Wide Angle

The Curious Case of Sherlock Holmes’ Feminist Spinoffs

Netflix’s Enola Holmes is only the latest attempt to insert a female protagonist into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.

Collage of Millie Bobby Brown in Enola Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, Lucy Liu in Elementary, Yūko Takeuchi in Miss Sherlock, and the book covers of Murder on Cold Street and Dreaming Spies
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by HBO, Amazon, BBC, Legendary/Netflix, Amazon, CBS, Penguin, and Bantam.

When Dr. John Watson agreed to share lodgings with a friend of a friend in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, one of popular fiction’s great oases was born. Inside the sanctum of 221B Baker Street, Holmes and Watson existed in a fantasy of late Victorian homosociality, a cross between Oxbridge undergraduate life and feckless bohemia. Their world was incomplete, yet perfect, like all fantasies, as bewitching for what it excluded—regular hours, real jobs, sexuality and its discontents—as for the pipe smoke, disguises, and idle gunplay that it contained. Arthur Conan Doyle got tired of it all long, long before his fans did, and married Watson off to a woman who mattered so little to her creator that he could not remember if she were alive or dead, and he killed off Holmes himself in 1893. Ten years later, popular demand obliged Conan Doyle to resurrect the great detective, whereupon Watson moved right back into the Baker Street flat. There the two friends live forever, nurtured by the redoubtable Mrs. Hudson and perpetually ready to take on the next adventure.

Fans all over the globe adore the bubble in which the Sherlock Holmes stories take place, but at the same time, many can’t resist the urge to pop it. Holmes is the prototype of a certain kind of male hero: aloof, ascetic, a proponent of pure rationalism, and ostensibly immune to emotion and the snares of romantic love. (Star Trek’s Mr. Spock is another.) Characters like this serve as batteries for the fannish imagination; they generate pastiches and spinoffs and vast databases of fan fiction. It’s precisely because Holmes seems to lack ordinary human weaknesses that writers of all kinds want to imagine him succumbing to them, whether it’s the cocaine addiction that compels him to undergo psychotherapy in Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (adapted to the screen in 1976), or the secret passion for Watson himself that a subset of fans of the BBC TV series Sherlock believe is encoded in every episode.

One thing conspicuously missing from the Sherlock Holmes stories is a significant female protagonist. Mrs. Hudson plays Mom, underscoring that her tenants are just two overgrown boys, and Mary Watson, when she finally comes along, is a cookie-cutter Angel in the House. Then there’s Irene Adler, opera singer, “adventuress,” and one of only four people, as well as the only woman, to outwit Holmes. Ever afterward, according to Watson, the great detective referred to her as “the woman.” But she appears in only one of Conan Doyle’s stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

That’s an absence Sherlock Holmes’ female admirers in particular have been eager to fill, the latest example being Enola Holmes, a film from Fleabag director Harry Bradbeer, based on a series of children’s novels by Nancy Springer, and starring Stranger Things Millie Bobby Brown. (The movie premieres on Netflix on Wednesday.) Brown plays the teenage sister of Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), raised in the family’s ramshackle country house by her unconventional mother (Helena Bonham Carter) to read books, to play tennis indoors, and—because this is an adventure movie released in 2020—to defend herself with jiujitsu in hand-to-hand combat. When Enola’s mother disappears, Mycroft wants to send his sister off to finishing school and marry her off, so she runs away to London to find her missing parent, helping a handsome young marquess (Louis Partridge) escape a mysterious assassin along the way.

Enola Holmes is sweet and stylish but also entirely predictable, right down to the many exhortations to defy convention coming from such inspirational figures as Enola’s mother and her suffragette friends. There are jabs at the restrictiveness of Victorian women’s clothing and gender roles—true enough, but unless you are yourself 16 years old, you’ve probably heard it all before. (The film also takes a rather fantastical approach to 19th century mores. At one point, Enola walks alone through a rough neighborhood wearing a fancy red dress, all of which would have marked her as a prostitute.)

The movie is not the first to conjure up a Holmes sister: The final season of Sherlock featured as its antagonist Eurus Holmes, more brilliant than her two brothers but also a manipulative, homicidal psychopath who must be institutionalized on a remote island. Yet while not every depiction of a female member of the Holmes family is necessarily feminist, proximity to the great man remains a common theme in Holmes pastiches with that aim. A Study in Charlotte, a 2016 YA novel by Brittany Cavallaro, pairs Sherlock’s great-great-great-granddaughter Charlotte with Watson’s great-great-great-grandson Jamie to solve a mystery in the boarding school they both attend. The TV series Elementary made Watson into a woman, played by Lucy Liu, attending to Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock, a recovering addict, in contemporary New York. And Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series—beginning with 1994’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and now consisting of 16 novels, several of them New York Times bestsellers—has a retired Holmes, well into his 50s, befriend the series’s 15-year-old heroine, recognize her extraordinary intelligence, and, eventually, marry her.

It’s not just the 38-year difference between Mary’s and Sherlock’s ages that makes King’s series unsettling. Mary Russell—as handsome, clever, and rich as Emma Woodhouse, but without Emma’s endearing flaws—is a textbook example of a Mary Sue, fan fiction’s term for an author’s clumsy insertion of an idealized version of herself into a story about her favorite characters. Mary deepens as the series continues, but just as receiving her famous brother’s approval serves as the resolution of Enola Holmes’ story, the case for Mary’s worth remains too dependent on the investment readers have in her husband. There must be a less awkward way to prove that a woman can be Sherlock Holmes’ equal than concocting a story in which he remains the definitive judge of whether she’s succeeded.

Turning Sherlock himself into a woman seems the best way to flip the boys-club ethos of the canonical Holmes. Sherry Thomas does this in her Lady Sherlock series, beginning with 2016’s A Study in Scarlet Women. Her heroine, also named Charlotte, bridles at the constraints imposed by her upper-class 19th century upbringing. Thomas generates a heady Victorian atmosphere, but her plotting is on the leisurely side, and no one could ever accuse Conan Doyle of dawdling on the way to the chase. When the game is afoot, speed is of the essence!

For sheer brio, audacity, and narrative dispatch, the Japanese TV series Miss Sherlock (now streaming on HBO Max) may be the most winning feminist twist on the Holmes canon around. Clearly riffing on the BBC Sherlock, the series reimagines both Holmes and Watson as women in contemporary Tokyo. “Sherlock” (a nickname adopted by a consulting detective named Sara Shelly Futaba, played by Yūko Takeuchi) strides into crime scenes in trousers, asks incredibly rude questions, boasts of her investigative prowess, blithely digs her hands into cadavers, and makes astonishingly accurate deductions from the tiniest details, aided by the stalwartly decent Dr. Wato Tachibana (Shihori Kanjiya), lately returned from doing aid work in Syria. It’s undeniably thrilling to see a female character so confident, so possessed by her vocation, so utterly indifferent to what anyone thinks of her. Is Takeuchi’s Sherlock, in all her butch glory, also an absolute nightmare to deal with? Of course, but so was the original Holmes. If his bubble must be burst, let it at least be done by someone as impossible and as wonderful as himself.

For more on Enola Holmes, listen to Slate’s Laura Miller and Marissa Martinelli discuss the movie in spoiler-filled detail.