Holmes as cross-dresser?

April 15, 2010 Book Reviews 2 ★★★½

Holmes as cross-dresser?Ms. Holmes of Baker Street by Alan C. Bradley, William A. S. Sarjeant
Published by Wessex Press on December 31, 1989
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 260
Format: Hardcover
Source: the library
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You’ve seen me as an old lady, Watson. I was never more convincing…
—Sherlock Holmes, The Mazarin Stone

Sherlock Holmes strides into our imagination, deerstalker hat jauntily set on his head, pipe protruding from his mouth, and a formidable intellect from which he painstakingly masters the mysteries he investigates. Yet the qualities that set Holmes apart as a masterful sleuth are rather commonplace—perhaps even universal—in any woman. In a deep investigation of the literature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, C. Alan Bradley and William A.S. Sarjeant uncover the surprising truth about Sherlock Holmes.

…the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner.
—Sherlock Holmes, The Man with the Twisted Lip


I’ve just finished a thought-provoking little book by Alan C. Bradley* and William A. S. Sarjeant entitled Ms. Holmes of Baker Street: The Truth About Sherlock. Their thesis is, of course, summed up in the work’s title: Sherlock Holmes was a woman.

At first glance, this seems like a ludicrous idea, if not positively heretical. Yet the authors support their claim with quote after quote and incident after incident taken from the Holmes canon—instances which, taken individually, are insufficient to prove the authors’ case, but which in the aggregate do perhaps appear to suggest a female in disguise. Most telling to my mind are Holmes’s periodic indisposition and tendency to take to his (her) bed—periodic being the operative word. Too, there is Irene Adler’s emphasis on the masculine appellation when, disguised as a boy, she brushes past Holmes in front of his apartments with a quiet, “Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes!” Moriarty, in his turn, threatens not to kill Holmes but to destroy him, something Moriarty would have been able to do with ease, had he penetrated Sherlock’s disguise.

The authors, like most Sherlockians, treat the Conan Doyle stories as fact. Working within the canon, they believe that even Watson was unaware of Holmes’s femininity for many years. (There is no suggestion that Conan Doyle himself ever intended to place Holmes’s gender in doubt.)

Their premise is of course an intriguing and amusing or infuriating one, depending on the strength of the reader’s own perception of Holmes. Their argument is slightly marred by the fact that the authors, having first conceived of the idea, then looked exhaustively for evidence in support of their thesis without examining in much detail the evidence to the contrary—the mark of an enthusiast rather than a truly impartial investigator. However, I thoroughly enjoyed “playing the game,” temporarily suspending my own concept of Holmes in favor of the authors’ as I read.

In the end, however, what keeps me from embracing their conclusion wholeheartedly is my own partiality. Holmes to me is not merely the detective of the Conan Doyle stories but the much more complex, human, and admirable man in Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series—a series and a Holmes which have become more “real” to me than the Conan Doyle canon ever did.


*Mr. Bradley is the award-winning author of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, another mystery which I am currently reading.

Final notes: I had to order this book through inter-library loan, as even our well-stocked Central Rappahannock Regional Library did not own a copy, Amazon was out of stock, and used copies were running over $20.00. ETA (4/22/2019): There are now at least two genderbent Sherlock Holmes pastiches available, Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series and Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson Chronicles. Both are worth reading.


2 Responses to “Holmes as cross-dresser?”

  1. Lightkeeper

    I really enjoyed King’s character of Holmes with his apprentice, so to speak, Mary. I love that whole set of books, haven’t seen a new one in a long time.

  2. Lark

    Lightkeeper: You might enjoy my review of King’s books (See March 2010.) “God of the Hive,” the sequel to last year’s “The Language of Bees,” was released on April 27. I would have reviewed it by now, but I’m waiting to get my signed copy on May 1, when Ms. King will be at the Border’s Books in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia. I’ll post a review as soon as I can.