“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”, or The Feminism of Sherlock Holmes

In some ways, we aren’t really that different from our Victorian ancestors.  Sure, we have better medical care and hygiene, and travel is definitely more advanced (maybe not more comfortable, though, as anyone who’s flown economy class lately can attest to).  We’ve made some great strides in the realm of social issues in the last hundred-plus years, and have fallen backwards a bit from those strides once or twice.  We’re definitely better off without bustles and corsets, while I mourn the death of hats as an essential part of our daily attire and bemoan the lack of a properly suited gentleman.  There’s just something about a man in a waistcoat, what can I say?

For all the advances we’ve seen, though, one Victorian holdout still exists, and it’s one of the most frustrating of them: the double-standard applied to men and women in regards to, shall we say, “associating” with the opposite sex.  Even after all this time, we’re still a society that will praise a man for his numerous conquests, but tar a woman for exhibiting a little sexual agency.  The word “whore” is still thrown around too casually about any woman who dares dress provocatively, exude confidence while doing so, and refuses to let herself be shamed for it.  A good example of this disparity, and perhaps a glimpse at Doyle’s thoughts on it, can be found in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.”

I’m not sure if I’d go as far as the headline of the post and call Doyle or Holmes feminists, but Doyle held some pretty progressive ideas for his time on the topic of women and what society allowed them and required of them.  Some of this comes out in Holmes’ documented treatment of his female clients – and female adversaries.  In “The Five Orange Pips” (which was published after “A Scandal in Bohemia” but falls before it, chronologically, making this statement very timey-wimey), Holmes tells John Openshaw, “I have been beaten four times – three times by men and once by a woman.”   We know he’s speaking about Irene Adler here (even if, chronologically, he doesn’t know he is) and he doesn’t feel the need at all to hide the fact she bested him.  The ding to his ego isn’t bigger because she was a woman.  He doesn’t stumble over the phrase or attempt to hide the fact.  It is what it is.  Also, he conspires to lie to the European Minister on behalf of his wife in “The Second Stain,” in order to keep her secret and shield her from the consequences of actions taken to appease a dirty, rotten blackmailer.  Blackmailers were a virulent pest in the Victorian era, especially for women, who made easy victims.  Scandals could easily “ruin” a woman – destroy her reputation, aversely alter her future prospects, or even get her thrown out onto the streets by embarrassed husbands or relatives, penniless.  We’ll hear more about Holmes’ thoughts on that “profession” when we get to “Charles Augustus Milverton,” but, needless to say, he’s not a fan.

Doyle had clear opinions on another controversial topic of the time – the state of divorce law in England, specifically the disparities between how it treated men versus how it treated women.  Property laws made it very easy for a woman who’d been cast aside to be left absolutely destitute, which was bad enough; thanks to the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, it made it nearly impossible for one to legally separate from an abusive or otherwise undesirable husband.  A little bit of history: up until 1857, divorces were handled by the Ecclesiastical Courts, and they weren’t exactly easy to maneuver through.  People wishing a divorce who planned to get remarried either had to get an annulment – a difficult and lengthy process – or a private bill.  Both options were costly and favored the rich over everyone else.  And petitioners occasionally had to debate the ins and outs (or the lack thereof) in front of the House of Commons, too.

The Matrimonial Causes Act set up a civil divorce court system, which seems like a good thing.  However, it also set out what grounds someone could use to file for divorce.  The disparity came, and Doyle felt the need to pen an entire pamphlet on the topic, because of the differences in what men and could use as cause.  A husband only had to prove that his wife was an adulteress.  A wife had to prove adultery, plus one of the following conditions: desertion, cruelty, incest, bigamy, rape, sodomy, or bestiality.  So, basically, a woman couldn’t divorce her husband just because he beat her, or gambled away all their money and left her and the children begging for bread on the street, or committed unnatural acts with farm animals or his kin; she had to prove he cheated on her and did one of those things.  Doyle was so up in arms over this that, in 1909, he published “Divorce Law Reform,” his very serious thoughts on the topic.  Good ol’ Sir Arthur felt that changes to the law would save countless women “from bondage to cruel men, from the iron which fetter-locks them to the felon, or the hopeless maniac.”

