Not Your Angel: Feminism and Social Commentary in The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas
Sherry Thomas is no stranger to defying social expectations. Her Lady Sherlock series tackles many of these expectations head on, to the delight of her readers. From gender-flipping and gender fluidity to body positivity, Thomas takes the best of the Sherlock tradition and pushes its boundaries. The newest book in Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, The Hollow of Fear (Berkley, 2018), challenges assumptions more than ever, couching some important and relevant discussion about modern social issues in the guise of a fun Victorian mystery.
One of the most interesting aspects of Thomas’s novels is the interplay of gender identity and expected Victorian gender roles. From the start, Thomas’s Sherlock is a woman who takes on a man’s role in solving crimes, a gender-flipped version of the traditional Sherlock. Thomas explains that she decided to make her Sherlock a woman because it was “the only thing left to do.” Citing Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series as an inspiration, Thomas says that was “the first story in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that made me want to write an adaptation of my own…” Then along came the BBC’s Sherlock, set in the 21st century, and CBS’s Elementary with its female Watson. After that, Thomas explains, making Sherlock a woman seemed the logical thing to do. Not only does this set the stage for the rest of the series, but it cracks the illusion of the sweet-tempered, sheltered Angel in the House the upper-class Victorian woman was expected to be. In so many ways, this mirrors modern society, especially politics, where women are still often expected to hold traditional roles and be likeable peacemakers.
Thomas takes the issue of gender several steps further in The Hollow of Fear. Whereas the previous books in the series simply had Charlotte Holmes acting in a man’s role by solving mysteries – she pretends to be her “brother’s” interpreter, who clients are not permitted to see since, of course, there is no brother – in The Hollow of Fear, Charlotte actively flips genders by dressing as a man so that she may travel to the site of a crime. More than that, her friend, Lord Ingram, knows what she is doing and helps her carry out the ruse, treating her as he would any other man despite his qualms about it. There is so much to unpack in this new dynamic, which upends those traditional gender roles and expectations in wonderful ways. The Victorian ideal of the Angel in the House is discarded utterly, both by Charlotte Holmes herself and, by extension, Thomas as her creator. In a time when women were largely expected to be under the care of a man, whether father, brother, or husband, Charlotte bucks expectations by carving out a niche all of her own, on her own, without a man to guide her. She further highlights her own abilities and disregard for social mores when she dresses as a man to carry out her self-designed duties. Doing so was shocking to Lord Ingram, and even somewhat to Mrs Watson, who helped her become Sherlock, but it helps highlight how the institutions of society would keep women subservient to men. These social establishments are still in effect today in many ways, from the hyper-feminine and unrealistic measurements portrayed in films and TV to the way that the majority of emotional labor falls to women.
An element that is closely woven with gender, particularly those who identify as female, is the issue of body image and relationship to food. Charlotte Holmes is not shy about the pleasure she takes in sweets, and makes reference several times to the “maximum tolerable chins” she can have. Some may view this as Charlotte’s use of food as her apparent drug of choice in lieu of Sherlock’s cocaine, as Conan Doyle’s character uses in the traditional tales. However, Thomas explains that, whereas Sherlock took cocaine recreationally when he was bored, he had the disposable income to do so since he is likely from the lower aristocracy or upper gentry. “Charlotte Holmes is in a different situation,” Thomas says. “She does depend on her work to pay the bills and doesn’t have the luxury of whiling away her hours on drugs. So for solace she turns to food, especially sweet things.” And since she still wants to fit into her clothes and can’t afford to buy new ones, she uses her “maximum tolerable chins” as a gauge to tell when she can have another slice of cake or when she needs to stop. This system may sound very familiar to a lot of women today, using the waistband of our jeans to tell us when we need to start counting calories. More importantly, though, is Charlotte’s view of her body. While she did at one point attempt to fit into the ideal Victorian model of womanhood by being a slim and dainty figure, she recognized that it did not suit her in a variety of ways. When she left her parents’ home, she resumed her preferred habits with regard to food, and she does not feel ashamed of being a bit heavier than the so-called ideal for women of her time. In this as well, Thomas has created a role model of body positivity for women who might be feeling guilty over that second (or third!) slice of cake they just ate.
The real gem with this narrative is the way it highlights women’s intelligence. Charlotte forces Ingram to go along with her ruse, so he treats her as he would treat any other man of his acquaintance. To his consternation, she more than holds her own, blending into the male sphere easily and comfortably, shattering the illusion that women are fragile creatures who need to be tended and cared for. While this may not be the catalyst for a women’s movement within the novels, it does promote awareness that women have a life and interests beyond the men in their lives, something of a novelty to Ingram and even to other women in the book. It further provides a sharp lens through which to view modern feminism, for these topics are still relevant to women in the 21st century as well as the 19th. Even after 200 years of women’s rights activism, that it still comes as a surprise to some that women are intelligent beings with interests outside their homes, marriages, and children is both maddening and discouraging. Thomas’s method in using her characters and their approach to gender to highlight these points creates the perfect way to open a discussion about women and our role in an ever-changing society. We’ve come from the Angels in the House to the Hellions of the [US Capitol] Hill. With characters like Charlotte Holmes and authors like Sherry Thomas, historical fiction remains a vibrant and relevant medium for discussing social change and the issues arising from it.
About the contributor: Kristen McQuinn writes short stories and is working on her first nonfiction book. Eventually, she will write a runaway bestselling magical realism series using medieval holy women as the protagonists.