After the harrowing experiences Dr. Watson and her peers experienced while trying to gain their medical degrees, the educational path for a Miss Holmes would seem at first to be much simpler.
And it’s true, to a point. But our goal here is not just to make sure Holmes is educated, but that she lines up as closely as possible to canon Holmes. Can that be done?
First, we need to know what we are up against. What is canon Sherlock Holmes’ education?
We only get a few hints here and there. It’s not like Dr. Watson’s proclamation in the first sentence of A Study in Scarlet of when and where and what kind of degree he got.
What we do know from the stories is that Holmes is of a slightly higher social class than Watson and may have descended from landed gentry. So his early schooling would probably have been from private tutors at home, and he may have attended a college such as Eton to prepare him for university. (Reminder to my non-British readers that such colleges were equivalent to middle schools and high schools in America, or any education system for 11-18 year olds.)
Other people suggest that Holmes may have avoided going to any of the elite boys’ colleges. He claims that he was “never a very sociable fellow” and preferred hanging out in his room doing his own thing rather than spending time with other students. He also did not participate in a lot of the sports that were popular with other school boys. His only sports were boxing and fencing.
But we really don’t know. What we do know is that he spent about two years at university. We don’t know which university, but it’s reasonable to assume it was probably one of the elite schools for upperclass men, such as Cambridge or Oxford. He was friends with Victor Trevor, whose father owned a wealthy estate, and the references he makes to his courses would indicate he had not chosen any particular course of study and was simply picking from things that interested him.
Finally, though we don’t know for certain what years he attended university, most people who spend time thinking about these things believe it was around 1874-1876, based on the events in The Gloria Scott.
We don’t know why he left school after two years or if he sat exams for any degree. He never mentions it. But we do find him in a laboratory at St. Barts doing chemical experiments when Dr. Watson first meets him, and Stamford is clear that he is not a medical student.
With that vague a background, we have a ton of options for educating Miss Holmes. What follows is just the path I chose for my version of her.
If we assume that Holmes was born in 1854, then as the daughter of an upperclass family of that time, she would probably have been educated at home with governesses and private teachers until the age of 11.
Given who Holmes is as an adult, it’s almost certain that she would have been a precocious child who would easily have outstripped the knowledge of all but the most well-educated of governesses. To allow for her to become the Holmes of legend, we have to assume that her family was very progressive and supportive of educating women. This isn’t at all out of the realm of possibility, as there was a large movement among most social classes at the time to improve education for girls and women.
So it’s entirely possible that our Miss Holmes could have received private tutoring that allowed her to flourish intellectually and explore whatever areas most interested her through childhood.
She could easily then have gone to either a finishing school or a ladies college of some kind through age 18, similar to our scenario for Dr. Watson. These schools were often run by progressive feminists who would have let her prepare for a university entrance exam, but she may have still felt very pressured to also learn domestic arts and prepare to be a “godly wife and mother.” It would really have depended on the college.
Alternately, she could have continued studying privately. The rules about school attendance were much different than they are now, and as long as she could prove she had the required knowledge (either by gaining certain certificates or passing an entrance exam, she didn’t need to go to any particular school as a teenager.
She just needed to find a university that allowed female students.
In order to stay as close to canon, or the quasi-canon of Holmesian scholars, I really wanted my Miss Holmes to go to Cambridge or Oxford.
But this would be out of the question. Oxford did not admit women for degrees until 1920, and even then, they had a quota that only 25% of the student body could be women. This continued until 1957!
Cambridge was even worse. They didn’t allow women graduates until 1947!
But hold on…it’s not quite as impossible as it first appears.
Oxford formed a women’s college in 1878. Women could take classes and attend lectures. But they weren’t allowed to graduate. Such an arrangement, while immensely unfair, could easily explain why a Miss Holmes would have attended university for only two years without graduating. But the timing is a little off. We want Holmes in university around 1874—four years too early for Oxford.
So what about Cambridge? Ah! Well, that is a different matter entirely!
Even though women would not be granted Cambridge degrees until 1947, it was actually the first university in Britain to establish a residential college for women in 1869. Established by Emily Davies, the goal was to offer women an education equivalent to what Cambridge offered men and to prepare women to take the same Tripos examinations as men students.
Girton College started out in a large house in Hitchin, about 30 miles from Cambridge with only five students. It quickly outgrew this location and moved to Girton in 1873—closer to Cambridge to let lecturers teach there more easily, but far enough away that it would be difficult for male students to “fraternize” with the women.
Getting those lectures was still difficult, though. But in spite of the challenges, three women unofficially sat and passed the Tripos exams in 1872. In 1880, Charlotte Scott obtained permission to officially sit the Mathematical Tripos. She scored high enough to be the “eighth wrangler”—which means she did better than all but 7 of the male students.
However, because she was a woman, Cambridge refused to acknowledge her achievement. She was not allowed to attend the awards ceremony, but when the man who was announcing the awards said “eighth” all the students (presumably men) started shouting her name to honor her. Back at Girton, the women students and faculty literally crowned her with laurels and celebrated her with songs and an ode written by a staff member.
The following year, in 1881, Cambridge allowed Girton students to officially take any of the Tripos exams, but their scores were ranked separately from the men. God forbid the men should be subjected to the cruelty of being outdone by a woman.
It would have been totally possible for Miss Holmes to have attended Girton. But she may have been frustrated by limited lecture offerings and stifled by the rules meant to ensure that the ladies maintained decorum and didn’t cause any scandals.
These feelings of being hemmed in, of not having the intellectual freedom and access to knowledge that her mind needed could easily have made her decide after two years that a university education was not necessary.
With the right family connections (which her brother Mycroft would have had), Holmes could have continued her studies in Europe or chosen to gain a degree from the University of London after they opened their degrees to women in 1878.
But by then, she had been set on a different path. I think Holmes was too independent to care very much about a degree. It was the knowledge, the understanding, she craved, not the recognition. And knowledge was something she could gain from books and journals and her own experimentation.
Perhaps she or her family gained connections with the Royal Free Hospital that allowed her to use their labs for her experiments, making the way clear for a certain meeting of destiny on January 29, 1881.
If you would like to find out more about what Holmes’s university experience might have been like, her friendship with Victoria Trevor (it’s…ahem, just gals being pals, y’all), and what she may have done after she left Girton, you may enjoy The Glorious Scot, which is my adaptation of her very first case. It’s available to my newsletter subscribers.
Next time: What exactly was the “New Woman” and how would female Holmes and Watson fit in to that movement?
(This is an ongoing series about the historical case for how canon Sherlock Holmes and John Watson could have been women. It is leading up to the launch of my new web novel series on Patreon, Ladies of Baker Street—a sapphic/wlw, Victorian women adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.)
(Image credit: Cambridge Girton College Stanley, by Mary Evans, 1913)