It’s possibly crucial to note here that Doyle wasn’t exactly a saint.  He did fall in love with his second wife, Jean, while still married to his first wife, Mary Louise, also known as Louisa.  However, he stayed with Louisa until her death from tuberculosis in 1906 and was, by all accounts, a good and loyal husband to her.  His relationship with Jean remained purely platonic until Louisa’s death.  He and Jean married the following year.  And, of course, let’s not forget that Doyle also took a public stance against women’s suffrage.  It wasn’t, by the way, that women weren’t smart enough for something as important as voting.  He just thought it might cause “marital disharmony.”  Apparently, women should have the right to divorce an abominable lout, but not to vote for one by Doyle’s reasoning.

So, you might be thinking I’ve gone way off track and wonder how this has anything to do with “The Noble Bachelor.” And while the story doesn’t deal with divorce specifically, it does deal with gender disparity, mainly in the form of the difference in how men and women are perceived for their indiscretions, and it’s an excellent chance to look at perhaps how Doyle feels on the matter, or at least how he presents those feelings in his fiction.  “The Noble Bachelor” is a case that revolves around a rushed, slightly arranged marriage involving a member of the peerage – the fictional Lord Robert Watsingham de Vere St. Simon (there’s a mouthful for you) – to a nouveau riche American mining heiress – Hatty Doran.  A highly publicized, rushed, slightly arranged marriage, as those involving nobles usually are.  Sir Robert might be a bit old for continued bachelorhood, but he’s been busy, y’know, being rich and ridiculously important and carrying on with “a danseuse at Allegro.”  That either means she’s a ballerina or possibly just a professional dancer of the female variety in general, but there is a definite implication, by my reading, of questionable morality surrounding Miss Flora Miller.  Of course, I might’ve just read that in myself.  Either way, our esteemed and noble bachelor has spent “some years” in the acquaintance of a dancer – whether it be pointe or pole – and not much tarnish has gathered on his name because of it.  Men, especially rich and powerful ones, get a pass, to some degree, for such things.

(We know this fact is in no way a secret, by the way, because Watson reads it to Holmes while scouring several newspaper clippings on the exalted nuptials and the disappearing bride that followed.  Someone needs to fire his publicist, maybe.)

Now, compare this nonchalance toward all things sordid to Sir Robert’s reaction to the news that his presumably murdered bride isn’t murdered, or actually his.  When Hatty reveals that she’s accidentally made herself a bigamist – accidental bigamy is apparently a thing – because she didn’t know until after the “I do’s” that her first husband, Frank, wasn’t actually killed in an Indian raid in New Mexico, Sir Robert is more than a little bit of a jerk.  Forgiveness isn’t on his mind; it’s not even in the neighborhood.  He’s too concerned with the public humiliation and how it’s going to affect his father the Duke.  Of course, it’s likely not going to affect them much at all – brief scandal, maybe a week in the papers, and then no one will remember that one time ol’ Robert married an already married woman.  No one cared he was carrying on with Flora Miller for years, it’s likely nobody will care for long about his failed marriage.  Hatty, on the other hand, risked a permanent tarnish to her name coming forward at all after sloppily faking her possible death.   Who knows if her father will disinherit her after the scandal, and whether she and Frank will have any sort of luck on their own.

The difference between how Sir Robert treats Hatty in the aftermath and Holmes’ reaction is night and day.  Holmes shows the young woman – and she is a very young woman, in her early twenties – compassion and understanding and invites her and Frank to join he and Watson for dinner.  (Sir Robert was invited, too, but declined.  Rudely.)  He says to Robert, who he may assume to be a better man than he actually is, “It’s the purest accident.  I cannot allow that there is any humiliation…I fail to see that anyone is to blame.  I can hardly see how the lady could have acted otherwise, though her abrupt method of doing it was undoubtedly to be regretted…You must make allowance for this poor girl, placed in so unprecedented a position.”    Holmes obviously wants to see a bit more chivalry in Sir Robert’s approach to the situation (Spoiler alert – doesn’t happen) and doesn’t see the malice in Hatty’s actions that Robert does.

