“As we walked together back to the sitting room with that wonderful fireplace, for one glorious moment I considered saying yes. Having to continue passing as a man, even with the risk of getting caught, would be worth it to live here, to be able to know Mr. Hope and Mrs. Hudson. This life could be mine—if I was willing to keep living the lie.”(A Study In Garnet, chapter 4,by Meredith Rose)
To go along with the launch of my new web novel series Ladies of Baker Street(a gender-swapped Sherlock Holmes series, where Holmes and Watson are both queer Victorian women),I’ve been offering some peeks into cool historical stuff I’ve found relating to each chapter of book 1, A Study In Garnet. I’m continuing to use #A Study In Victorian Women. If you have something in particular you’d like me to talk about, I’d love to hear from you! I’m publishing the first book in serial form on Patreon, and I’m posting the first 10 chapters for free.
Today, we’re taking a look at Chapter 4—if you missed it, you can read it here, where Siân Watson gets her first look at her dream home, 221B Baker Street, and immediately falls in love with it—even though she’s convinced it can never work out.
What do we know about canon 221B? Well, not a whole lot, actually. In A Study In Scarlet, the rooms are described very briefly:
“They consisted of a couple of comfortable bedrooms and a single large airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows.”
Most of what people envision when they think of 221B Baker Street is based on the Sherlock Holmes museum in the area or one of the many Sherlock Holmes film or stage adaptations, or the Sydney Paget illustrations. But for my book, I wanted to go a little deeper.
The house was probably a large mansion build in the late 1700’s, and it likely was under a long-term lease. That means that Mrs. Hudson owned the lease instead of owning the property outright. It may have had a business on the ground floor (in my story, it’s a tea shop), and the kitchen and maybe even rooms for any live-in maids or Billy the page would have been located in the basement or possibly in the top floor.
Mrs. Hudson would have lived on the top level, and the original stories mention how Watson could hear the maid and Mrs. Hudson passing by his room on the way to their own rooms on the top floor, so it’s likely that her room was also up there.
To be clear, Mrs. Hudson was definitely not the housekeeper, and even though the original stories seem to imply she cooked for Holmes and Watson, I think it’s more likely that Mrs. Hudson would have employed a cook. I’ve seen estimates that the rent would have included meals, cleaning, and laundry, for around 3 pounds per month.
What about water closets and baths?
By the first half of the 1870s, flush toilets, known as water closets, were common in a lot of English homes. Mrs. Hudson’s house would likely have had a water cistern either in the attic or on the roof. The water system in London during this time period was in the process of being converted from one that would only run a few hours a day to one that was available all the time. So we don’t know exactly where 221B would have been in this process by 1881. If it wasn’t in the part of town that had been converted yet, then there would be running water a few hours of the day. It would fill up the cistern and provide water pressure for flushing the toilets and for use in cooking and cleaning, as well as baths.
Canon indicates that there was a bathroom on the same floor as Watson’s room (for my American readers who are used to using “bathroom” to mean “toilet”, this would be a separate room than the water closet. The bathroom is where you take a bath. The water closet is where the toilet is.)
In my story, I designated that upstairs bath for Mrs. Hudson, because I felt that the woman deserved to have her own space and something nice for herself. But I created another bathroom on the second floor, down the hall from Holmes’ room for Holmes and Watson to use.
By 1881, it’s very possible that 221B Baker Street had a hot water system for taking hot baths. There would have been a boiler behind the oven in the kitchen or a hot water cylinder above it and pipes to carry the hot water throughout the house.
What would the interior design have been like?
If the house itself dated to the late 1700’s, the architectural features of it would have been more like Jane Austen (Georgian era) than Victorian. But Victorian features could have been added over time. And my Mrs. Hudson is someone who likes to keep her house looking up to date. So the way I describe the rooms in the house are in line with the Aesthetic Movement of the 1870’s.
The Aesthetic Movement was a reaction against mid-Victorian mass-production. The idea was that even our functional elements of daily life, like metalwork, furniture, and textiles, should be beautiful in its own right as well as functional. It also was very influenced by Japanese elements, so, for example, cranes, cherry blossoms, and bamboo were popular motifs. Wallpaper was extremely popular, and it was used in layers, even on the ceiling. Favorite colors included sage and olive green, as well as dusty reds and brilliant blues.
William Morris, who is experiencing a resurgence in popularity at the moment, is probably the most well-known designer of this era, though, ironically, he didn’t like being associated with the movement at all.
I drew inspiration for the wallpapers in Watson’s room, Holmes’ room, and the sitting room from Bradbury Wallpaper, which has a whole section of historical Victorian papers from this time period. Here are the three I describe in the chapter:
Many people today find this style to be too busy and too dark feeling. However, right now (in 2022), maximalism in home decorating is growing in popularity, and this is making people more interested again in these kinds of wallpapers and decor.
What I like about it is how visually rich and interesting it is, and how cozy it makes a room feel. It’s like being wrapped up in a snug piece of art, which is, I suppose, the whole aim of the Aesthetic Movement.
I think it fits 221B Baker Street perfectly.
I was a little late this week in posting this—mostly because last night, I just did my first D&D session as a DM and I spent a lot of the week prepping (and stressing!) for it. But it went great! And tomorrow, you’ll get to read chapter 5 of A Study In Garnet—be on the lookout for it!