By Chris Chan
The Peninsula Players are producing “Miss Holmes,” by Christopher M. Walsh which is a reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detectives featuring a gender swap for Holmes and Watson. This is not the only work to perform such a switch.
There is an upcoming Japanese television series based on the same premise. The CBS show “Elementary” casts Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. The 1990’s television series “The Adventures of Shirley Holmes” focused on the cases of Sherlock’s great-niece. The animated series “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century” featured Inspector Lestrade’s female descendant, alongside a cryogenically revived Holmes, a robot version of Watson, and Professor Moriarty’s clone.
Moving outside the realm of television, the renowned mystery writer Rex Stout, the creator of the notoriously misogynistic Nero Wolfe, once wrote a pseudo-academic essay titled “Watson Was A Woman.” (http://www.nerowolfe.org/pdf/stout/home_family/BSI/Watson_was_a_woman.pdf).
While many adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories, especially in recent years, have significantly expanded or created female roles, very few women play major recurring roles in the original Sherlockian canon. Mary Morstan, who becomes Watson’s wife, plays a significant role in the novel “The Sign of Four,” only makes a few brief tangential appearances after that, and her demise midway through the series is very oblique.
Mrs. Hudson, Holmes and Watson’s long-suffering landlady, has but a handful of lines in the series, as well as a few screams and hysterics. Indeed, Mrs. Hudson’s age, appearance, marital status and first name are never clarified. Irene Adler, the figure in “A Scandal in Bohemia” who thwarts Holmes’ attempts to retrieve blackmail evidence from her, appears in just one story, despite many later writers’ attempts to elevate her into either the great love or rivalry (or both) of Holmes’ life.
Some of the recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations that have expanded the female roles include the BBC series “Sherlock,” which expanded the role of Mary Morstan (played by Amanda Abbington) with her introduction in the third series, and gave her a far more colorful and mysterious backstory than in the original books. The role of Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) was similarly expanded, and given the full name Martha Louise Sissons Hudson.
In “Sherlock,” Sherlock first met and befriended Mrs. Hudson when his investigation led to her drug-dealing husband being convicted and executed for a double homicide in the United States. An entirely original character introduced to the series is Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), a morgue employee with a crush on Sherlock. In the episode “The Abominable Bride,” which won the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, dream sequences transport the characters back to an alternate universe set in the Victorian Era, and extra stress is placed on the roles of women in society. (In “The Abominable Bride,” Mrs. Hudson says she never enjoys Watson’s stories because she almost never says anything and only shows people upstairs and serves them breakfast.)
On “Elementary,” the character of Kitty Winter (Ophelia Lovibond), who has a brief appearance in the Doyle story “The Illustrious Client,” is expanded and developed into a recurring role as Holmes’ protégée in the third and fifth seasons. The two “Sherlock Holmes” movies with Robert Downey Jr. have also expanded the roles of Irene Adler and Mary Morstan Watson.
Memorable original female characters have been added to Sherlock Holmes stories for a long time. Gale Sondergaard, the first actress to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, famously played the title role in the Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie “The Spider Woman” (1943), where she plays Adrea Spedding, a conniving woman who may be the mastermind behind a series of supposed suicides. The role proved so popular she was later given a starring similar role (a different character with some points of comparison) in “The Spider Woman Strikes Back” three years later. She was the first leading female villain in a Rathbone/Bruce Holmes movie.
Various writers who have written their own stories in the Sherlockian universe have focused on female characters. Multiple authors have written book series featuring Mrs. Hudson and Irene Adler in starring roles, and Ann Margaret Lewis explored the characters from the perspective of her own creation, Dr. Watson’s third wife, in “The Watson Chronicles.” One of the most prominent female-centric series is Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series, which pairs a young Jewish-American woman with Holmes on a series of adventures. Eighteen books in the series have been published to date.
Recent scholarship has also uncovered real-life female sleuths from this time period. Grace Humiston, a New York lawyer practicing during the early twentieth century, earned the nickname “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” for her work getting innocent people off Death Row, exposing modern-day slavery, and most famously, cracking the case of a missing young woman. Her adventures were forgotten for years, but she has recently been rediscovered, and has been featured in articles (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/mrs-sherlock-holmes-takes-on-the-nypd-60624549/), Brad Ricca’s true crime book “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes,” Charles Kelly’s novel “Grace Humiston and the Vanishing,” and has been a featured character on the NBC series “Timeless.”
With no signs of future adaptations and original stories slowing down, it will be interesting to see what roles future writers provide for women in the Sherlock Holmes universe.
“Miss Holmes” is on stage at Peninsula Players through July 22. Opening July 25 is the lively and dance-filled multi-Tony-Award winning musical comedy, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” For more information or tickets call the Box Office at (920) 868-3287 or visit www.peninsulaplayers.com
Chris Chan will be discussing the career of Grace Humiston, aka “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes,” at a pre-show seminar at the Peninsula Players on Saturday, July 21st. Christopher M. Walsh’s “Miss Holmes” runs at the Peninsula Players now through July 22nd.