Murder, Moustaches and Mansplaining: The Abominable Bride

I LOVE Sherlock. I love everything about it; the cast, the writing, the fab background shots of London. As someone who has read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories several times over, I love catching the references and feeling all smug and well-read and superior. So when I heard that there would be a special episode released on New Years Day, I immediately booked a flight home to London to ensure the optimum viewing experience. Oh, and see my family, I guess.

The bulk of Jan 1st was spent vanquishing my hangover in time for the main event, and by 9pm I had a pot of tea made and a tin of biscuits at the ready. The moment had arrived. And for the first few minutes I was…underwhelmed. I’m so familiar with the modern-day incarnations of John and Sherlock, that the 19th century Holmes and Watson seemed odd, jarring, like an old friend had suddenly acquired a foreign accent. Given the ingenuity with which Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat brought these well-loved characters into the 21st century, a slip back in time seemed a wasted opportunity. Oh, me of little faith.

Once I let go of my inflated expectations and just watched the damn thing, I began to see the little clues that all was not as it seemed. And of course it bloody wasn’t. This is Sherlock, after all. In an early scene the mysterious lady in the parlour of 221B Baker Street, concealed beneath the eerie black veil of a Victorian in mourning, turns out to be none other than Mrs. Watson. The episode is full of veils, disguises and duplicity, with the identity of even the familiar characters thrown into question as we veer between centuries.

Much has been made of the heavy-handed feminist-or-is-it? message woven into the plot, which sees a series of murders attributed to an underground cult of hooded suffragettes. The internet was quick to accuse Sherlock of ‘mansplaining’ as he stands before the assembly of feminists and speaks of the ‘invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children, ignored, patronized, disregarded, not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes, to put right an injustice as old as humanity itself.’ But let’s take a moment to recall what’s actually happening here. Firstly, Sherlock isn’t explaining feminism to the collected feminists; he’s doing what he does every episode. He’s explaining the situation to John Watson, the 19th century everyman to Holmes’ forward-thinking genius. The ending of the episode hammers the point home; Sherlock Holmes was a man ahead of his time, a thinker not willing to be confined by the narrow social and cultural expectations of the society he lives in. To Sherlock (and indeed, Mycroft), female equality is a given, a logical conclusion to an intellectual argument. To his peers in the 1890’s, this still required explaining. They could not know that in a couple of decades, this army would indeed ‘rise up in the best of causes’, manning the nurses’ stations and munitions factories of the First World War. And that this work, alongside their many other efforts, helped render them visible enough to win the vote.

In some ways I see this as the writers wrestling with the constraints of their source material. As written by Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is a man in a man’s world – if they stick to the original, there are few primary female characters. Irene Adler is an exception, a mind to rival Holmes’, but she must work within the constraints of her gender, using her sexuality alongside her intellect to achieve her aims. The modern retelling certainly develops female characters further where possible; Mary Watson is far from the footnote of the books, killed off when it became clear she might cut into John’s crime fighting time. An updated setting allows the women in Sherlock’s world far greater freedoms than their 19th century counterparts could have dreamed of. This episode nods to this in Mary’s complaints about being abandoned by her husband, Mrs. Hudson’s observations on her lack of lines, and of course Molly Hooper having to don a fake moustache in order to be a scientist in the 1890’s. Yet despite these constraints, they are active participants – albeit in a slightly creepy/evil way.

The second point we ought to consider, is that at this point in the episode we are actually inside Sherlock’s mind palace. When he’s explaining the solution to John, he’s really explaining it to himself. That was the purpose of this whole crazy ride in the first place. But why does Sherlock suddenly need to think about women? About a large but overlooked section of society, hiding in plain sight, exercising power though many believe them to have none? We know who all this is for, who is at the heart of this story Sherlock tells himself; Moriarty. Like the Abominable Bride, he is dead but not dead. When Emilia Ricoletti was shot in the head, she ceased to exist; but she lived on through the other members of her group, who were able to assume her identity whenever required. Before Moriarty revealed himself to Sherlock, he too existed only through his followers: what Victorian Holmes would call the ‘criminal classes’, numerous but with no social standing, overlooked by most and thus nearly undetectable. The ability to hide in plain sight is an obsession of Holmes’ in the original books, as well as these episodes; he makes use of his ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ to bring him information, beggars and the homeless who everyone overlooks. When he wants to hide Sherlock disguises himself; as a beggar, as a waiter, as somebody nobody thinks to look at, Think all the way back to ‘A Study in Pink’, and what Sherlock says about the murderous cab driver: ‘Who do we trust, even though we don’t know them? Who passes unnoticed wherever they go? Who hunts in the middle of a crowd?’ Are Moriarty’s followers not another ‘invisible army hovering at our elbow’? The difference is that the hooded ladies in this episode look sinister, they in fact seek the justice denied to them, whereas Sherlock’s enemies look to subvert justice through any means available to them.

