Violent Crime in Victorian England: A Gender Analysis of Sherlock Holmes

Violent Crime in Victorian England: A Gender Analysis of Sherlock Holmes

By James Hysell

Historia, Vol.16 (2007)

Introduction:  The work of Arthur Conan Doyle provides an insight into the mindset of the Victorian man and his understanding of women in connection with violent crime.   The Victorian public was not quite ready to accept the belief that a woman could participate in a violent crime and not have something be wrong with her mentally.   This is demonstrated in Doyle’s work with Sherlock Holmes, most notably in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” and “The Musgrave Ritual.” In all of these stories, with the exception of the “Musgrave Ritual,” a woman acts as the perpetrator of the crime that Holmes is investigating.    Out of these three stories, only one woman is the perpetrator of a violent crime, and her motives are explained as being caused by mental duress.    This shows the mindset of the Victorian world clearly illustrated through the writings of Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle was a product of the cultural environment in which he lived.   His use of women as mostly passive actors in the stories of Sherlock Holmes clearly demonstrates Victorian ideas of domesticity.   However, this was not the only way that Doyle portrayed women; he also portrayed a few as criminals, but only in ways that would have been seen as acceptable to the Victorian mind.   In Victorian England women of good standing were not supposed to commit crimes, especially not crimes that were violent in nature. This is all clearly demonstrated in the work of Conan Doyle, who offers a view of gender ideals in relation to crime.

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