeing friends. It was a social occasion which had its rules and which had to be performed in the correct way:

[V]isiting [which] had to be done at the proper hours in the proper way. Morning visits were fairly informal and required less dressing up then afternoon visits. Cards were left if the person visited was not at home – which could mean that she was genuinely out, or that she was simply not available, and it was not polite to question which. [...] This kind of semi-formal visiting was very much a female occupation, and was regarded more as a social obligation than as an amusement. It was not done to stay too long, and the conversation was hardly likely to be either intimate or relaxed. (Calder 31)

Besides visiting, another common female activity was organizing dinner parties for their and their husbands’ friends and family members. Such parties were the occasions during which the hostess proved her homemaking skills and her taste. It was the woman’s task to represent her husband and be, together with all the equipment of the household, a symbol of his social status. But being a decorative object was not exclusively an upper class women’s domain. A lot of these characteristics applied to the middle class women as well.

I.4 The Middle Class and the Issues of Homemaking

Although the nineteenth century is considered the century of the middle class, at that time it still was an “undefinable class [that] was trying hard, even desperately, to characterize and identify itself” (Calder 31). The middle class considered the huge mass of the working classes as a threat to its fragile position and it assumed that it could only fight this danger with acquiring the habits of the upper classes. Consequently, the middle class began to emulate the standards of those above.

To be allowed to call oneself a member of the middle class, one had to meet a few demands. The first criterion was the presence of servants in an adequate house. One servant was a necessity in household with middle-class aspirations. “An income of ₤300 a year is frequently mentioned as the magic figure, above which a decent, though modest household could be maintained” (Calder 28);1 and “[w]ith an income of above ₤300 a year it was reckoned that two servants could be employed” (Calder 30)2. A middle-class woman was not expected to perform all the household chores on her own but it was sufficient to employ a maid of “all trades” to claim the middle class status and have at least a certain amount of leisure time that had been the symbol of the privileged classes and, consequently, one of the prime aims of the middle class.

It was the middle class who had the lion’s share on the creation of the cult of domesticity and it is generally the middle class woman who is pictured in literature as a woman without any active participation in running her family. “The wife and mother, no longer intimately involved in the business ‘undertaking’, was confined to domestic life, and, with domestic servants, became more and more of a ‘functionless’ member of the household – one ornament amongst others [...] – totally subjected to the authority of her husband” (Fletcher 93). Middle-class women were not allowed to go out to work because a working woman was a sign of immorality and deprived conditions. A middle class man had to be able to have a sufficient income to support his family. “[M]atrimony [was] the only means for a woman to provide for herself, while at the same time minimising her positive contribution to marriage to such an extent as to make her feel a burden rather than an active partner in a common enterprise” (Klein 265). The duty of a middle class woman was to stay at home and create home and a refuge for her husband. A middle-class woman was taught that “if she did not undertake the responsibility of making her home attractive she could not blame her husband for spending his evenings at the club, or seeking more dubious forms of entertainment” (Calder 70). But with servants to do all the household chores, she did not take an active part in working in the household and confined herself to supervision and the outside social tasks. She did not have the duties of an upper-class woman in the country and she could not go out to seek amusement there. The range of activities she could do at home was extremely limited and apart from the overall control, she spent her days doing needlework and/or painting.

“Home sweet home” was a very important concept for the Victorians. It was a place where women were protected from the dangerous outside world and for men it was a refuge where they came to relax and refresh their spirit after a day in the hostile commercial world. For men, home was a place of relaxation, warm meals and night rest. For women, it was a place where they genuinely belonged and did not leave until necessary. “Home and the female were inevitably intimately associated” (Calder 9). The world outside home was considered unsuitable for delicate Victorian women; it was full of wiles and perils. At home women were safe and they were supposed to spend their entire days there creating a refuge for their husbands. If the woman did not have any servants, she did not have time for anything else than housework. Without electricity and running water, with coal heating, gas lightning and children to look after, the woman was kept busy all day. But with servants to do all the chores the woman was free and left to do her fancywork which then filled the over decorated interiors, so typical of the Victorian era.

Although the wife was expected to make a comfortable home for her husband, either by herself and/or by supervising the servants, marks of her activity had to remain hidden on the husband’s arrival. Detergent smell, kitchen utensils and even children’s toys were removed; all things were in their places and a warm dinner ready. Men did not participate in household duties; “only a ‘meek’ man would descend to doing the chores ‘in his own house’” (Calder 70); and as women were not expected to go out to work, men were not supposed to perform household chores.

I.5 Free Time Activities and the Double Standard

Women were taught to become home makers. With other job opportunities closed to them, homemaking was the only field in which they could express their talents and be useful. Without it, women would have become mere decorative objects without any practical contribution to their families. “[H]ome-making gave a woman something to do that was essentially womanly. [...] There was little scope for the home-centred middle-class wife except in house management. Going for walks and doing exercises were small compensations for feeling useless” (Calder 111). Homemaking was solely and the only female occupation and women were aware of it. Even early feminists, who called for more job opportunities open to women, did not diminish the importance of women as homemakers. There was still “a strong belief that a home is not a real home unless it maintains warmth and food and consolation, particularly for the breadwinner’s return [...], and that the creation of these things is the special province of women” (Calder 146). Creating the ideal of perfect home was the mission of women and other activities, especially those outside home, were considered unnecessary and quite often inappropriate.

The mistress of the household was employed in “giving instructions, perhaps unlocking store cupboards [...] and measuring out the provisions of the day [and] ordering the meals” (Calder 20). After she attended to all these responsibilities or if she experienced well-trained servants whom she trusted to perform all these jobs, her life could be judged as inactive. Women could go for walks or drives, do some shopping or, especially in the country, “there was an increasing number of pastimes women could enjoy, croquet, archery, and later tennis” (Calder 22).1 At home women were not obliged to leave the chair much since all the activities were sedentary. Despite the ideal of the life of leisure, time wasting was frowned upon and as a result, women created vast numbers of decorative objects. Another approved past time activity was reading. Reading of the Bible but also of novels and other forms of popular literature was, since domestic, decent and physically unexacting, an ideal activity for the nineteenth-century Victorian women.

Since women were said to be destined for domestic life, they were discouraged to seek amusement outside their home. “[T]he theatre, the music hall, the pleasure gardens [...] were dubious localities for the respectable married woman and her daughters. [...] Entertainment, other than that of the dinner party or the ‘At Home’ or the ball, is either a lower-class or a masculine need” (Calder 134). If a woman wanted to go out, she could only visit a female friend. Men could enjoy themselves outside home more because for them there were numerous places of entertainment, from clubs to places were sexual services were easily available. The fact that men left their home quite often could be explained by the lack of activity inside it. Since men did not do needlework and playing an instrument was considered a feminine activity, the range of suitable activities for men was even narrower than that of women.1 But “a man could remove himself from an undesirable domestic situation, and often did, while for a women it was very difficult, and any attempt to do so might well involve scandal” (Calder 144). It was not until the first decades of the 20th century that the concept of home as a solely female place declined in its importance and women could become more active and were allowed to leave home more freely.

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