In the year 1878, I was the first woman to take my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and then, disguised as a man, I proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army. How shocked and humiliated our army had been, only thirteen years ago, to discover, upon his death, that their celebrated doctor, Inspector-General James Barry, a contentious, fiery man who revolutionized the British army’s medical department, had the body of a woman. As much as Barry inspired my own actions, given how humiliated the army was over his deception, it was a matter of considerable delicacy and stealth for me to then also infiltrate those fraternal ranks. I wouldn’t have succeeded at all if it hadn’t been for a well-placed uncle and my good friend and orderly, Gideon Murray, who kept my secrets well, as I kept his.
The script ran for pages in my journal. Eleven days of snowbound rambling while the worst blizzard of the century mummified London.
What, exactly, had I been thinking? I couldn’t commit this story to paper—if it were discovered, it would harm not only me, but also Murray and the reputation of my recently-departed uncle Ian.
I doubted Uncle Ian would give a damn at this point, rest his soul, but Murray was still in Peshawar, and it’s bad form to defame the man who saved one’s life. I carefully ripped the pages from the journal and stuffed them into the squatty coal stove in the corner of my hotel room where the flames breakfasted on the incriminating words.
Barely interested in my own meager breakfast cooling on the small table by the chair, I limped to the window to peer down at the street. It was January 29, 1881, the second Saturday after a blizzard that would surely go down in history, and the city was finally throwing off its snowy shroud and shuddering back to life. Crews of men had spent days clearing the streets, and now I could hear the muted crunch and slide of hooves and wheels as horses pulled cabs and omnibuses between the heaps of already filthy snow on either side.
I hated having to sit idly indoors the past week. Who knew how many people needed medical care for injuries and exposure to cold and hunger? But I was in poor health myself, and I wouldn’t have known where to offer my services even if I’d had the strength to brave the weather.
Alone in this cheerless room, listening to the howling wind, I’d tried to ignore how much a snowstorm sounded like a sandstorm, pretending my pulse didn’t race and my hands didn’t shake. Telling myself that there was indeed plenty of air in the room and that all I had to do was breathe.
Writing felt like the only way to keep sane in those hours. And then later, in the unnatural, eerie silence that engulfed the city after the winds faded, writing turned to self-examination on a level deeper than even a near-death injury and months of illness had been able to inspire.
I had come face to face with my own heart, my own foolishness and pride, the self-indulgent moping that I had engaged in ever since returning to London shortly before Christmas. And I had stared the facts in the eyes: first—I was burning too quickly through my small invalid pension from the army. It was currently adequate, but in another eight months the payments would cease, and if I kept to my current pace, I would have no savings to draw upon. I needed a cheaper place to live than a hotel, and I needed to find a way to support myself.
Second—in spite of my admiration for the late Inspector-General Barry, I had to admit I was not like him. I was soul-weary of my life as a man, of always fearing I would be discovered. My disguise had begun as a practical means to an end, but now the binding cloths and trousers felt to me like a prison of which I was my own jailer. A punishment for Eve’s crime of desiring too much knowledge. Well, I had the knowledge now, and the pain in body and spirit that came with it. Shedding my male disguise would not make the pain go away, but at least I wouldn’t feel so trapped by it.
All in all, the past several weeks, I’d been drifting like snow, and that had to stop. The city was digging out of her troubles, so I would too.
This morning, I could feel the buzz of renewed energy and hope in the air.
“I’m afraid you’re far more optimistic than I,” I whispered to the city, my fingertips brushing the cold glass windowpane.
I dressed slowly and awkwardly, my injured left shoulder stubbornly stiff even after six months of convalescence. The most important part of my wardrobe was the long strip of linen I used to bind my breasts. As sickly thin as I currently was, I probably could have skipped it. But it had come to feel like a talisman that would ward off discovery as long as I performed the daily ritual correctly.
It was much easier with another person helping me. I missed Murray—he was always gentle and knew how to joke and tease when my mood was bleak. He was the closest friend I’d ever had, nearly as close as my sisters and I had been in childhood before life tore us from one another. The army had allowed him to escort me from Peshawar back to Netley and even let him stay with me until I was formally discharged. If it weren’t for his insistence on managing all my care himself, my injuries would have exposed me as a fraud to the entire army. But he had returned to his post, and we agreed that corresponding with each other would be too dangerous. The war had ended shortly after, and it was my understanding that the army would slowly start sending units home or reassigning them this year. I had no idea what would happen to Murray, but there was every possibility we would never meet again.
