In 2014, the legal case Klinger vs. Conan Doyle Estate officially released the character of Sherlock Holmes from copyright. Surprisingly, the judge ruled in favor of placing the character within public domain because keeping Sherlock Holmes under copyright would “make it more difficult or more expensive for future artists to work, since a great deal of art draws on earlier works” (Schultz).
A mere two years later, Sherry Thomas introduced readers to Lady Charlotte Holmes, protagonist of the Lady Holmes Series set in Victorian London, so far consisting of A Study in Scarlet Women (2016) and A Conspiracy in Belgravia (2017).
The significance of Lady Charlotte Holmes lies in Thomas’s adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, and exemplifies Schultz’s point that kicking the detective out of copyright enables artists to explore freely their interpretations of Conan Doyle’s most popular creation.
Lady Charlotte Holmes is a consulting detective who reconstructs the spirit of the original Sherlock Holmes while also crafting a new and more appealing, sympathetic character. Specifically, Thomas presents a nuanced female protagonist that retains some of the original Sherlock’s traits while engaging with more current gender discussions, thereby dismantling the mythic male Sherlock Holmes.
Charlotte’s first point of success as an adaptation is her ability to embody Sherlock’s most popular characteristics and avoid simply becoming a female Sherlock Holmes. First, Charlotte retains Sherlock’s cold, calculating, analytical mind. For example, she knows marriage “is an eminently unsuitable choice” for her, and when Lord Holmes goes back on his word to pay for her education, Charlotte explains that her subsequent action to “remove [her] maidenhead and therefore nullify [her] marital eligibility” (Scarlet Women 40) was the only logical step. She seduces the already-married Roger Shrewsbury, and when Lady Shrewsbury finds her son in bed with Charlotte, our protagonist is unfazed, and goes on to polish off a large breakfast, quite unperturbed by the scandal of her actions (Scarlet Women 7). By engaging in adultery, Charlotte effectively removes herself from the marriage market to pursue a working life.
Charlotte also possesses Sherlock’s extraordinary deductive skills, which she calls “discernment” (Scarlet Women 153). As a woman, Charlotte cannot meet her clients in person. So, when clients come to consult “Sherlock Holmes,” as in Conan Doyle’s original stories, either Charlotte or Mrs. Watson (a benevolent widow who hires Charlotte as a companion) act as intermediaries, stating that Sherlock is bedridden from a “terrible episode” (Scarlet Women 181) but listening in the next room. When clients ask for a demonstration of the detective’s skills, Charlotte happily obliges. For example, when Inspector Treadles questions Sherlock Holmes’s acumen, his “sister” (Charlotte) provides the inspector with a demonstration: “You are from the northwest. Cumbria. Barrow-in-Furness. Your father was employed by either the steelworks or the shipyard…He was Scottish, your mother wasn’t” (Scarlet Women 183). Sherlock Holmes fans can easily recognize the detective’s extraordinary abilities in Charlotte.
And yet, Charlotte also exhibits gendered weaknesses, both culinary and carnal, which make her a more relatable character. For example, Charlotte tries to stay between “one point five and one point six chins” (Scarlet Women 151) to both indulge her love of decadent food and keep her figure.
Charlotte also has a romantic interest: Lord Ingram, her childhood friend. Their relationship is fraught with sexual tension. Ingram knows Charlotte is Sherlock, and his feelings for Charlotte are evident in his constant intrusions into Charlotte’s detective work. When they do finally kiss at the end of Scarlet Women, Charlotte’s reaction is passionate: “Sweet. Bitter. Pleasure. Pain. And then only fierce, mindless sensations, only heat and electricity” (321). This Charlotte, as opposed to that Sherlock, is an altogether more empathetic character. Readers can indulge in her “weaknesses” regarding food and lust, while simultaneously enjoying her calculating, analytical mind.
