Book Cover for Meredith Rose's A Study In Garnet: Book 1 of the Ladies of Baker Street Series

Holmes dressed as a man the entire time we were settling into 221B Baker Street. It felt like a show of support for me, though she never said a thing about it. I confess that in those early days, I watched her dashing around the flat, piling arcane notes and papers on the desk, scattering personal effects in various nooks and crannies, stabbing a stack of unanswered correspondence to the mantle with a jack-knife, and I couldn’t help but wonder what she would look like in bustled skirts, that angular figure rounded and shaped by a corset and finely-tailored bodice. Would women’s clothing constrain that thrumming energy or enhance it? I could not imagine her enjoying frills and ruffles—such softness would be at odds with the severity of her manner. But her male costume showed a sensitivity toward fashion in an understated way that prioritized quality over trends. I myself had been too far removed from the ebb and flow of styles to be able to picture what the equivalent women’s costume would look like. 

My musings received answer a week after we took the flat. I was in my room writing in my journal when our housemaid, Josie, rapped on the open door. She had her arms full of clothing.

“Miss Holmes said you mean to go shopping and to bring you this and help you dress when you’re ready.” 

Ah, the promised loan of a dress. “Thank you, Josie. Will you lay it out on the bed, please? This morning is as good as any for me.”

“Yes, Miss—er, Doctor, I mean.” Her lightly-freckled face flushed at her error, but I smiled kindly at her.

Mrs. Hudson revealed to me days after we took the flat that Holmes had been interested in it for nearly two months, but her father and older brother, who were financially supporting her, would not agree to let her move in until she had a suitable flatmate to share costs with. Mrs. Hudson had complete faith in Holmes’s ability to acquire the necessary flatmate—a faith that had indeed proven well-deserved—and had spent the time briefing her staff about Holmes’s odd ways and instructing them that they were to allow Holmes, and me by extension, complete freedom to do and live as we wished without gossip or condemnation. And if they weren’t comfortable with those terms, Mrs. Hudson would be happy to furnish them an excellent reference to use in their search for a new position. None of them felt the need to accept that generous offer, and so far they’d treated us with utmost respect and care. 

She’d hired Josie only a few weeks before Holmes found me, specifically to be both our housemaid and ladies’ maid, chosen from a pool of applicants for her broadness of mind and tightness of lips. Our peculiar lifestyles and secrets would be safe with her—not that I intended to live either peculiarly or secretively in the future, but I wouldn’t vouch for Holmes on that score.

Holmes had sent up not just a bodice and skirt, but drawers, chemise, petticoats, stockings, and corset, as well as a pair of boots. As Josie helped me dress, I tried not to think about how the same drawers now touching my skin touched Holmes or how foreign the corset felt—not only because I had not worn one in nearly three years, but because this one was molded to her shape and not mine. I say I tried not to think about these things—clearly, I was not successful in that effort. 

The skirt was made from a chocolatey velveteen lined in alpaca, narrow and trimmed around the bottom hem with a sturdy but elegant flounce of plaid flannel in green, blue, and cream. It was meant to be a short walking skirt on Holmes, but on me, it almost brushed the floor once I put on the boots. A gracefully-draped polonaise overdress of the same plaid buttoned in back and had matching brown velveteen sleeves, again lined in a soft alpaca, that were only a little too long for my arms. The bodice itself would have strained over even my unpretentious breasts had I been wearing it three years ago, but my injury and subsequent illness had left me so emaciated that the bodice meant for Holmes’s slender frame was nearly too large on me. My current lack of curves was useful for my male disguise, but I knew I would feel more hardy once I could return to a healthier weight. 

A brown serge jacket without sleeves, lined with yet more alpaca, completed the ensemble, and I appreciated Holmes choosing the outfit for its warmth. The weather was quite cold yet, and I was still invalid enough that even a short walk outside left me chilled the rest of the day. 

When I was dressed, Josie surveyed my short, blond curls with the air of one girding herself for a monumental challenge. Usually, I parted them to the side and pomaded them into obedient masculine waves. But I had indulged last night in a soaking hot bath and washed my hair. This morning, it was a mess of loose s-shaped locks and a few curls, but not nearly long enough to do up into a proper feminine style. 

“I should have sent for a hairpiece,” I said in way of apology. “You could have pulled my own hair back and pinned a chignon in it.”

Inspiration sparked in her hazel eyes. “I may have just the thing, if you’ll excuse me a few minutes, Doctor.” 

“Of course, please. I’d appreciate it.”

When she left me, I crossed the room to the dressing table to examine myself in the mirror. Just walking those few steps felt strange—the weight of the skirt and petticoats brushing my legs, the pressure of the corset—even though Josie had not laced it very tightly—and the constriction of the dainty boots, which were a little small. I stared at the woman reflecting back to me—cheeks and eyes sunken, pallid complexion, body at once swathed and covered, yet on display in a way a man’s body never is, the posture that still spoke more of military than finishing school. She was familiar and yet not, and I flinched away. 