I was only twenty-eight, but already there had been so many goodbyes in my life that I was near terrified of saying hello.
I buttoned my waistcoat and shrugged on my cheap, ill-fitting morning coat and a wool overcoat, then tucked a felt bowler hat under my arm. Murray had bought me civilian clothes while I was still in hospital at Netley, but neither of us had much money so he’d done the best he could. I didn’t bother looking in the mirror over the wash basin. I already knew exactly what I’d see, and it would do nothing for the little confidence I had left.
Downstairs, walking cane and hat in hand, I tried to slip out of the hotel unnoticed, but no luck was with me today. Our proprietress, Mrs. Chepston, hallooed me to a stop at the door, her face—usually the shade of aged book paper—flushed red across her cheeks and nose.
“Dr. Watson,” she cried (because she rarely merely spoke), “you can’t mean to go out in such dreadful weather! Not in your state of health!”
“Mrs. Chepston,” I began, in the husky tone I used for John Watson, MD. “I’m only—”
Her second chin quivered with the force of her concern, and her gown rustled in echoing indignation. “I understand that a fine young doctor such as yourself would naturally want to help with recovery efforts, but you’ll take ill at the first breeze, and then where will you be, I ask!”
“Well, but I’m not—”
“Not to mention the rioting and flooding along the Thames! People are starving in the streets.”
“They’re not quite st—”
“Yes, starving! Even our rations are running low. We may not survive the week.”
“Most streets are cleared now. Supplies are being brought in even at this minute.”
“Desperation makes animals of us all. You’ll be attacked! And whose job will it be to tend to you? Mine, I tell you! How am I to manage that when I barely have time to eat even a single bite?”
“I assure you, ma’am—”
“Or worse! You’ll die in an accident—the roads are lethal—and we shall have to sort out all your personal effects, and by the time we discover your death, we’ll be out nights and nights worth of tariffs. And what will you do about that, may I ask? Young people never think about the inconvenience they cause!”
Her words cut deeper than they had any right to. But I gave her my most winning smile and firmest voice. “Mrs. Chepston, I promise I’ve no intention of helping with recovery efforts, even though I would like to. You’re quite right—I’m not strong enough yet. I merely need to see to some errands that I had to delay because of the storm. I will be back for supper, safe and sound.”
She stood her tallest but still had to tilt her head up at me. “That’s what dear Mr. Penham said to me, the last day he lodged here. He was my favorite, you know, always had a bag of lemon drops for me. He knew how to treat a hotel proprietress, unlike—”
“Shall I pay this week in advance, then?” I hated to interrupt her. Well, no, I didn’t hate it at all, though I didn’t like being rude. But we all had learned to divert the conversation as soon as the legendary Mr. Penham came up, or we would be subjected to three quarters of an hour’s worth of raptures about the fellow’s charms and virtues. None of us had ever met the man. I doubted he even existed. But every hotel has its ghosts, and our specter terrorized the place with his saintly dullness and the faint whiff of lemon drops.
She froze, and I could almost see the thoughts of her beloved lodger vanishing. Her eyes glittered. “A week in advance?”
“Yes.” I tried not to think of the hole it would leave in my funds. “As a show of good faith that I shall make every attempt not to inconvenience you by dying.”
She clapped her hands together. “Thank you, Dr. Watson. Such a good young man. That does ease my mind.”
“I just bet it does,” I muttered, turning back toward the stairs.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, ma’am. I just said I’m running upstairs. I’ll be down now in a minute.”
With my would-be jailor paid off, I finally made my escape out into the blustery but sunny morning. Slapping my hat on my head, I had to be careful with my cane not to slip on the still-snowy steps, and when I reached the curb, I realized I would have to stand almost in the street itself for a hansom cab to see me around the piles of snow. But it only took a few minutes for one to slow to a stop. The cabby eyed my cane.
“Need any help, sir?”
“No, thank you—I’ll manage.” I held up the cane almost like I was making a toast, my voice far cheerier than I felt.
“Very good, sir. Where to?”
The sort of clientele the Criterion Hotel attracted would be my best hope for the information I needed to start changing my life.
Next Week: Dr. Siân Watson runs into an old friend who has a suggestion that could solve her current problem–and that will definitely change her life.
(A Study In Garnet is the first book in the Ladies of Baker Street series by Meredith Rose. It is a mostly-canon-compliant, Victorian-set, female, and queer retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’m offering the first 10 chapters for free, in hopes that you will support my writing and continue enjoying the story by purchasing the book in either hardback or ebook format from my shop. Thanks for reading!)