‘On Mrs. Cecil Forrester?’ asked Holmes with the twinkle of a smile in his eyes.

            ‘Well, of course on Miss Morstan, too. They were anxious to hear what happened.’

            ‘I would not tell them too much,’ said Holmes. ‘Women are never to be entirely trusted — not the

             best of them.' (SIGN)

It suddenly becomes clear that Holmes made that statement to Watson specifically to warn him against his natural inclination to detail the whole investigation to an attractive woman. He realized that Watson, in his eagerness to impress Miss Morstan, was likely to reveal far too much. Holmes always preferred to disclose the solution in his own way and resented Watson’s intention to preview his thinking. This oft-quoted statement was an attempt to stem the emotional rush he observed in the good doctor and set his feet back on the ground. Holmes did not intend to have us treat his remark as a global declaration; he just wanted to recall Watson to some semblance of sanity. This famous anti-feminist statement lacks teeth when it’s placed in its proper context.

Let’s consider another of those quotations I cited at the beginning. Holmes did say women would reach either for jewels or child in case of fire, but for most of the women of his time, that was probably true. And let us note that saving a child from fire would be, I presume, the preference of every one of us —wouldn’t we all save another human before any piece of property, whether or not we were related to the person. As for the jewels, as a small, portable possession, they would surely be a more practical choice than say, a sideboard, but I wish our hypothesized Victorian woman would stop and scoop up a book or two, if for no other reason that to have something to read after the fire, as Miss Prothero offered the

firemen in A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

My vain wish that Holmes had mentioned manuscripts or test-tubes is out of context in an
era where such a tiny fraction of women were employed in any literary or scientific
pursuits. In the England of 1888 or so when Holmes made that remark in SCAN, fewer
than 200 women were working as doctors. There were a handful of writers and fewer
research scientists, and by law there were no engineers, lawyers, or ministers of the
female persuasion whatsoever. All of us who criticize the Universal movies and condemn
the pastiches that insist on uprooting Holmes and Watson from their Victorian Era, must
also be prepared to accept the natural shortcomings of the period.

As much as I take pleasure in imagining an independent woman confronting Mr. Holmes
- that is the principal delight of the Laurie L. King novels I believe - it is a fact that he
was unlikely to encounter many liberated females in the late Victorian period. If you take
as large a portion of umbrage as I do at Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis and wearing
a fedora, then we must concomitantly be willing to accept the strictures of his true time.
The women Holmes confronted during the waning years of the Victorian Era would

indeed be likely to behave as he predicted and scoop up the baby or the emeralds. On further consideration, I feel that Mr. Holmes’s comment in ILLU is nothing to be ashamed of either. To quote his words precisely, he said, “Woman’s heart and mind are insoluble puzzles to the male. Murder might be condoned or explained, and yet some smaller offence might rankle.” (RLU) Yes, I think that’s true. Your murder may be my self-defense or euthanasia, and what you might rank as a minor offence might loom much greater in my perception. And I must admit that as a woman, I have no objection to remaining an insoluble puzzle to most men.

This was not the only occasion when Mr. Holmes admitted his difficulty in understanding the motives of women. It was just after his first interview with Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope in SECO. Holmes points out to Watson, that Lady Hilda had carefully chosen the only chair in the room where the light would be behind her and her face in shadow, and then he says,

“The motives of women are so inscrutable. You remember the woman at Margate whom I suspected for the same reason. No powder on her nose — that proved to be the correct solution. How can you build on such a quicksand? Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs.” (SECO)

You can feel the exasperation in his words. He recognizes that he is at a distinct disadvantage in understanding the motives of women, and I give him credit for his perceptiveness. Once again, Sherlock Holmes stands head and shoulders above other men. No, he doesn’t understand us any better than other men, but he has the grace to admit his inability. I wish I had a hot meal for every man who thought he understood women. Oops, I guess I did.