Cane in hand, I practiced walking between the dressing table and the bed, my three years as a man falling off of me with each step. Don’t stride. Don’t swing my arm. Chin proudly up, but eyes modestly down. Gentle. Graceful. 

Only I’d never been that. In spite of the efforts at Preston’s College for Young Ladies in London, my body had never learned grace. The army and injuries had only made it worse.

The more I paced, the less my limbs cooperated with their new task. I sank down on the dressing table bench, my back to the mirror, and covered my face with my hands. For months, I’d longed to go back to a woman’s life, but now it didn’t seem to fit me any better than the man’s life had. Not anymore.

Josie returned. “All right, Dr. Watson?”

I lifted my head and managed a smile. “Yes. I’m just unused to a corset.”

She nodded sympathetically and held up a flattened ball of wool wound with cotton thread. “If we pin this to your hair and put a bonnet over it, it ought to be hidden, but you’ll have the proper shape of hair.”

“That’s a very clever idea, Josie. Thank you.”

I swiveled on the bench to face the mirror, and her nimble fingers quickly coaxed my too-short hair into something resembling an updo with the wool perched like a small nest at the crown and a few curls in front as a fringe. She even managed to tuck enough of my hair around the improvised rat to mostly cover the wool, if one wasn’t looking too closely. She was right—as long as I wore the bonnet, it might not be a particularly fashionable style, but nobody would know how short my hair was.

When she was finished, she said she would wait downstairs with a cape and gloves, and I tidied my desk, tucking my journal out of sight.

By the time I limped downstairs, the sound of Holmes’s violin was drifting like perfume in heady waves along the hall. I had only heard her play once before—two nights ago—and I couldn’t imagine why she had listed it among her shortcomings. The tone was sweet and mellow, and the tune she now played lilted in phrases that were as precise as they were emotive. I would have far rather sat in my chair by the fireplace and listened, eyes closed, than brave the streets of London. 

She faced the window, her back to me, yet her bow stopped as soon as my toes crossed the threshold of the room. 

And then I saw—she was wearing women’s clothing too. The jacket and floor-length skirt were a black vigogne with white pinstripes whose sheen looked impossibly soft. Bright blue satin trimmed the skirt, and a matching scarf had been softly pleated and draped back into a small waterfall bustle. The sleeves were cut looser than was strictly a la mode, but someone like Holmes could not possibly be expected to be restrained by the dictates of fashion. A braided chignon that had to be a hairpiece crowned her dark tresses. 

She carefully lowered her instrument into a stand by the window and turned to me, her skirts caressing the rug in a whispered sigh. As I took in her slight but elegant curves, my borrowed corset seemed to heat and tighten around me, a reminder that the shape before my eyes was the same as that pressing against my skin. 

Over the years, I’d had the pleasure of being intimately acquainted with several women I considered truly beautiful. I wasn’t so arrogant as to consider myself a connoisseur of female beauty—I found such attitudes in men to be offensive in their condescension. But I did not think it unreasonable to have opinions on the matter. And currently, my opinions were asserting themselves against my better judgement. She was nearly a stranger to me, and I desperately needed us to live together in peace and amiability. I couldn’t afford—financially or emotionally—for relations between us to become strained or soured. I must not notice, must not think, must not remember or compare or have any opinions at all relating to…

The arguments piled up in my mind, but they were vanquished by the singular opinion expressing itself vociferously to my consciousness: Miss Holmes was beautiful. 

Hers was not the fragile, ethereal beauty printed on French soap labels or idealized in a Rosetti painting. But the subtle asymmetry of her features, the strength in her bearing, the searing intelligence simmering in the depth of her eyes, the arc of her lips that by turns hinted at fortitude or private amusement—these combined to make her simply the most stunning and mesmerizing woman I’d ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Damn it all. I knew I was staring most rudely, but I couldn’t look away. Deep rose tinted her cheeks, and she finally broke our gaze. 

“See, we didn’t need to shorten the skirt after all,” she said, a slight rasp in her voice. “Using a wool rat under the bonnet was a good idea.”

“Josie told you?”

Her slow smile and silence informed me that no, she hadn’t spoken to Josie at all. “Go to Abernathy’s in Oxford Street and mention my name.” Then she returned to her violin and her place in front of the window.

I headed toward the stairs. 

“It suits you far better than me. You may keep it if you like.” Her low words brought me to a halt.

I drew a sharp breath. “That’s…extremely generous. How kind you are, Holmes.”

But only the violin answered me.

Next Time: Siân meets some…friends(?) of her new flatmate and makes a new…friend(?) of her own.

(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.

I’m posting the chapters here on my website, once a week. Enjoy, and please share with people you know who are looking for historical f/f fiction or who enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories. Thanks for reading!)