I just finished reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and now I’m quite sure I was born in the wrong century.
There is something delightfully elegant about these stories, where logic triumphs and evil is (almost) always punished. And, above all, everyone is absolutely dignified.
I was watching TV with Sam a couple of weeks ago and The Fly came on. If you click the link, you’ll see I mean the 1958 version with Vincent Price.
The story is familiar: girl loves boy, boy transforms, girl squishes boy. But what happens next?
After squishing the fly (literally, in this case), Helene retires to her room, highly agitated and exhausted from the shock. She demands to see the police inspector so she can tell her story, mostly to gain confirmation that she has not in fact murdered her beloved husband, Andre. Her brother in law, Francois (Vincent Price), is all sympathy for the hysterical woman. He almost believes her, despite her apparent madness.
I am drawn to this portrait. A woman, overcome by anxiety and guilt, who retires to her room to rest. A group of men indulging her, perhaps condescendingly, but lovingly. People taking care of her. How quaint.
I like to think the next scene is a product of the 1950s, and not the time in which the story is set. The inspector returns with two orderlies and a gurney. It seems that, based on her confession, Helene is to be arrested for murder. And so the veil is lifted. Maybe it’s not safe to be a woman in any century. Boo hiss.
I would have taken my story to Sherlock Holmes instead. A man of infinite discretion, he only refers matters to the police when absolutely necessary. He is rewarded with commissions from kings, as well as ordinary people with the most vexing of problems.
I always thought of Sherlock Holmes as a bit of an idiot savant, continually high on cocaine, playing his violin in fits of frenzy, then simply solving crimes as if by magic. Isn’t that the movie version?
But this is not Doyle’s Holmes. Rather, the most famous of detectives is utterly dignified and possesses the rare ability to move freely in the highest social circles (although he’d prefer not to). Moreover, he is a student of his craft. He’s an excellent detective because he understands people so thoroughly. He has made this his life’s work. In fact, he considers the agony column one of his finest research tools.
In the midst of a puzzling situation, Holmes sees the meaning in details others barely register, including his good friend and confidant Dr. Watson, who is well-meaning, intellectually average, and utterly devoted to Holmes. It is effort that saves the day, not magic.
One of the most charming things about Sherlock Holmes is his willingness to allow his clients to maintain their petty delusions. In one case, a woman believes that she is engaged to a man she met at a ball, but her betrothed is in fact her step-father in disguise, trying to cheat her out of her income, which she receives from her late father’s estate. Once they’ve identified the villain and scared him straight, Watson wonders what they should tell the girl. Holmes realizes she would never accept their explanation and thinks it best to allow her to think her fiance has disappeared.
There are many examples in this collection of women who would have been cheated out of their inheritance, if not for Holmes. Maybe I’m just tired of fending for myself, but there is something terribly appealing about being married off with a dowry and a nice income from my father’s estate.
The central question is this: is it better to be considered inferior, but to have no responsibility? Or to be respected as an equal, but with double the expectations?
I’m not sure there’s a simple answer.