Monday, February 8, 2021

The dear old ruddy-faced woman

"You're letting him . . . kill Martha . . ."  

"What does that mean? Why did you say that name?"

A couple of silly lines from a very silly movie where that single first name changes everything. In Sherlockiana, that name has not had nearly so much impact. In fact, it's the name of one of the few characters in the Sherlockian Canon that people seem to actively want to erase.

A woman, seen through a window with a lamp beside her on a table. "A dear old ruddy-faced woman in a country cap." She knits and pets the cat  on the stool next to her.

"She might almost personify Britannia," the villain's friend says, thinking it an insult to the country they're working against. Not knowing the very real irony in his words.

Eventually she's curtseying and smiling at Sherlock Holmes, who expresses his utmost confidence in her, a very rare thing for a man who started his career with an admitted distrust of those of her gender. She's his agent, reporting to him the next day at Claridge's Hotel in London, a five star hotel in Mayfair. It's a hotel so nice, so tied to royalty and artistocrats, that we seldom, if ever, hear of Sherlock Holmes fans staying there, even though it still exists.

No common servant is going to be reporting to Sherlock Holmes at Claridge's.

She is something of a mystery, Holmes's Martha, and, ironically, some Sherlockians seem to hate mysteries. They cast Holmes's landlady, Mrs. Hudson, as the skilled spy, or the singing star Irene Adler, which is a sort of "Martha erasure." Hudson and Adler were remarkable women, but don't we have room in Holmes's life for a third remarkable woman?

Yes, yes, there were more than three total -- not forgetting Kitty, Maud, Mary, the good Violet, etc. But this Martha . . . this intriguing, mysterious Martha whom a cat respects as a friend . . . Martha is something special and never seems to quite get her due.

"So long as you were here I was easy in my mind," Sherlock Holmes says of her. He's not worried about her. He trusts her skills, even when circumstances have him waiting overlong for her signal. She knows Holmes's plans -- really think about that -- she knows Sherlock Holmes's plans ahead of time. No one ever gets to know Sherlock Holmes's plans ahead of time. But Martha does.

She is called an "old lady" by Watson, but Sherlock Holmes is sixty and looking like Uncle Sam at this point, and we always suspect Watson of being older still. Martha seems to be a contemporary of the two. And it's been many years since their comfortable partnership in Baker Street. The tale of how Martha came to be working for Sherlock Holmes, gaining his trust, is one of the great untold tales of the Canon. How many years was that trust being built? Was she around for the Watson era, unwritten of for her infiltration skills in service to Holmes, if Watson even knew of her?

Trying to trim dear Martha with a Mrs. Hudson or Irene Adler shaped cookie cutter leaves a lot of good dough left over, and we have to be careful with such trimming.

We may not know what Martha means, but we certainly know why a Sherlockian might say that name. Martha is definitely a character worth returning to, and a woman who is fascinating all by herself.

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