Villainesses, Adventuresses, and Other Canonical Women

In front of him, in the full glare of the electric light, there stood a tall slim, dark woman, a veil over her face, a mantle drawn round her chin. [CHAS]
Last week, author Michelle Birkby [Elise Elliot (JHWS “Lucy”) has reviewed both The Women of Baker Street and The House at Baker Street as part of our Dr Watson’s Library] was featured in iNews with an article called “The Female Villains in Sherlock Holmes Were Ahead of Their Time”.

Comparing the women in contemporaneous works – like Collins’ Armadale, Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, and Dickens’ Bleak House – with some memorable Canonical women – like Sophy Kratides, Kitty Winter, and the unnamed mysterious lady who appears in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” – she says:

The bad women of Victorian literature lose. They have to, or what’s the world coming to? They are hanged, or kill themselves to save their loved ones, or just go mad.

No matter what their crime, if they deviate from the perfect Victorian woman, they must be punished.

Except for the female villains of the Sherlock Holmes stories. They get away with it.

(Why was a certain obvious name left off that list of “memorable Canonical women”? Birkby states right off the bat that “Irene Adler, from A Scandal in Bohemia, is, despite nearly every screen adaptation ever, not a villain.” Her reasons for this assertion are very clearly laid out, just in case anyone needed convincing. And for more on the topic, see Esther Inglis-Arkell’s io9 post from 2013, “Why can’t any recent Sherlock Holmes adaptation get Irene Adler right?”)

A good number of Canonical women defy the Victorian ideal of femininity, whether they be villainesses, adventuresses, or something else entirely. Birkby offers some thoughts on why this might be. What do you think? Who is your favorite Canonical woman (villain or not!), and why?

4 Replies to “Villainesses, Adventuresses, and Other Canonical Women”

  1. Kitty Winter is eternally my favourite. ETERNALLY. And not just my favourite woman-who-committed-an-act-of-violence (I won’t call someone getting revenge on their abuser a villain), but one of my favourite characters in the Canon overall. I think she’s fascinating. I admire her bravery in walking into the rooms of a gentleman to tell him that she lived outside of society’s prescribed role for women- there was no guarantee, after all, that she was going to be believed, or treated with respect. And she did it anyway. And then she just doubles her bravery by agreeing to go see Violet de Merville. Yes, she’s angry, and yes, she wants to see Gruner go down, but it still takes gumption to willingly go before someone who is going to ABSOLUTELY going to scorn you and very likely insult you. I just- I ADORE her. She’s the best.

    I also have a growing fondness for Isadora Klein, because while she’s less sympathetic in a lot of ways, she also had a boy following her around who wasn’t taking no for an answer, so… IMO, when you recontextualize some of the women murderers and thieves and such, and look at them less from Holmes’ and Watson’s view and more from their own, some of their actions become a little more understandable. Isadora Klein is one of those, for me. Maria Gibson, too- although, honey, frame the HUSBAND not the girlfriend!

    (I also love Mrs Ricoletti and Gloria Wilson from Bert Coules’ Further Adventures. In case non-Canonical villainesses are also up for discussion.)

  2. My choice for this discussion is Annie Harrison from NAVA. Holmes depends on her for the solution of the case, she comes through for him, he admires her. And, she exercises her trust in him by following his directions exactly even though she doesn’t know how he is operating in the case. Kudos to her. She is intelligent and resourceful and steady in purpose. Kudos to Annie!

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