Delilah was the original female villain. She seduced her husband. She got the secret of his weakness out of him and then she ultimately caused his demise, but also her own. Women have always been considered the more gentle of the two sexes. If there was some scheme or some evil deed, no one assumed it was a woman, despite the fact that we have Delilah from the Bible to look to. Likewise, in the 1890s when the Sherlock stories were really getting a good hold with the good people of England, no one suspected the woman. That’s different in the Sherlock stories.
In this essay, we’ll look at the idea of women being villains in the Sherlock Holmes series.
Ursula is probably the foremost Disney villain in my head. The Little Mermaid came out in 1989 and it was probably the Disney movie I watched the most. Ursula is kind of scary, but she wasn’t the only Disney villain. There was always an evil step-mother or a witch lurking around causing terrible things to happen, but generally, what they did, at least according to Disney, wasn’t so bad. I have already read the Grimm’s Fairy Tales at length and what the evil women of those stories did was not Disney rated.
We’ve had evil women in literature a long time before the Sherlock Holmes series came about. There were the evil women of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales which was published in 1812 for the first time. There was Delilah and Jezebel from the Bible. There were witches in literature. There were evil step-mothers. We could go on and on about the female villains pre-Sherlock Holmes.
We could also look at historical female villains, yes, there were a few. The primary female villain that comes to mind is Elizabeth Bathory. The countess, The Blood Countess, who was responsible for the deaths of around 600 young women, possibly more. We have women accused of being witches all throughout history. Quite frankly, when I look at people like Queen Mary, otherwise known as Bloody Mary, I kind of consider her a villain. She had her own cousin executed. History has its female villains, but they’re not nearly as prolific as the male villains wandering around.
The female villains of Sherlock Holmes strike me a little differently than the villains in literature before the time of Sherlock Holmes. The female villains of Sherlock Holmes seem smarter and more independent than the female villains of fairy tales. Irene Adler is the first Sherlock Holmes villain that springs to mind. She’s not a murderer. She doesn’t commit treason, ok think the actual literary series, not the show Sherlock. In Sherlock Irene does actually commit treason, but that’s a television show and we’re talking about works of literature. Irene is simply a blackmailer in the stories.
I already pointed out in my posts about A Scandal in Bohemia that I don’t think Irene was necessarily acting out of malice. I think she was a villain, but she was a villain by necessity. She was committing blackmail because she was trying to protect herself, but she was also incredibly smart. She dressed up and pretended to be someone else, much like Sherlock. She was able to keep her own house and have her own money by herself. That’s such a big deal. Women didn’t go have entire households by themselves. Irene was a smart cookie; she wasn’t necessarily the most dastardly villain, but she was still an intelligent female villain.
Then we move onto to Anna from The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez. Anna was a villain and she was a murderer. She was also a revolutionary, political prisoner, and even illegal alien. Anna had herself a list of villainy. Some of her evil-doings weren’t necessarily that evil. Being a political prisoner means the government doesn’t like you. The government may not like you because you’re really, really terrible, but it may also be that they don’t like your ideas. The government not liking your ideas doesn’t make your ideas wrong or stupid; it just means the government is not open to your ideas and considers your ideas threatening and that’s why it locks you away.
Anna illegally enters a house. She murders a man. She doesn’t mean to murder this man, but he ends up dead. Murder is murder. She’s a sympathetic villain, but she’s still a villain. She then commits suicide, which seems to add another sin onto her list of sins. Suicide wasn’t something that was celebrated back in the days of Sherlock Holmes. Suicide was frowned upon and a lot of people thought you were going straight to Hell if you committed suicide and your body was buried outside of the church yard.
Another female Sherlock Villain is the woman who kills Charles Augustus Milverton in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. We don’t know her name. We never know her name. She comes in the room with a black veil and shoots Milverton repeatedly. She knows full well what she is doing. Milverton blackmailed her and she fought back. Sherlock doesn’t think she deserves to go to jail so he never tells who murdered Milverton. The fact of the matter is that she still knowingly killed someone. This wasn’t the same case as Anna who murdered someone out of fright and accident. This was a case of a woman being pissed off and killing a man in cold blood. He’s freaking dead, really, really dead, because she unloaded an entire gun into him.
Women shot men in the 1890s and early 1900s. It happened, but Sherlock seems to run into more female villains than the average detective. It’s probably because he works with Scotland Yard and Scotland Yard is largely responsible for dealing with most crime in England, seemingly, during the Sherlock Holmes stories.
We have minor female villains in the Sherlock stories. We have women who hide things from their husbands. We have women who commit adultery and lie. These seems like minor infractions compared to the three biggies I already mentioned Irene Adler, Anna, and the veiled woman.
There is something all of the female villains in the Sherlock series have in common. All of the female villains, either minor or major, elicit pity and sympathy. Even the veiled woman who murders Milverton elicits a heck of a lot of sympathy. If it were us, we would probably kill him too. None of the female villains are just cold-blooded killers. We don’t have any witches. We don’t have any blood countesses or serial killers. All of the female villains are women who are fairly justified in their actions. Their actions are still against the law, but we, as readers, feel their actions were necessary and completely ok, our feelings don’t actually make these actions ok.
Now, compare that to the male villains in the Sherlock stories. We don’t have a lot of sympathy for them. They’re just bad. There is no, “Oh, this guy has three kids.” No, the bad guys are really the bad guys. They’re not justified in their actions; they’re just criminals.
Looking at it straight on, it’s unfair. It’s not fair that the female villains aren’t all bad. The male villains are all bad, but not the women. It’s sexist. It’s a double-standard. Arthur is essentially saying that yes, a woman could be a villain, but she has a justified reason to be a villain. The male villains don’t have reasons, they’re just bad.
Another point I would like to make is that the female villains of the Sherlock stories are smart. They are intelligent. Irene Adler is very smart. Anna is very smart. I believe that our veiled woman was also probably very smart. These women can hold their own in the world of men, mentally. You have to remember that the 1890s was the tail-end of an era that thought women just weren’t as smart as men. Some people said women’s brains didn’t have as much power. Women couldn’t understand math. Women couldn’t do this. Women couldn’t do that. Sure women could learn to read and write, but they couldn’t understand all that technical stuff. The female villains of Sherlock Holmes can understand all that stuff.
Although, the sad thing is that none of the female villains of Sherlock Holmes are involved in any of the highly technical cases that Sherlock runs into; they’re still quite smart though.
In the end Arthur gets a cigar for casting women as intelligent villains in his stories, but he gets part of that cigar taken away for not having them be more evil and not having them participate in some of the more complicated cases Sherlock encounters. Maybe that sounds stupid, but if you want true equality between the sexes, you do have to admit that one is not better than the other in any aspect. That means women can be just as evil as men.
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