Throughout this series, I have been making the case that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson could easily have been women in the late Victorian era. So far, we’ve looked at how a woman Dr. Watson could have earned her medical degree from the University of London in 1878, and how a woman Holmes could have attended a Cambridge-affiliated women’s college in the mid 1870’s as well as why she may have decided to quit.
I also posted an excerpt to my version of Holmes’s first case, which takes place while she is a university student at Girton.
But what about beyond education? What opportunities were there for women to lead the kind of lifestyle necessary for canon Holmes and Watson? Would they have had the freedom to live in a flat on their own? Ride around London in cabs by themselves? Go to clubs and Turkish baths and investigate crime?
Earlier in the Victorian era, it would have been a lot more difficult. At this time, women still were legally dependent on the men in their lives. Laws in 1857 and 1858 made divorce accessible to middle-class couples (though women still had to prove more than just adultery as grounds for divorce, unlike men, who only had to prove adultery), and they also specified that a woman could keep her earnings and not have to give them to her ex-husband.
But it wasn’t until 1870 that married women could keep their own earnings, and not until 1882 that married women could own their own property.
In spite of this reality, authors were creating stories about female detectives since 1861 (Revelations of a Lady Detective, by W. S. Hayward), a good 16 years before Sherlock Holmes even existed!
So the idea of an independent, clever, resourceful woman going on adventures and solving crimes was seeding itself into Victorian consciousness for decades before the first actual British woman detective was transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 1922.
Outside of literature, the view of what women could (or should) be began changing in the mid-1800’s. And one of the primary reasons was simple: there was an excess of unmarried women.
By the 1861 census, there were 2.5 million women who weren’t hitched. And in a culture whose ideal is “every woman a wife,” this is a big-ass problem. It was such a big deal that it became known as “The Woman Problem.” What to do with all these “redundant” women? (Yeah, that’s what folks called them.) If you can’t marry them off, then who is going to provide for them?
The obvious answer is that they need to be able to provide for themselves. And that, gentle readers, was one of the main motivators of the culture at large to educate women and open up the workforce to them.
For wealthy women, the whole “angel of the home” bullshit was still very much the ideal. Just because the laws were changing doesn’t mean the expectations were. And working-class women had always had to, well, work. But for middle-class women, this change in perspective was life-altering.
If women weren’t always going to be under the care of a man, then they were going to have to live on their own. They would have to have jobs. They’d have to take transportation to those jobs. They would be spending their wages on their own.
There would be entire industries that could rise up to cater to the needs of these newly independent women.
It didn’t happen quickly. It took decades. But the world that Holmes and Watson were born into at the start of the 1850’s was drastically different than the one in which they came of age in the 1870’s.
And starting in the 1880’s into the 1890’s—at the height of Holmes’s career and the partnership with Watson—these changes multiplied rapidly.
The mid 1870’s saw the creation of mixed-gender clubs (as in the equivalent of Watson’s gentlemen’s club or Mycroft Holmes’s Diogenes club) and Turkish Baths that were either solely for women or who had a dedicated wing or special hours for women only.
Department stores began appearing in the 1870’s as well, providing women with specialized and safe shopping environments. Hotels and restaurants created dining rooms especially for women, as did tea shops.
Hansom cabs provided discreet and safe travel for women who could afford them. The rising popularity of the tricycle in the 1880’s and the bicycle in the late 80’s and 90’s gave women yet another way to move about freely.
The Rational Dress movement in the 1880’s challenged the restrictive feminine fashions of the day.
The Women’s Suffrage movement during the last part of the century pushed for the inclusion of women in political life, though women would not achieve full suffrage in Britain until 1928.
Women began living together in boarding houses run by other women as well as in their own flats. These new freedoms opened up opportunities for queer women to live together in relative safety, especially since sex between women was not criminalized (mainly because it was not thought that women had much of a sex drive, and “mere” affection between women was viewed positively until the concept of sexual orientation began to be more widespread in the early 20th century).
Literature of the 1880’s and 90’s was especially fascinated by the rise of independent women. In 1894, Sarah Grand coined the term “New Woman” in describing the profound changes to women’s independence. She was only one of several women writing novels about this new breed of determined, adventurous, and free-spirited woman, including Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird, Ella D’Arcy and Ella Hepworth Dixon.
And as for fictional women detectives? The trend gained steam during these decades too, with even the Strand featuring the exploits of Grant Allen’s women detectives, Lois Cayley and Hilda Wade, in the late 1890’s.
None of this is to say that society greeted the New Woman with open arms. Far from it. They were ridiculed and often harassed in the street and accused of being unnatural and “mannish” (oh the horror!). But little by little, they created space for themselves and for the women who would come after them.
Holmes and Watson, with their education, career-mindedness, and intrepidness would have been quintessential New Women, down to the emerging genre of women detectives. They would have faced prejudices and still had to fight to overcome barriers, but they would not have been unique in that way—they had plenty of company.
Next time: Canon Dr. Watson and Stamford visit the Holbourne for lunch just before Stamford introduces Watson to Holmes. What would this lunch have been like for women?
(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.)