Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Veiled Detective: Sherlock Holmes (&) the New Woman

So Arthur Conan Doyle based his detective duo on a lizard from the dawn of time and her wife. Madame Vastra, a Silurian (lizard-looking alien who eats humans), is known as the Great Detective (she tracked and ate Jack the Ripper) and Jenny, a Victorian human, is a sword-fighting former match girl.

Or, merry Christmas from Steven Moffatt, current Doctor Who (and Sherlock) showrunner, doing his bit for equal marriage rights. In yesterday's Christmas episode, The Snowmen, the dynamic duo were greeted by villain Dr. Simeon with the reveal that Vastra, known also as the Veiled Detective, was Doyle's inspiration. An in-jokey cross-reference of course, but also - possibly - an admission from Moffatt that there something missing in the state of Sherlock. As there has been in Doctor Who: this is not the time or post to go into everything groanworthy about Moffatt's Whovian arc, but briefly: everything, and particularly his treatment of female characters who are never... themselves. Clara Oswin Oswald, the new companion, looks like she'll present a similar problem, being an impossibility (the girl who died twice) who, far from being a vampire slayer, will be a temporal impurity the Doctor will have to erase.

Dialling back the predictions, though, it's safe to say that Moffatt has a problem with women. Or rather,  with girls who become women. It's all marvellous when she is Amelia in her nightdress or Jeanne Poisson in her nightdress (hmmm), but as soon as these spitfire girls - who need the Doctor as a protector - attain womanhood (or at least adolescence) they become something threatening: sexual beings who snog the Doctor and dizzy him. And so they must be abandoned, duplicated, sacrificed, fragmented (River), married off (Rory!), or otherwise written out.

Now, obviously, the character of the Doctor as conceived since the dawn of time, is an escapist bachelor fantasy: one that Moffatt also identifies in Sherlock Holmes. His Sherlock is, to me, as problematic as his Doctor. The writing might be sharper in the former than the latter, but the characterisation depends, again, on such a limited and depressing gendered binary that I find it unwatchable. Again, further analysis is for another time.

Because my Moffatt-bashing may have something to do with my absolute devotion to the one, the only incarnation of Sherlock Holmes: the magnificent Jeremy Brett. I grew up with Brett's Holmes, from 1984 to 1994, all 2358 minutes (approx., according to the box set) of aquiline deduction and irascible line deliveries. Whether the codex or televisual Holmes came first to my consciousness is lost in the mists of times: they are intertwined. My uncle gave me the Penguin Collected Sherlock Holmes when I was still at primary school; in my final year, I won the public speaking competition as Holmes, with a riddling speech in the first person leading up to the declaration, "Who am I? It's elementary."

I was a strange child, and I still am. The postcard from the Sherlock Holmes museum, which informed me that Mr. Holmes could not answer my question because he had retired to keep bees in Sussex, still rankles in its insinuation that I couldn't tell fact from fiction. I was a Holmesian: astutely in tune to the crucial distinctions between the real and imagined.

Rewatching the entire 2358 minutes of Brett's Holmes earlier this year, I was amazed by how fallible my memory of the series was, given my devotion to it, but also by how vivid. Fragments, moments, expressions, phrasings persist where plots had fallen away. Unlike many avid Doyle readers, I never became a fan of detective fiction. It wasn't Holmes' deductive method, or the tangled webs from which he extricated himself, that interested me.

What was it? I've been wondering all year how to describe, or even identify, it. From the off, though, the ordering of the ITV adaptations hinted at something confirmed by the magnificent, melancholy concluding episodes: Holmes, like his exact contemporary Sigmund Freud (who moved from physiological to mental deduction), listens to women. In fact, he listens "like a woman" (to quote, contingently, cultural norms).

Moffatt's Sherlock, among his other deficiencies, does not: he is rude, abrasive, disengaged. Debates have raged online about whether his Watson's joking reference to autism is in fact intended as a diagnosis, with fewer debates about the complexities of what this means - from the stereotyping of the autistic 'savant' to the mechanisms of autism. Whether Moffatt's and Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is intended to be an autistic character or not, he behaves brusquely and even brutishly towards the emotions and imaginations of others. Brett's Holmes is, rather, like a taut violin string sensitive to every emotion and imagining around him: hence his brusqueness, not because he is unaware, but because he is too aware.

And with this awareness, like Freud, what he hears is the plight of middle-class women, often New Women. The ITV cycle begins with A Scandal in Bohemia, the first short story to be published in The Strand Magazine in 1891. In it, Holmes meets his match, not in Moriarty, but in Irene Adler, a woman of exceptional intelligence and courage, determined to pursue her feelings against social norms: she turns down the affections of a king. Holmes, commissioned by the king to steal back a photograph from this woman out of fear of blackmail, ends up switching sides. In Moffatt's version of the story, A Scandal in Belgravia, the female suspect is wily and manipulative, using her erotic capital to both flummox and inform Holmes - who is beaten by her, but does not respect her.

Brett's Holmes harbours a Platonic love for Adler, evinced by his possession of a photograph of her, hidden in a drawer as her photograph of the King was hidden in a safe. Holmes does not save Adler (she does that herself), but he keeps her safe, one could say. Subsequent episodes in the first ITV run, entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and not even vaguely related to publication order (only sampling the published collection known by the same title), feature similarly bold, brave women to whom Holmes increasingly lends a sympathetic ear.

