>Sherlock Holmes & Working Class Women

>NB: this post is not connected to this week´s “Bait in the Box” quotation. This review will appear tomorrow, Friday, as usual.

As my previous Sherlock Holmes post indicates, Conan Doyle did include women in his crime stories – when they suited a purpose. As in real, Victorian life, Conan Doyle´s women belonged to a strict social hierarchy, and today I am going to take a look at the working class woman. Any respectable middle-class household would have at least one maid, preferably more, and often a cook as well. These servants are faceless and nameless unless they appear several times in a story, making a name convenient.

One of the few girls with a name is Edith Baxter from “Silver Blaze”. She brings supper to a stable boy when a stranger suddenly turns up and begins questioning her. The dialogue is not relevant here, but her reactions contribute to a characterization of the Victorian maid, “She was frightened by the earnestness of his manner” – “the girl fled away to the house…” A similar example is found in “The Crooked Man”. When their master had died a mysterious and terrible death, “the maids were too distracted with fear to be of any assistance.”
Even much older working class women were liable to uncontrollable fear, e.g. the two housekeepers of “The Sign of Four”, and “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Mrs Bernstone, Bartholomew Sholto´s housekeeper, is introduced thus, “… there sounded through the silent night the saddest and most pitiful of sounds – the shrill, broken whimpering of a frightened woman.”
Another night, in another place, the Barrymores, butler and housekeeper of Baskerville Hall, are taken by surprise, “… Mrs Barrymore, paler and more horrorstruck than her husband, was standing at the door.” Just like Mrs Bernstone, she is unable to control her feelings, and she also cries in the night. “And then suddenly, in the very dead of the night, there came a sound to my [Watson´s] ears, clear, resonant and unmistakable. It was the sob of a woman, the muffled, strangling gasp of one who is torn by an uncontrollable sorrow.”
Working class women did not receive much formal education (or informal, for that matter), and they were not supposed to be as clever or polite as other women. In the story of “The Yellow Face”, the anxious Mr Munro is turned out by his new neighbour, an elderly servant, with a ´churlish rebuff´. In another story we meet the mother of William the coachman who has just been killed. We are told that she is old and deaf, and that “the shock has made her half-witted, but I understand that she was never very bright.”
The above-mentioned housekeeper, Mrs Barrymore, is worth returning to as she is one of the working class women who is characterized most thoroughly. In Dr Watson´s words, “she is a heavy, solid person, very limited, intensely respectable…” Other epithets are “large, heavy-featured, stern, bulky”. Apparently this lump of a woman is the proto-type of the female servant.
If we turn to Mrs Mordecai Smith, wife of the boathouse keeper of “The Sign of Four, we will see that she was “a stoutish, red-faced woman with a large sponge in her hand.” Another apt description, this time of the above-mentioned servant from “The Yellow Face” reads, “a tall, gaunt woman, with a harsh, forbidding face.” For a last example of a ´servant exterior´ I have selected Mrs Tangey from “The Naval Treaty” who is “a large, coarse-faced, elderly woman, in an apron.”
So far, the descriptions of these working class women have been discouraging, but it is possible to find a few positive characteristics as well. Many of the servants are highly respectable, and in spite of their limitations they are often ´good´ and ´faithful´ girls.
A few women are difficult to place socially, e.g. Mrs Laura Lyons, the mysterious woman of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Her father is a neighbour of Sir Henry´s but she has “made a rash marriage” with an artist who has deserted her. She is now forced to support herself as a typist, and the fact that she has married beneath her, puts her in a delicate position between the middle and the working class. As there is always a close connection between looks and position in Victorian literature, Dr Watson´s description of her does not come as a great surprise: “The first impression left by Mrs Lyons was one of extreme beauty.” – “But the second was criticism. There was something subtly wrong with the face, some coarseness of expression, some hardness, perhaps of eye, some looseness of lip which marred its perfect beauty.”
It might be argued, of course, that what ´marred´ her was her connection with the villain, rather than her place in society, but if we compare her to another woman in the same book, ´Miss´ Stapleton, her looks are in no way destroyed by the fact that she is married to the same villain and knows a lot more about what is going on. Here, as in other stories, society seems to accept that a woman is loyal to the man she is married to, no matter what he has done.
Future post: Sherlock Holmes & Middle Class Women


Sherlock Holmes & arbejderklassens kvinder.

