Friday, June 23, 2017

A new Mrs. Neville St. Clair

During last night's discussion of "The Man with the Twisted Lip" at the library, I was struck by a change in the Sherlockian approach to a particular character, and a change that shows a bit of evolution in Sherlockiana itself.

"The Man with the Twisted Lip" is a very different story among the first dozen shorter cases in which we first experience tagging along with Sherlock and the doctor. 221B Baker Street never appears, John encounters his friend Sherlock out of the blue, and in one of the truest expressions of their friendship, just runs off with him without a moment's hesitation. Middle of the night, "Hey, what are you doing here?" and yet, "Okay, let's go!"

The reason Sherlock Holmes is not at Baker Street for this case is that he's taking the very unusual step of staying with his client. This is even more odd when you consider John Openshaw from a few cases before, who feared for his very life, yet was sent home alone. This time, Mrs. Neville St. Clair, a woman who truly deserves a first name if any Canonical character did, seems to have talked Holmes into working out of her home as he attempts to find her missing husband.

The boy Sherlockians who dominated the last century tended to focus upon one detail of Mrs. St. Clair above all others. When she first appears at the door to her home, she's wearing a fabric we've never heard of (Mousseline-de-soie, defined by Webster's as "a silk muslin with a crisp finish") and Watson writes that he can see the silhouette of her figure. Those two details were enough for ye olde men of the Sherlockian table to so often chortle "Seductress! Oo-la-la!" and dig no further into the true strangeness of this situation.

Yet we live in a different age now, when empathies for a female character are a little more pronounced in most of Sherlockian society, and other thoughts come nicely to the fore first, as they did last night in our discussion group. Mrs. St. Clair's actual behavior, rather than her potential wardrobe scandal, gets the limelight.

And Mrs. St. Clair is particularly interesting in the way she plays Sherlock Holmes, holding back the news of her husband's letter until after Holmes speaks of his conviction that Neville St. Clair has been murdered. It's almost like she's trying to poke holes in that Sherlock-smarty-pants persona . . . just the way a family member who's known you your whole life would.

Sherlock Holmes is not only staying at the St. Clair home, but he uses its dog-cart and stablehands like a familiar houseguest would. He has things ready to go in the wee morning hours, and doesn't bother announcing his departure to his hostess, a casual bit that one might take to be a touch of rude Sherlock, but I really don't think that's the case.

Because one you get past the "oo-la-la!" of boy Sherlockians past, Mrs. Neville St. Clair, her hidden first name, her letting Holmes stay, and her general cleverness and the way Sherlock trusts her intuitions point more to her being a Holmes cousin than a seductress.

This is a woman who charged straight into a murder-friendly opium den when her husband seemed to be in trouble, so considering her for a place in the Holmes family does not seem undeserved. Back in 1988, in my book Sherlock and the Ladies, I theorized that Mrs. St. Clair was a childhood friend of Sherlock Holmes, but now . . . my lord, can it be nearly thirty years later already? . . . I would be all for promoting her to cousin.

She deserves it, and we live in a little better world than we did then, despite certain reversions. A happy thought that came out in last night's discussions of our friend Sherlock Holmes.

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