My Sherlock Homes themed reading series continues with A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas. It is the first in a new series dubbed The Lady Sherlock series. In this first book readers get an origin story as to how Charlotte Holmes, youngest of Lord and Lady Holmes's four daughters, becomes the famous and much sought after detective, Sherlock.
The Holmes daughters are Henrietta, Bernadine, Olivia (who goes by Livia), and Charlotte. Like Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Lady Holmes is most concerned about securing beneficial marriages for her daughters. So far she is one for four, Henrietta having successfully found herself a husband. Unfortunately for Lady Holmes her success rate is unlikely to improve. Bernadine has an unspecified disability that suggests she is unable to care for herself and Lady Holmes's two youngest daughters are both disinclined to marry. Charlotte outright rejects marriage because it is clear to her that marriage in nineteenth century English society is an inherently unequal and unfair institution in which the woman almost always loses. She does not entirely reject men or romance. There is at least one man who captures her attention, but more than anything Charlotte wants freedom.
When her father refuses to support her education - Charlotte had hoped to become a headmistress at a girls' school which would have given her some degree of freedom, financial and otherwise - Charlotte decides to make herself unfit for marriage by engaging in a dalliance with a married man. Charlotte's plan works a little
too well and she finds herself not only ruined for marriage but also
publicly disgraced. Livia comes to her sister's defense, accusing the mother of Charlotte's lover of ruining Charlotte's reputation. When the elderly woman dies shortly thereafter Livia becomes a suspect, at least in the court of public opinion. Charlotte realizes the best way to help her sister is to help the police find the real murderer. Of course the detectives of Scotland Yard would be skeptical of the opinions of a woman and so Charlotte adopts the persona of a man - Sherlock Holmes. Mr. Holmes writes lots of helpful letters to the police. Unfortunately he is too ill to ever meet anyone in person...
I love a book that entertains me and makes me think on multiple levels. A Study in Scarlet Women definitely did that. One of the many things that I found interesting were the gender and sexual politics. Most of couplings are unhappy, forced, or otherwise result in some sort of misfortune: an unplanned pregnancy, social and financial ruin, hopelessly mismatched husband and wives. Not surprisingly it is usually the women, though not always, who suffer the brunt of these couplings. I'm not sure which is a more damming commentary on the institution of marriage and gender inequality: that the way Charlotte escapes the institution is by not being a virgin or that another character thinks the best way he can help Charlotte after her disgrace is by offering to make her his mistress and thereby save her from financial ruin. Makes you think, doesn't it?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet in 1887. In that story Sherlock Holmes and John Watson set out to figure out how a man was killed when there is no visible wounds on the corpse, who that man was, and what he was doing in London. It comes out that the man, and a second who is later killed, were from Utah. There was woman whom they thought should marry one of them. The woman, however, was in love with a third man. The woman's father supported her choice in husbands. (Or maybe supported is too generous. Let's just say the father had reasons for not wanting his daughter to marry either of the first two men.) So the two men killed the father in order to get to the daughter. The daughter eventually dies too. Holmes figures out that the death of the two men in London is tied to their pasts in Utah. This is a long way of saying that I loved how Sherry Thomas incorporated elements of Doyle's original story - namely the marriage plot point and the issue of consent - and re-imagined it in her equally compelling novel.
I really loved this! Of the four Sherlock Holmes inspired, re-imagined or otherwise related novels I've read
in the last month, this is my favorite. It managed to be both modern and
yet fitting for its Victorian time period. I'm so glad this is going to be a series. Sherry Thomas - I'm ready for book two in the Lady Sherlock series, and while you're at, books three, four, five, and so on.