Thus Sherlock solves the puzzle he has set himself; how can Moriarty still be committing crimes from beyond the grave? Even without its figurehead, Moriarty’s organization lives on, which goes some way to explaining the events of Series 3. Though seemingly unrelated, the crimes target those closest to Sherlock and John; even the seemingly generic threat to the Houses of Parliament in ‘The Empty Hearse’ links back to Mycroft, who at times ‘is the British Government.’ And in doing so, he also solves his existential struggle, for as this episode states, there can be no Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty. There is a reason that Conan Doyle sent them tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls together: what use is the great detective without the master criminal? The Abominable Bride argues that, though Moriarty is physically dead, as long as there are criminals willing to work for his cause, his spirit lives on. And these criminals are everyday people, people nobody even looks at; they hide in plain sight, blending in to the crowd. Only the keenest of observers, with an understanding of disguise will be able to single them out. There will always be work for Sherlock Holmes…so, roll on Season 4!


One thought on “Murder, Moustaches and Mansplaining: The Abominable Bride

  1. > To Sherlock (and indeed, Mycroft), female equality is a given, a logical conclusion to an intellectual argument. To his peers in the 1890’s, this still required explaining.

    And to people in the 21st century who have been subjected to decades of feminism it now needs to be explained that:

    1. the suffragettes were not the same as suffragists
    2. that when the women’s suffragist movement began only about a third of men had voting rights themselves
    3. that women’s suffrage was OPPOSED by many women on the grounds that they did not want to have to agree to the same social obligations men had to agree to in order to get their voting rights
    4. that they needn’t have worried because the all male patriarchal government of the time granted women all of men’s voting rights, but without any of the obligations men had to abide by (Yesssss! he for she!) – obligations such as agreeing to be drafted for wars
    5. that for the next century this allowed women to vote for wars and then have men as young as 18 sent off to be blown to pieces (or shot for desertion if they preferred) while the women stayed safely at home
    6. that women’s suffrage was therefore – by definition – an example of female privilege, not gender equality
    7. that the suffragettes resorted to acts of domestic terrorism such as sabotaging a horse race, endangering the lives of all the horses and riders (a jockey later committed suicide from the trauma of the event)
    8. that this kind of terrorism is still celebrated 100 years later because (apparently) women’s terrorism is lovely and wholesome and smells of lavender
    9. that the mostly middle class white women who kick started the whole suffragette/ feminist movement literally defined themselves as more oppressed than black people who were still fighting for their rights after centuries of slavery and then segregation
    10. that these early feminists demanded they be given voting rights before black people, on the grounds that blacks were inferior and as white women they had it more tough

    > Molly Hooper having to don a fake moustache in order to be a scientist in the 1890’s.

    Yeah, it was excusable as a way to get the modern characters into a period setting, but really?

    The majority of paid work outside of the home in 1890’s was pretty ghastly, backbreaking, smelly, dangerous labour. And running a house was itself a full time job (no electricity, indoor plumbing, modern detergents etc) – and housework was manual labour by today’s standards. This is why most people decided to get married and split the labour between husband and wife, with the wife taking care of domestic duties and baby making and the husband earning the wage to support the entire household. This was the most efficient and productive (profitable) division of labour. And it still is.

    It is hard to argue (as feminists try to) that women got the raw deal…. especially when (outside of comedy farces) very few women actually dressed up as men to work in the mines, the ship yards, the sewers, on the barges, in the factories etc. If Molly was a pathologist was hubby doing the housework (disguised as a women perhaps?), or did she live alone and get home from work to a cold, dark house and spend the next 6 hours lighting the stove, boiling water to have a bath, preparing a stew from scratch etc etc…..?

    Most couples wanted children because (apart from enjoying a family life) children were your carers when you got old and decrepit. So who pays the rent when Molly is off for 5 years to have and raise kids? I’m not saying being an independent career woman was impossible in that age, but it was not an option most women wanted or attempted, because it was so precarious and such bloody hard work. And it generally meant growing old alone without any children to care for you. But to hell with facts and practical concerns! let’s play “Aren’t women lovely and weak, and aren’t men such powerful oppressors!” It seems to be a game Moffat enjoys!

    This is a game which allows men to boost their egos and pretend they are god….. while simultaneously allowing women to shame men into giving them free stuff and special treatment (he for she) as penance for the alleged sins of (booming voice) The Patriarchy!

    I guess you could say that feminism is a kind of deranged version of the very traditionalist gender roles it claims to oppose. Women and children first vs He for She.


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