Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The friendless

 The last gathering of Peoria's Sherlock Holmes Story Society focussed on the story "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," and whenever one wanders through that story, one particular line always comes up:

"One of the most dangerous classes in the world is the drifting and friendless woman."

Sherlock Holmes goes on to preach hard on how Lady Frances Carfax is a sort of migratory chicken who is just begging to be victimized. Add that to Watson's wandering Europe and basically just getting confirmations of how good looking the missing woman is, and the level of Victorian sexism on display in this story starts to measure pretty high. We never get to actually meet Lady Frances, get a display of her true personality, or even be assured that she survives her ordeal with no brain damage.

But amid all that, the word that always seems to jump out for me is "friendless."

Sherlock Holmes seems sure that this nice traveling lady has no friends. We know she writes letters to her old governess, which seems like a really kindly thing to do. We know she meets people in her travels and establishes at least short term friendships. Why is Sherlock Holmes so quick to judge the lady as "friendless?"

If one does the ever-popular word search of the Sherlockian Canon, one quickly sees that only two other persons in all of Watson's records are described as "friendless." And just who are those two folks?

Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson.

Watson, of course, makes his statement early on in his cohabitation with Holmes: "During the first week or so we had no callers, and I had begun to think my companion was as friendless a man as myself."

People start showing up, but they are Holmes's clients, unless one counts Lestrade as a friend. And he very well might have been. So perhaps Watson was wrong about Holmes being friendless. But Watson definitely considers himself among the friendless at that point.

Before meeting Watson, Sherlock Holmes states in "The Gloria Scott" that he himself was friendless in college. Holmes meets Victor Trevor and "it was a bond of union when I found that he was as friendless as I." Being friendless seems to be the temporary state leading to friendship for both Holmes, who found Trevor, and Watson, who found Holmes.

But even after he has Watson, Sherlock Holmes can't get past that looming spectre of friendlessness.

"And now, my poor Watson, here we are, stranded and friendless in this inhospitable town . . . ."

It's an interesting note that Holmes is describing Cambridge, "an old University city," as that inhospitable place where even with Watson he feels friendless. Is he revealing his own alma mater here, and echoing the feelings he first had there as a lonely student? It's very likely, I think. College towns have usually seemed friendly places in my experience of adult life -- is Cambridge that different, or was it just Holmes's past haunting him?

And also, does his use of the term "friendless" about her indicate a certain sympathy and kinship with Lady Frances Carfax? Might she have been a cousin, that he seemed to have such a feeling of who she was and what she was about, having such worry about her wandering Europe?

For a single word, "friendless" is one that will always raise questions, no matter who uses it. Even Sherlock Holmes.

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