Domestic abuse has been a problem for a long, long time. Pretty much ever since men and women have decided to cohabit together, there have been men who see fit to physically abuse their wives. In some places domestic abuse still isn’t even against the law, think Russia and some middle-eastern countries. I know, you would think Russia would have some better laws against domestic violence with its ranking about the big and forward-thinking countries, but it doesn’t. No wonder all the Russian women want to leave. It’s very difficult for women in Russia to prove domestic violence. The ones who want out, many of them, have to end up running away instead of appealing to actual legal channels.
Domestic abuse was a problem during the time of Sherlock Holmes. When I saw the time of the Sherlock stories I roughly mean 1890-1910, but some of the Sherlock stories do fall out of that time line. I’m just using a rough time period for Sherlock. The thing about the time period of Sherlock though is that women were picking up momentum. They were gaining rights. I have already briefly mentioned property laws passed in England around the time of some of the Sherlock stories. Before this point women weren’t legally allowed to inherit. Their money could be entirely controlled by the men in their lives. The year 1865 also saw some laws passed that helped protect women in abusive relationships, but as you can probably tell, it took some time for these laws to take effect.
Men still beat their wives. Even with women becoming more independent and riding bicycles and gaining the right to vote, men still beat their wives. Men still beat their wives today even though it’s illegal as all get out, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. It’s not nearly as common as it used to be though, which is saying something. We’ve accomplished something, probably not as much as we should have, but we’ve done something.
The atmosphere of social reform was in the air when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlock stories. The world was changing. Things were progressing. Women and people of color, any color, were gaining more rights to do the same things white men could do.
There are three cases of domestic abuse I would like to cite in the Sherlock Holmes stories. They come from The Adventure of Abbey Grange, The Adventure of Black Peter, and The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. Now, there may be stories I’m missing that tell of domestic abuse, but I’m going to go with these three stories.
In The Adventure of Abbey Grange a woman concocts a story about her dead husband. That woman is named Mary. It turns out that a man who likes her killed her husband because her husband was an alcoholic and he had been beating her. Sherlock decides that no one should go to prison. In The Adventure of Black Peter, Black Peter is known to chase his wife and daughter about the village hitting them while drunk. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box Browner is known to get a little violent and argumentative with his wife when he’s drunk, he ultimately kills her.
In all three adventures alcohol is involved. Arthur must have assumed that only drunk men beat their wives, but that isn’t the case and we know it. Sober men can beat their wives too, but usually it’s because they have anger issues or mental disorders, or maybe they’re just jerks. Alcohol does not make men beat their wives. It’s true that some men get so angry when they’re drunk that they behave in a manner they would never behave in while sober. It happens, that’s why it’s a good idea to evaluate how alcohol reacts with you and choose to take it or not to take it.
What is so fascinating about the Sherlock stories in relation to women being beaten is that they get what’s coming to them. Sherlock thinks these men are deplorable. He thinks that anybody who kills one of them is doing a service not only to the wife, but to society.
You have to remember that for a long time, and even today depending on where you live at and what kind of people you hang out with, people said a man beating his wife was his business. Nobody stepped in to help a battered woman. They said she probably did something to deserve it. They said she had made him angry. They always blamed it on the woman. Mothers would tell their daughters to have dinner on the table at 6:00pm on the dot and have sex when they didn’t want to, all to avoid being beaten. Mothers would not rescue their daughters, because they themselves had probably been beaten during their marriage. Fathers didn’t rescue their daughters because it was expected that a man could be his wife. People just didn’t get involved, because they didn’t want to be dragged into anything.
I mentioned Russia earlier, that’s because Russia has a huge problem with domestic violence, even bigger than the United States or the United Kingdom. Lots of women die every year in Russia because their husbands kill them. Killing a person is illegal, but somehow people get away with it. In India a lot of men also get away with killing their wives. There is still this attitude that somehow the woman did something to merit being physically abused.
This was the attitude people had about wife-beating back in the day of Sherlock, but like I said, that was changing. People were beginning to speak up about women’s rights. Laws were being passed to basically say that women were people too.
Get this, Arthur was a man and Sherlock was a man. As a man in England in the 1800s you may have dressed all fancy and been up on the latest fashions for men of the day, but you were a manly man. You drank your whiskey. You shot your guns. You farted at the dinner table, ok, I don’t know about that one, but you behaved like a man. You didn’t stand up for women. No man stood up for women. They were like, “Oh, those women and their silly problems.”
Arthur was a well-known man who created Sherlock Holmes, who was also a man, until proven otherwise. You have to admit that Sherlock secretly being a woman would put a whole new twist on the Sherlock Holmes stories, but this isn’t the case. Sherlock was a well-known and respected man. People admired him. People looked up to him. People came to him for advice. The amazing thing about Sherlock Holmes is that he breaks that stereotypical image of a man’s man. Sherlock stands up for women. Sherlock thinks that beating your wife is bad. He helps women who have been beaten. When he finds out that someone murdered two of these men because they were beating their wives, he lets the guys go.
What these men did is still illegal. Murdering a man is illegal ok? These men should have been prosecuted theoretically, but Sherlock says, “Well, he was a jerk, we’ll let this one slide.”
This says something about the men who kill these men as well. They were people-enough to stand up against these men because they were terrible people and strike them down for their wrong doings. One man did it out of self-interest in the case of Black Peter, but in the case of Abbey Grange, this sailor outright killed a man because he was beating his wife. He risked prison for this woman. He risked prison because she was being beaten. That’s saying something; it really is. If you’re man enough to do that, then you’re a real man. Even Browner, who murdered his own wife, realized that he was a despicable jerk. He realized how wrongly he had behaved and wished to be dead.
You have to understand that lots of people read these Sherlock stories. Arthur basically made a statement. I don’t know if he did it on accident or he meant to do it just for publicity or he meant to do it because he really believed in it, but he made a statement about violence against women. He got it across to thousands upon thousands of people. Via his character Sherlock Holmes he basically made the statement, “If you beat your wife, you’re a terrible person. If someone happens to kill you, then, too bad, so sad. The murderer shouldn’t be prosecuted because you’re a terrible example of a human being.” This is huge. It’s a big deal.
A prominent author and a prominent literary character speak out against violence to women. People didn’t do this. I’m telling you. People who rocked the boat and spoke out against things like this were laughed at for a long time. Whether Arthur did this out of good intention or not I don’t know, but it had a positive effect. People could say that if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed hitting your wife was bad and he wrote Sherlock to think it was wrong, then maybe you too should think it is wrong.
In the end, I bet you never suspected Sherlock Holmes of being feminist.
an essay about domestic violence in sherlock holmes, Deduction: Hitting Girls Isn’t Cool, domestic violence, feminism, sherlock holmes, sherlock holmes as a feminist, sir arthur conan doyle, violence against women, wife beating, women’s rights
Essays, Sherlock Holmes