By BSB Amy
Today’s post is a little bit different. It’s not about one character, and the girls it’s about are not given names in the Doyle stories, yet they’re some of the most important people in the entire Holmesian world. Who do I mean? The resourceful, clever young women who round out the ranks of the Baker Street Irregulars, Sherlock Holmes’s network of tiny spies throughout the city of London. Adults are conspicuous. In Victorian London, where street children were a dime a dozen, Holmes’s irregulars went places adults couldn’t go and saw and heard things adults never could hve discovered.
The irregulars feature early in the Holmes canon, with brief but colorful appearances in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. From these accounts, we learn that Sherlock Holmes is in the habit of employing street children, under the command of a snarky chap named Wiggins, to be his eyes and ears in the city and that he pays them well. In a more personal way, Holmes’s patiently tolerant interactions with the children provide a brief but very warm window into his heart.
Of the irregulars themselves, little detail is provided, but as with so many things in Doyle’s writing, what isn’t said proves as intriguing as what is actually written. The brief accounts of the irregulars have spawned entire juvenile book series and the main plot of a recent made-for-tv film starring Jonathan Pryce, as well as countless mentions in Holmes pastiche novels and films.
One reason for this seems to be the age at which many of us first meet Sherlock Holmes. Even in their youngest days, Holmes and Watson seemed old to me when I read about them at the ripe age of ten. The irregulars, however, weren’t so far removed. They were kids, like me, and through their eyes, I could better understand Holmes and the Victorian world.
Modern adaptations like Sherlock tend to go a different route. In Doyle’s day, giving street children wage-paying labor was a kindness. Today, it wouldn’t play the same way, so Holmes is given a homeless network instead. However, The Sign of Three did pay homage to the detective’s way with children through his amusing and heartwarming interactions with Archie.
To truly appreciate the female members of the Baker Street Irregulars requires a liberal measure of imagination. We meet them in the genteel environs of 221b, but that is neither their home nor their usual environment. Through no fault of their own, these girls are on the street, but they’re far from helpless. Instead of giving up, they choose to take a job that is exciting and dangerous in equal measure, from a no less eccentric man. They are trusted to be sharp-eyed, stealthy, and resourceful, and they are—true unsung heroines of the Holmes stories.
Much has been said before about issues of sexism and feminism in the Doyle stories. Often cited for consideration is Holmes’s declaration that Mary Morstsn (later Watson) has potential as a detective. What very few people ever seem to point out is how absolutely equalized the accounts of the irregulars are. Not only did Holmes say a woman had potential to be a detective, but he was arguably already employing women as detectives, albeit very young ones.
If they were a little bit less intriguing, the Baker Street Irregulars might be relegated to Sherlockian footnote status, but they’re just too interesting for that. It’s impossible to imagine a time when they will fail to make their mark in books and on film, right alongside Holmes himself.