Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Inscrutable: Women and Sherlock Holmes

What did Sherlock Holmes think of women? There are a number of what appear to be incongruous reports in the canon, yet they're not entirely irreconcilable.  On some occasions he expressed approval of women, while Watson reported that he had an "aversion to women."  Here's a look at what I was able to untangle:

A Victorian Woman
Holmes really did respect women's intuition. On one occasion he remarked, "I value a woman's instinct in such matters" (The Adventure of the Lion's Mane, 1088)  On another, he praised Mary Morstan for retaining a piece of paper because she had an inkling that it might be important later, "You are certainly a model client. You have the correct intuition"  (The Sign of Four). The most astounding, and strongest statement of his belief in a woman's intuition/instinct is found in these words he said to Mrs. Neville St. Clair, "I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner" (The Man with the Twisted Lip).

While Holmes values a woman's instinct and intuition, he has no intention of  letting romance and marriage enter his life because he doesn't see emotion and reason as being compatible: "But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment"  (The Sign of Four).

Holmes said of Mary, "I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way, witness the way in which she preserved that Agra plan from all the other papers of her father"  (The Sign of Four). The key word is "might have." She and Watson were in love, and therefore their reasoning was impaired according to Holmes, and she could no longer be of much use.

Yet, while this phrase communicates his disapproval of their marriage, it also expresses an appreciation for her faculties and that he thinks she possessed potential for being of assistance in crime solving. It is hard to reconcile this with Watson's report that Holmes had an "aversion to women" (The Greek Interpreter). In this situation it seems he is not averse to Mary, just to averse to her marriage to Watson since it will cloud their reasoning. So perhaps, his "aversion to women" was in a general sense: womankind as a whole, or specifically in regards to romance: he decided not to marry and so pulled back from women generally. It seems that while he was able to appreciate a woman's merits he never pursued a friendship with one beyond what was needed to solve a case.

Additionally, "Holmes had, when he liked, a peculiarly ingratiating way with women, and...he very readily established terms of confidence with them" (The Adventure of the Golden Pince-nez).  Holmes could easily befriend women when he found it expedient, yet I don't recall any mention of his having a close or prolonged friendship with a woman in the canon and he certainly had no intention of falling in love.

From Harper's Bazaar, May 14, 1898
Perhaps part of his "aversion to women" stems from the fact that he finds the reasoning behind their actions hard to predict, "And you must have observed, Watson, how she manouvered to have the light at her back. She did not wish us to read her expression...And yet the motives of women are inscrutable. You remember the woman at Margate whom I suspected for the same reason. No powder on her nose--that proved to be the correct solution. How can you build on such quicksand? Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs" (The Adventure of the Second Stain). This sentiment renders Holmes quite human and quite a man! He expresses the age old man vs. woman struggle for comprehension of the other, although based on his decision not to marry, his interest in this subject is entirely a professional one. --And, once again, he's an "automaton" as Watson called him in The Sign of Four.

Many people like to toy with the idea of a romance between Holmes and Irene Adler. Holmes was not in love with Irene Adler. "It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler" (A Scandal in Bohemia).

It's interesting to note that many of the women Holmes encountered throughout his adventures were brave, spirited, independent, emotional, and loyal. Most of them weren't silly, although sometimes over-run by passions.

Therefore, from the canon, it seems that while he is decidedly against romantic attachments, he is generally kind to women and values woman's instincts. 


The Sherlock Holmes stories were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are many different editions and publications of these stories, and they are sometimes presented in part or as an entirety.

The first image is from Karen's Whimsy. Her website features collections of nicely sorted public domain images for free use.

The second is from Wikipedia. Due to its date, the image is no longer under copyright.

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