For the past three Deduction posts we’ve talked about how progressive women seemed in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but that’s come to an end. We have to talk of other things now and those things are not as nice as the things we were talking about. We’re going to talk about a bit of sexism, but do realize, we’ve already been talking about sexism a bit in the Sherlock Holmes stories in the previous posts.
This post is about secrets in Sherlock Holmes, specifically secrets that married women keep. Why only married women? Here’s the thing, every story concerning Sherlock contains multiple secrets kept by everybody. Men have secrets. Women have secrets. Sailors have secrets. Sherlock has secrets. Everybody running around in all of these stories has secrets, but apparently not John because Sherlock figures out everything about him and even what he’s thinking from time to time. We’re going to talk of the secrets of married women because things are a bit lopsided.
We’re going to reference two stories in particular The Yellow Face and The Adventure of the Dancing Men. We’re going to be speaking of Effie and Elsie respectively. Why their names both begin with E I don’t know. There are multiple marriages that Sherlock steps into during his mystery solving. Sometimes the husband is dead and Sherlock is trying to figure out who killed him. Sometimes the husband is missing, but he’s really a panhandler. Sometimes the husband plays on some sports team and his teammates want to know where he’s at. The point is, there are lots of marriages that Sherlock finds himself around.
What makes Effie and Elsie’s stories stand out is that a husband comes to Sherlock Holmes and tells him that his wife has a secret and he must know it. This doesn’t happen in any of the other stories. A wife does come to Sherlock concerned about where her husband is in The Man with the Twisted Lip, but she simply wants to know where he is. She’s not there to find out his secrets, even though she ultimately ends up finding out his secrets. A woman never comes to Sherlock and asks Sherlock to figure out her husband’s secrets. It’s only men that do this. It’s only men that see fit to go to a private detective and ask him to stick his nose all up in his wife’s business.
In The Yellow Face a man finds that his wife asks for money when she usually never asks for money and she leaves the house at strange hours. When he asks her about all of this, she promises that she will tell him what is going on. In The Adventure of the Dancing Men Elsie gets strange drawings of dancing men. Her husband demands to know what it means, but she tells him that she cannot tell him our of fear. It also just happens that both of these women are American; I don’t know if that contributes to all this mystery any.
In both cases, I believe these women would have told their husbands these secrets of their own accord had the husband just backed down. If the man had been patient and waited, these women would have opened up to their husbands and said, “Yes, my kid from my first marriage is still alive and she’s black,” and, “Well, those dancing men are a secret code used by a crime family I used to be associated with, but I live here now and I was afraid to tell you about this because I didn’t want anybody to get hurt.”
These men couldn’t wait. They felt it was their right to know everything, and I mean everything about their wives. They couldn’t just let their wives have one little secret, ok, one big secret. None of the women in the Sherlock stories do this to their husbands. None of them. It’s only the men that demand to know secrets of their wives.
Oh, but women, we know these men have their secrets. This was the 1800s and early 1900s; men had their secrets. Women assumed that their husband to be had secrets and didn’t ask too much about them. Women knew their husbands had probably been to a brothel. They’ve probably had a lot of sex before they met their wife. They might have a gambling problem. They might have an alcohol problem. They might even have this entire secret family, but do any of the women demand of Sherlock to find any of this out? No, they do not.
Having a kid is a pretty big secret. I guess formerly belonging to a crime family is also a big secret. Those are big secrets. What’s also a big secret is having syphilis you caught from a prostitute down by the river. Do you think any of the husbands told their wives about this when they were married? Probably not. It’s a double-standard and it’s sexist.
The man should know everything about his wife, but the wife should just accept that her husband has a past that she shouldn’t know about. That’s essentially what we’re getting from these Sherlock stories.
I’m a woman. I’m married. I honestly don’t ask about every event in my husband’s past. I’ve asked about a lot, but I just assume the man had a life before me and what’s in the past is in the past. I don’t tell my husband everything about my past either. Should I? I’m not a marriage counselor so I don’t know, but you know, if I did have a kid, I’d probably have to tell him that I had a kid. Likewise, if my husband had a secret kid, he better fess up.
People used to be really accepting of the idea that husbands might have illegitimate children running around. They would call it “sewing wild oats.” If you were a woman you just expected that your husband had gotten around a bit before you were married and maybe he had a kid, or two. If you were a woman, you were supposed to be above reproach, always. They better not catch you alone with a man before you were married. You better still have your hymen. Don’t laugh at jokes. Behave like a lady. Don’t even hint at the idea that you might be anything but a sweet little angel ready for a future husband to deflower.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stays with this idea. Men are wild and women should be mostly sweet, even if they’re the villains, you still have to feel sorry for them. Women are simple creatures and should have no nefarious secrets. Really, Arthur, really? Arthur wrote some of these women to be so intelligent and even devious, but in the cases of Effie and Elsie, he writes them to be with men who are demanding and can’t let their wives have anything to themselves. They even got another person, two in fact, involved in their married life.
Look, I don’t know about you guys, but I would be ticked off if my husband ran to someone else and got them involved in a dispute that he and I were having. It’s none of their business. Seriously. None of your business. If two strange men showed up at my house because of some secret I wouldn’t tell my husband I would be ticked off. First of all, your husband is supposed to respect you as a person, which means if you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to talk about it, end of story. This also means that a man should have enough respect for his wife not to embarrass her.
I say embarrass because Effie and Elsie were embarrassed by their husbands dragging John and Sherlock into their lives. Elsie wanted to hide her past. She didn’t want everyone to know that she came from a family of criminals. Effie wanted to let her husband in on her black daughter lightly. She didn’t want it to be this huge shock. They would have released the information of their own accord to their husbands when the time was right in confidence that their husbands did not tell anyone else. When the husbands brought John and Sherlock in, they embarrassed their wives. Sure, the wife might have warmed up enough to the husband to tell, but he forced the truth out.
There are two problems with forcing the truth out in these situations. The first problem is that everybody knows and the wife gets embarrassed. The husbands know now. John and Sherlock know now and all of their readers know now. All the people who read John’s summations of cases now know that Effie whoever has a black child from a previous interracial marriage. It’s nothing to be ashamed of today, but people were ashamed of it in the past. People are going to stop Effie in the street when she’s out with her daughter to ask her if she was that woman from that story. The husband has essentially ruined life for Effie in England by forcing this secret out.
The second problem with forcing a secret out is that the wife isn’t going to trust the husband. Would you trust your husband with any little confidence after he pried a confidence out of you? The husband crossed a line. It would make it very difficult to open up to him after that. The wife is not only embarrassed, but feels her trust is betrayed. The husband doesn’t trust the wife enough to let her take her time. The wife is going to think, “Well, I can’t even hint at this thing, because he’ll pry and then try to force it out of me, so it’s just better if he doesn’t know at all.” Forcing one secret out is going to breed more secrets. The wife is going to become more closed off to the husband and it’s his own darn fault.
In the end I think it’s stupid that wives were expected to tell everything to their husbands, but the men were not expected to tell everything to their wives. I also think it’s stupid that Sherlock got involved in these cases; he had no right to be there.
Deduction, Deduction: Married Women Should Tell All, effie, elsie, john watson, married men demand to know secrets, married women, secrets and married women, sexism, sexism in sherlock holmes, sherlock holmes, sir arthur conan doyle, the tale of the dancing men, The Yellow Face
Essays, Sherlock Holmes