From Dainty to Bloody
Throughout the last two centuries, women in literature have personified what it means for women of the real world to exist in their respective societies. From being feminine and delicate to cunning and crafty, women in literary works have run the gamut of characteristics and motives that have defined what means to be a member of the female gender. In Hadar Aviram’s essay, “Dainty Hands: Perceptions of Women and Crime in Sherlock Holmes Stories,” Aviram goes through a great deal of effort to describe and statistically analyze different women and their various modus operandi in Conan Doyle’s Sherlockian canon.
A few of Aviram’s central themes are as follows:
- The traditional perception among criminologists has been that crime is and always has been a predominantly male phenomenon.
- Women are likely to be treated with “chivalry” in situations in which they conform to feminine stereotypes.
- Women were not always a rare phenomenon on the criminal stage.
- One of the most important side effects of the Industrial Revolution was greater differentiation in gender roles. Women were pushed away from the public market, which involved primarily low-wage labor, toward the home, or sex-segregated industries, such as women-only textile factories. This transformation imbued the home with symbolism of feminine delicacy, romantic love, spiritual cultivation, and maternal nurturing, the Victorian “cult” of domesticity.
- 18th century female characters were often independent and entrepreneurial woman, whereas 19th century female characters who were powerless to effectuate their own destiny despite her strong sense of personal responsibility. This literary shift reflected a broad cultural shift in the understanding of criminal responsibility in general and female criminality in particular.
- Novels of the late 18th to early 19th century were aimed at moralizing the working class while the ethos of feminine delicacy was developed by and for the middle classes and designed to bleed into the lower classes.
- Conan Doyle wrote stories about women who were brave in the late 1890s, then stopped writing about them after the 1900s.
- All of Conan Doyle’s female characters are either praised or reviled upon the solving of their crimes.
- The various characteristics that Conan Doyle ascribes to his female characters are true for both the criminals and the non-criminals.
- Women of Conan Doyle’s, as well as most other Victorian works, were defined by their relationships to the men in their lives; they are captives, protectors, muses, or co-entrepreneurs with them.
- The rise of positivism in literature and Victorian era life in general, as well as the medicalization of crime in particular, is a valuable lens for understanding the current criminal justice policies toward women. (Aviram 2013)
To be an essay centered around analyzing crime stories and their effect on society, Aviram spends a great deal of time avoiding using the “F” word. Though Aviram subtly attacks the underlying principles behind anti-feminism by pointing out the flaws in female characters contrived by men, she does make a few points that are worth acknowledging. Perceived crime rates among women were never high in the 18th and 19th centuries. If ever a woman stepped out of line, she was simply thrown into a sanitarium and left for dead. So, logically, one could assume that though the crime rates weren’t high for women, the number of the institutionalized was considerably higher during this time.
Also, when reading this essay, it’s important to offer kudos to Aviram for pointing out the fact that authors during the 18th and 19th centuries spent a great deal of their time crafting their works to speak to specific demographics. A wealthy author would right stories that they knew their fellow wealthy and semi-wealthy masses would be able to easily identify with. By identifying with a particular class and instilling their message through their work, authors were capable of influencing the much larger classes of individuals who weren’t able to read their works through social osmosis. In a world without televisions and social networks, the written word was the key to societal change.
Though I’m not a woman and I’m not particularly interested in the history of women’s struggles, I am a criminologist and I can appreciate the views of a woman who has taken the time to dig into the history has shaped our society. To be able quantify the actual number of times a woman was created by Conan Doyle and quickly see her identifying attributes on a well labeled chart, Aviram has me impressed. Not only did she actually investigate her source material to gather history on her subject, she also took the time to explain and qualify her conclusions. I highly recommend her article to any Sherlockian, Criminologist, or Sociologist with a weakness for socially constructed female gender.
My Rating: ⅞ Stars: Great Read!
Aviram, Hadar. “Dainty Hands: Perceptions Of Women And Crime In Sherlock Holmes Stories.” Hastings Women’s Law Journal 22.2 (2011): 233-256. Index to Legal Periodicals & Books Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 20 Apr. 2013.
Article written by W. Nash