Of course, he also admonishes Watson for judging Sir Robert too harshly: “perhaps you would not be very generous either, if, after all the trouble of wooing and wedding, you found yourself deprived in an instant of wife and of fortune.”  (Right.  I almost forgot how handy the large dowry of a mining heiress is to a Lord in reportedly less than ideal financial straits.  Another reason for Sir Robert’s pique.)  Holmes also, during the conversation with Robert before Hatty and Frank arrive, suggests he should forgive her misstep, because she did grow up without a mother, after all.  Because a female family member can best teach you how to deal with presumed-dead husbands showing up after you’ve got yourself a new one, I guess.  Overall though, the pictures painted of the newlyweds by Watson (and, thus, Doyle) draw Hatty more favorably than her wronged husband, so while Holmes might spare a little of that compassion for Sir Robert, Doyle, perhaps, does not.

Which makes me give a second thought to the title of the story.  Noble, of course, has a few meanings.  According to Google, as an adjective, it can mean “belonging to a hereditary class with high social or political status; aristocratic,” or “having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals.”  The story definitely showed that Sir Robert possessed the former – the very long name, prefaced with “Lord” kind of made that obvious – but left a lot of doubt, at least for me, whether or not he fit the latter.  And I’m not judging him by his flouncing about with overly jealous dancers, either, though I could.

Of course, in his shoes?  Who knows.  Maybe, like Watson, I’m judging too harshly.  If I am, though, it’s only because the reverse is so often true.  Maybe if women didn’t live under a more narrowly and less flattering microscope than men, I wouldn’t be so bothered by another pompous, privileged jerk tightening the focus again.  What I don’t think I’m misjudging, though, is Holmes’ (and, by extension, Doyle’s) soft spot for women, or Doyle’s (admittedly, slightly flawed in one particular instance) views on the fairer sex.  Which still doesn’t make Holmes (or Doyle) a feminist, per se, but maybe puts him further along the spectrum.


So, for the sake of keeping post lengths somewhat manageable (as this one creeps past 2,000 words), I’ve decided to post discussions and fictional escapades separately.  When I’m on schedule (and this week I’m definitely not), discussion posts will go up on Mondays and The Related Adventures of Charlotte Holmes will appear on Tuesdays.  That way, unless I really go off the rails, there shouldn’t be too many posts nearing the three-thousand-word mark anymore.  Not that anyone has complained (one person actually challenged me to dueling word counts), but it was getting a bit excessive, even for me.  So, Charlotte, Anne, Mycroft, and Watson will be by tomorrow, in whatever combination they decide to show up.

Before the week’s out, I also hope to have some discussion posted about a group of women known as “Holmes on the Range” and the importance of finding your people.  And, also, the benefits of a really good chocolate glaze recipe.

4 thoughts on ““The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”, or The Feminism of Sherlock Holmes

  1. Your best fans wait up all night for new posts, FYI.

    This assessment makes me reconsider my treasured regency romances a bit more deeply. The plots are often similar to this story (maybe with less bigamy and more reformed rakes) but I don’t usually dwell on the author’s opinions coming through the character’s word/thought/deed (because I’m reading them for fluff) but maybe I should?

    And I definitely need to prioritize Holmes on the Range!!! And not just for the cake. Mostly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only Regency-era stuff I’ve ever read, really, was Austen. And I love her books as much for her comedy through contemporary social commentary as for anything. As bad as women had it in the Victorian era, it was slightly harder in Austen’s time. If you didn’t marry, and fairly well (unless you were well-off, off course; rules are always different for the rich), your prospects were nonexistent.

      I possibly spend too much time analyzing the text these days.

      Yea you do! Because there is food and Sherlock and awesome people. Next time, we’re watching the unaired pilot, so it would almost be like starting at the beginning.


    • That’s an interesting question. I’m tempted to say “no,” because at this point, authors are writing to genre expectations and not necessarily expressing any opinion at all except about what sells. On the other hand, although I would like to write Austenian fiction set in that time period, I absolutely refuse to write “regency romances” because, well, I simply think they’re too stupid and insulting to one’s intelligence for words. So maybe the writing of them DOES say something about their authors’ opinions.


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