OBS: dette indlæg har ikke noget at gøre med ugens ”Gæt en Bog”, som vil blive anmeldt i morgen fredag som sædvanlig.
Som mit tidligere indlæg om Sherlock Holmes viser, forekommer der kvinder I Conan Doyles krimier – når det tjente et formal. Som I det virkelige, viktorianske liv, hørte Conan Doyles kvinder hjemme I et strengt, socialt hierarki, og I dag vil jeg beskæftige mig med arbejderklassekvinden. Enhver respektabel middelklassefamilie havde mindst én tjenestepige, helst flere, og ofte en kok også. Disse tjenestefolk har hverken ansigt eller navn, medmindre de vender tilbage I historien så ofte, at det er bekvemt at have noget at kalde dem.
En af de få tjenestepiger, vi hører navnet på, er Edith Baxter fra “Silver Blaze”. Hun går ud til staldknægten med hans aftensmad, da en fremmed pludselig dukker op og begynder at udspørge hende. Deres samtale er uden betydning her, men hendes reaktioner kan bidrage til en karakteristik af den viktorianske tjenestepige: ”Hun blev skræmt af hans indtrængende væremåde” – ”pigen flygtede i retning mod huset…” Et lignende eksempel kan findes i ”The Crooked Man”. Da husets herre har lidt en mystisk og frygtelig død, ”var tjenestepigerne ude af sig selv af frygt i sådan en grad, at de ikke kunne være til nogen hjælp.”
Selv granvoksne arbejderklassekvinder led af ukontrollabel frygt, for eksempel de to husholdere I “The Sign of Four” og “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Mrs Bernstone, Bartholomew Sholtos husholder, bliver præsenteret med følgende ord: ”… der lød gennem den stille nat den mest triste og ynkværdige af lyde – den skarpe, brudte klynken af en skræmt kvinde.”
En anden nat og et andet sted bliver Barrymores, butler og husholder på Baskerville Hall, overrasket midt om natten: ”… Mrs Barrymore, blegere og mere rædselsslagen end sin mand, stod ved døren. ” Ligesom Mrs Bernstone er hun ude af stand til at kontrollere sine følelser, og også hun græder om natten. ”Og pludselig, i nattens dybe stilhed, nåede en lyd mine [Watsons] ører, klar, gennemtrængende og umiskendelig. Det var en kvindes hulken, det dæmpede, halvkvalte gisp af en person, som rives itu af en ukontrollabel sorg.”
Arbejderklassens kvinder fik ikke megen formel uddannelse (eller uformel, for den sags skyld), og de forventedes ikke at være så kloge eller høflige som andre kvinder. I novellen ”The Yellow Face” bliver ængstelige Mr Munro sat på porten af sin nye nabo, en ældre tjenestepige med en ”grov afvisning”. I en anden novelle møder vi moderen til kusken William, som lige er blevet dræbt. Vi får at vide, at hun er gammel og døv, og at ”chokket har skræmt hende fra vid og sans , men så vidt jeg kan forstå, har hun aldrig været særlig klog.”
Den før-nævnte husholder, Mrs Barrymore, er en af de arbejderkvinder, som bliver beskrevet mest udførligt. Ifølge Dr Watson er hun ”en tung, solidt bygget person, meget begrænset, yderst respektabel…” Andre træk er ”stor, groft bygget, streng, massiv”. Og denne skude af en kvinde er tilsyneladende prototypen på periodens kvindelige tjenestefolk.
Hvis vi vender os mod Mrs Mordecai Smith fra ”The Sign of Four”, vil vi opdage at hun er ”en kraftigt bygget, rødmosset kvinde med en stor svamp i hånden.” En anden rammende beskrivelse, denne gang af den uhøflige tjenestepige fra ”The Yellow Face”, lyder: ”en høj, mager kvinde med et barsk, afvisende ansigt.” Som mit sidste eksempel på et tjenestepige-eksteriør har jeg valgt Mrs Tangey fra ”The Naval Treaty” som er ”en stor, forklædeklædt ældre kvinde med et groft ansigt.”
Indtil videre har beskrivelserne af arbejderklassekvinderne ikke været særlig opmuntrende, men det er dog muligt at finde nogle få, positive karaktertræk. Mange af tjenestefolkene er højst respektable, og på trods af deres begrænsninger er de ofte ´gode´ og ´trofaste´ piger.
Nogle få kvinder er svære at placere på den sociale rangstige, for eksempel Mrs Laura Lyons, den mystiske kvinde I “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Hendes far er nabo til Sir Henry, men hun har ”indgået et overilet ægteskab” med en kunstner, som har forladt hende. Derfor er hun tvunget til at forsørge sig selv som maskinskriver, og hendes uheldige ægteskab har placeret hende i en vanskelig stilling midt mellem middel- og arbejderklasse. Da udseende og position altid var tæt forbundet i viktoriatiden, kommer Dr Watsons beskrivelse af hende ikke som den store overraskelse: ”Det første indtryk man fik af Mrs Lyons var af ekstrem skønhed.” – ”Men det andet var kritik. Der var noget udefinerligt galt med ansigtet, et udtryk af grovhed, en hårdhed, måske i øjnene, noget slapt ved læberne som skæmmede dets perfekte skønhed.”
Nu kan det naturligvis tænkes, at det der skæmmer Mrs Lyons er hendes forbindelse med romanens skurk, og ikke hendes sociale position, men hvis vi sammenligner hende med en anden kvinde I samme bog, ´Miss´ Stapleton, påvirkes hendes udseende på ingen måde af, at hun er gift med selvsamme skurk, og ved en hel del mere om, hvad der foregår. Her, som i andre Sherlock Holmes-historier, ser det ud til, at samfundet accepterer, at en kvinde er loyal over for sin ægtemand, uanset hvad han har gjort.
Kommende indlæg: Sherlock Holmes & middelklassekvinden.

About Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

I am a Danish teacher. In my spare time I read, write and review crime fiction.
This entry was posted in Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to >Sherlock Holmes & Working Class Women

  1. Dorte H says:

    >Hej Zarina. Velkommen til. Når jeg får nye ´abonnenter´, plejer jeg at checke deres profil, så jeg også kan besøge deres blog. Det kan jeg ærlig talt ikke finde ud af med den nye version af “Faste læsere”, så hvis du har en blog vil jeg da gerne have et link🙂

  2. Julia Smith says:

    >Fascinating, Dorte H. I’m currently writing about the Victorian servant class in England, which has been a hard thing to research. The servants were definitely to be seen and not heard. But it is possible after lots of digging to get some stories nowadays about these nameless, faceless people.

  3. Dorte H says:

    >Julia, I am glad you like it. I think the Victorian period is so interesting, but not only for something good. As my parents belonged to the working class and I am a woman, I am happy I was born 100 years later🙂

  4. Søren says:

    >I allways found Laurie R. Kings Mary Russel series entertaining and amusing. Mary Russel is the equal of the Great Holmes, as clever and vigorous as he is.Allthough Mary Russel isn’t a working class woman (she’s actually well of), I can’t help but see her as a woman writers revenge over Conan Doyle. And since Doyle is dead, there’s nothing he can do about it.That’s amusing🙂

  5. Dorte H says:

    >Søren, that is indeed an amusing point. – dancing on his grave, you might say😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s