Thomas also toys with her audience’s nostalgia for Sherlock Holmes: “Sherlock” becomes “Charlotte” only to shift back to “Sherlock” because Charlotte uses the pseudonym “Sherlock Holmes” when communicating with Scotland Yard and clients who come knocking at 18 Upper Baker Street. This play on gender through an alias creates suspense for two purposes: first, to underscore Charlotte’s ability to successfully solve cases while constantly veiling her true identity; and second, to emphasize Charlotte’s disadvantages as a woman.
As a young, ruined woman, Charlotte encounters more challenges than Sherlock. After her adulterous affair, Charlotte plans on obtaining employment as an independent woman under a new name. Her hopes are dashed when she cannot find work. Her salvation comes in the form of Mrs. Watson, who supports Charlotte’s work as Sherlock Holmes. However, it is Charlotte’s interactions with Inspector Treadles that best underscore the Victorian female’s disadvantages.
Until Treadles discovers that Sherlock Holmes is a cover for a disgraced young woman, the inspector is captivated by Sherlock.By the time of Charlotte’s affair, Treadles has already consulted with “Sherlock” on several cases, and admires “the resolute agility of [Holmes’s] mind” and considers the detective “an institution in [Treadle’s] life”(Scarlet Women 50).
Unfortunately, the inspector cannot overcome his reservations once he discovers that Sherlock is the disgraced Lady Charlotte. To Treadles, Charlotte’s sex scandal is incongruous: he cannot reconcile how “such a diamond-bright mind could have made such foolish, downright immoral decisions” (Scarlet Women 313). And, when Treadles encounters Charlotte at the beginning of Belgravia, he emphatically believes that she is “a fallen woman, one who had never seemed remotely bashful” of her actions(2). Treadle’s reaction comes from Charlotte’s position as a New Woman: a heroine who forgoes marriage and challenges the bourgeois cultural code (Ardis 26), which requires Victorian women to remain in the home.
Victorian novels’ use of the marriage plotemphasized heterosexual marriage “as the only logical outcome, as inevitable, climatic, and conclusive” (Dever 158). By “disgracing” herself, Charlotte releases herself from the home, and a new consulting detective rises from the ashes of Victorian respectability.
And yet, there is a significant plot twist at the end of Scarlet Women: Thomas reveals that it was Lord Ingram who sent Mrs. Watson to assist Charlotte. However, Ingram’s instructions were to provide Charlotte with funds, not set up a house together and start a detective agency (Scarlet Women 321). So, while the patriarchy, embodied in Ingram, might have helped Charlotte escape poverty, it could not control subsequent events.
Overall, Thomas’s series exemplifies Linda Hutcheon’s point that adaptation’s popularity “comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (4). Readers can enjoy the continuation of Sherlock Holmes’s cunning and discerning acumen while also seeing Victorian London through the eyes of a young woman whose piquant character and use of clever disguise and subterfuge crafts a new and provocative discussion of gender.
The enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes raises the question as to why this series continues to resonate with readers. As Jennie Marchand explores in her blog post concerning Agatha Christie’s enduring popularity, the answer lies in the underlying structure of the original works themselves and their adaptations. Marchand’s findings also apply to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. While Sherlock Holmes’s adventures will remain near and dear to detective genre enthusiasts, the ability to adapt will ensure that the detective never grows old.
Ardis, Ann L. New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism. Rutgers University Press, 1990
Dever, Carolyn. “Everywhere and nowhere: Sexuality in Victorian Fiction.” A Concise Companion to The Victorian Novel, edited by Francis O’Gorman, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, pp. 156-179
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2013
Marchand, Jennie. “The Timeless Nature of Agatha Christie: Cosy or Cruel?” International Crime Fiction Association, Captivating Criminality Network, 30 Oct. 2017, captivatingcriminalitynetwork.net/blog/archives/10-2017. Accessed 16 Dec. 2017
Schultz, Colin. “‘Sherlock Holmes’ Is Now Officially Off Copyright and Open for Business.” Smithsonian, 14 June 2014, smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/sherlockholmes-now-officially-copyright-and-open-business-180951794/. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017
Thomas, Sherry. A Conspiracy in Belgravia. Berkley, 2017
Thomas, Sherry. A Study in Scarlet Women. Berkley, 2016