There are wives who fear the return of the repressed (for example, in the second episode The Dancing Men) or disgrace attendant on their dependence on their husband (third episode The Naval Treaty). But there are particularly young, unmarried New Women, threatened by indeterminate and suggestive forces. Episode four, The Solitary Cyclist, focuses on Violet Smith, a middle-class young woman impoverished by her father's death, and working as a music teacher to provide for her mother and earn enough to marry her fiancé. Cycling to the railway station to take the train to her mother's, she is followed by an unidentified male cyclist, whom she suspects of being either her employer or his boorish guest, both of whom have expressed a competing attraction to her.

What saves this from being an all-too-familiar tale of the (depicted as) self-inflicted peril of the unmarried woman daring to be out in the world is Holmes' attention to the details of Smith's case, the way in which he treats her, first of all as a serious client even though she is not wealthy; and second of all as a serious and credible witness to her own almost supernatural circumstance. It was only in the 1880s and 1890s that the safety cycle had attracted women to bicycling in great numbers, providing - in tandem with the railway - freedom of movement for the increasing numbers of working middle-class women. Violet Smith is a model of such a woman, and the story offers a sympathetic and ultimately vindicating account of the threat posed by and to the New Woman by hardened Victorian patriarchal attitudes. Smith's forced marriage is annulled, her fortune is rightly inherited and the two competing suitors are both punished. It's an upside-down fairy tale, one that depends not only on Holmes' deductive skills but on his willingness to trust Smith, and hers to participate, dangerously, as bait.

That danger is multiplied in The Speckled Band, one of the creepiest of Doyle's stories - and perhaps the most Freudian, featuring mirroring sisters, a death on the eve of a wedding, and - finally - a snake that slithers from a stepfather's bedroom and down a bell-pull. Helen Stoner, another young fiancée living precariously in the house of a man who is neither father nor husband, braves her stepfather's considerable disapproval to contact Holmes; in fact, he follows her to Holmes' office and demands to know what she's told the detective. In this, even before the snake appears, Dr. Roylott comes across as the classic sexual abuser. Words can't describe the satisfaction of Holmes striking Roylott's swamp adder and sending it back through the ventilation shaft to bite its owner.

Like Freud, Holmes appears to identify and refuse to indemnify the source of his young female clients' oppression and terror: the older men who hold monetary and social power over them. In another Adventures episode, The Copper Beeches, governess Violet Hunter (a first featured TV role for Natasha Richardson) finds herself the subject of strange, quasi-sexual ministrations by her employer, only to discover (at considerable personal danger) that she is impersonating the locked-up daughter of the house: a profound and clever pastiche of all those "madwoman in the attic" novels.

It's a trope that appears again in The Eligible Bachelor, one of the most ambitious of the ITV adaptations, a film-length episode that takes the fairly simple Holmes story The Noble Bachelor and meshes it with elements borrowed from other stories, as well as inventions. In the opening act, Holmes attends a rehearsal of an Ibsen play (Hedda Gabler, I think), a signature embodiment of the Woman Question and women's contemporaneous struggles for self-determination. The lead actress, Flora Miller, becomes a character in the story - an informant - but it is with a darker, Gothic fantasy that the episode concludes. The bright young American bride-to-be (an echo of American opera singer Irene Adler, perhaps), Hetty Doran, disappears and reappears, persuaded by Holmes to undertake that dangerous adventure of being bait that appears in The Solitary Cyclist and The Speckled Band. Wandering through the guignol fantasia of her betrothed's abandoned country house, she is chased by a leopard (there's also a leopard in The Speckled Band), which leads Holmes to an animal pit that conceals Lord Robert St. Simon's first wife, whom he had committed and then - when she was maddened by confinement - returned to his estate where she was caged like an animal.

A truly remarkable woman, Amelia has sustained her sanity by turning her cage into a trap - intended for St. Simon. With Holmes' help, she escapes, and in the final shot of the episode, she attends the opera (another Adler reference) with him. Many viewers deride the episode, in common with many directed by Peter Hammond, for its hammy inclusion of such Gothic elements, its pick-n-mix approach to adaptation, and its use of the supernatural: Amelia appears to Holmes in dreams that lead him into a depression: he believes an animalistic woman is coming to destroy him. Watson even suggests that Holmes consult a Viennese doctor, Sigmund Freud, about these dreams. But Hammond and screenwriter T. R. Bowen invert the dream's apparent vision of the castrating woman, by having Holmes and Amelia rescue each other: he rescues her physically, but she rescues him spiritually.

Among other stories, The Eligible Bachelor borrows from Doyle's The Veiled Lodger, bringing us back to Madame Vastra and Moffatt's counter-intuitive insight given his own depiction of Holmes. Veiled within the great detective is not only a sensitivity, but an attunement to the Woman Question (equality of education, employment and independence) that lies at the heart of some of the greatest Holmes stories. ITV's adaptation, perhaps fuelled by the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, brings this strand out. The plot is almost always the same, whether in The Hound of the Baskervilles (another version flubbed by Moffatt) or The Master Blackmailer: double standards and asymmetrical power. The solution that compelled - and compels - me is not the unravelling of the crime but the stark and subtle reveal of the far greater power behind the crime: not Moriarty, but patriarchy.

Like Freud, who changed his mind about seduction theory under social pressure, Doyle was a man of his time, both alive to inequality and - in other ways - blind to it. It's undeniable that the Holmes of the stories can also be classist, racist and sexist, dismissing people as inadequate based on a few trace facts about their identity. Franco Moretti has shown that Doyle's crime map of London bears no resemblance to the recorded criminal activity reported by Scotland Yard and the media, but rather an instinctual bias against working class people and immigrants. But the ITV series - and here credit must go, I think, to Brett as the one constant as directors and screenwriters changed around him - finds a Holmes that resonates deeply with a century of change: Holmes, (friend of) the New Woman.

No comments: