Femme Friday: Mrs. St Clair
“You would have done better to have trusted your wife,” says Sherlock Holmes to an abashed and exposed Neville St. Clair at the conclusion of “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” Isn’t that so often the case? Mrs. Neville St. Clair is one of the many women in the Canon who is never given a name of her own (though let’s face it, it’s probably Violet or Mary. Probably Violet). This lack of identifier should not be mistaken for lack of identity. Nor should it suggest a lack of character or of purpose. Mrs. St. Clair instigates the action, knowingly leads the police and Holmes to vital clues, and maintains the base of operations during the case.
While many Canonical cases revolve around women, Mrs. St. Clair is at the center of this one without being either a victim or a villain. She is an everywoman: a devoted wife, and a loving mother. And like so many wives and mothers—certainly mine, and perhaps yours as well—she is a rock, and expert manager of people and situations, and has a felicity for cutting through bullshit.
The case is triggered when Mrs. (Violet or Mary) St. Clair sees her husband flailing out of the upper window of the sort of establishment that makes other seedy rat-infested rookeries look like cozy tea shops. What does she do? She makes instant note of the fact that Neville is not wearing a collar and tie, because details matter, registers that he seems to be in distress, and immediately rushes into this hideous den of vice to rescue him. She tries to muscle her way past the sinister toughs blocking the stairway, and she has to be carried out bodily before she gives up and fetches the police. There is no strength like the strength of a woman when her family is threatened.
Holmes spends a long cab ride to the St. Clairs’ home in Kent musing to Watson over how sorry he is not to have good news for his client (for, presumably, just as she engaged the police, Mrs. St. Clair enlisted Holmes), and how worried she is for her husband. The reader might therefore expect a frail, weeping thing to greet Holmes and Watson, but instead, we get a different sight altogether: “She stood with her figure outlined against the flood of light, one hand upon the door, one half raised in her eagerness, her body slightly bent, her head and face protruded, with eager eyes and parted lips, a standing question.” Following an introduction to Watson and a brief exchange with Holmes, she ushers the men into her house and proceeds to grill the detective in the most satisfyingly forthright manner: “Now, Mr. Sherlock Holmes… I should very much like to ask you one or two plain questions, to which I beg that you will give a plain answer. …Do not trouble about my feelings. I am not hysterical, nor given to fainting. I simply wish to hear your real, real opinion.” While she grills Holmes, she is “standing upon the rug and looking keenly down at him as he leaned back in a basket chair.” As a personal confession, every time I read this I imagine my own mum interrogating a different version of Holmes. And every time, every version cowers and must collect himself before he answers.
There is one other unique quality of Mrs. St. Clair: while her husband is missing, she allows two bachelors to stay in her house with her. Several commentators have posited that she was having a dalliance with Holmes (who was meant to be staying with her on his own), and others have suggested she had designs on him that he was relieved to escape through Watson’s serendipitous presence. For my part, I think she didn’t care if her reputation was ruined if it meant the safe return of her husband, and was simply happy to offer whatever help Holmes requested; she’s a practical woman. The long and short of it is that Mrs. St. Clair is not to be trifled with, and quite frankly, if she ever does learn the truth of his activities from her husband, I wouldn’t trade places with him for all the coppers Hugh Boone ever collected.
Ashley D. Polasek holds a PhD in English, with a specialty in adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, a subject on which she has published in Adaptation, Literature/Film Quarterly, Transformative Works and Cultures, Viewfinder, and The Journal of Victorian Culture Online, among others. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an Honourary Research Fellow at the Centre for Adaptations at De Montfort University.
Ashley is the co-editor, with Lyndsay Faye, of Behind the Canonical Screen (BSI Press, 2016) and the co-editor, with Prof. Deborah Cartmell, of The Blackwell Companion to the Biopic (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming 2018). You can follow her on Twitter @SherlockPhD