There is an exchange in the Sherlock Holmes tale The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton that is particularly illustrative of Holmes’s character. Having exhausted all options for recovering his client’s letters from a ruthless blackmailer, Milverton, Holmes announces to Watson: “I mean to burgle Milverton’s house tonight.” Watson protests, but finally concedes that the act, while technically criminal is morally justifiable, and Holmes reasons, “Since it is morally justifiable, I have only to consider the question of personal risk. Surely a gentleman should not lay much stress upon this when a lady is in most desperate need of his help.”
Holmes, in Watson’s words, “disliked and distrusted the [female] sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent.” In reading Austen, Holmes would have discovered a chivalry worth emulating in the conduct of Darcy, who endures the mortification and expense of salvaging Lydia’s reputation, or Brandon’s calling-out of Willoughby to punish the seduction of Eliza. While Holmes declares that the work is his reward and it is art for art’s sake, there is a defining knight errantry associated with cases that involve vulnerable women – Holmes rescues Violet Smith from a forced marriage, Helen Stoner from a murderous stepfather and Grace Dunbar from a wrongful charge of murder. His most dramatic rescue, however, is the from-the-brink-of-death rescue of Lady Frances Carfax.
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax begins with Holmes concluding, from Watson’s bootlaces, that he has been to the Turkish baths. “It is what we call an alterative in medicine,” replies Watson, admitting that he has been feeling “rheumatic.”
Holmes’s discourse takes another direction. “One of the most dangerous classes in the world,” he muses, “is the drifting and friendless woman. She is the most harmless, and often the most useful of mortals, but she is the inevitable inciter or crime in others. She is helpless. She is migratory…She is a stray chicken in a world of foxes. When she is gobbled up she is hardly missed.”
Holmes concludes by saying that he is afraid Lady Frances Carfax has met with foul play, but it may be that the inference of Watson’s therapeutic bath and the thoughtful meditation upon “drifting and friendless” women was influenced by a recent perusal of Jane Austen’s Persuasion; curative baths and the plight of vulnerable women is suggestive of Persuasion’s Mrs. Smith.
The most unfortunate character in all of Austen is Mrs. Smith, formerly Miss Hamilton, the invalid acquaintance of Anne Elliot. Unlike Mrs. and Miss Bates, who have likewise sunk from comfort to poverty, Mrs. Smith has no charitable neighbors to offer relief and stability. Like Lady Frances, she is migratory, relegated to – “obscure pensions and boarding-houses”, though Lady Frances’s spa in Baden is considerably finer than Mrs. Smith’s “noisy parlor and a dark bedroom behind” in Bath.
We meet Mrs. Smith about two-thirds of the way into Persuasion, when the Elliots settle in Bath. Anne Elliot is made aware of Mrs. Smith’s situation by a former governess, as Holmes is alerted to Lady Frances’s disappearance by her old governess when their regular correspondence has abruptly ceased.
Mrs. Smith, like Lady Frances, has been left “with limited means”. She is widowed, rheumatic and poor, her one object of value being some heavily encumbered property in the West Indies. Lady Frances has assets that are more accessible and portable – “some very remarkable old Spanish jewelry” that is always in her possession and that could easily make her “an inciter of crime in others.”
In Lady Frances Carfax, Holmes observes that “When you follow two separate chains of thought, Watson, you will find some point of intersection.” Mrs. Smith and Lady Frances have been accustomed to society and affluence, and both are inclined toward charity, but they have separate responses toward their plights and their piety: while Mrs. Smith has become cautious about her associations, having “seen too much of the world to expect sudden or disinterested attachment anywhere”, Lady Frances rebuffs a persistent lover and a faithful servant and allows herself to be taken in by a pair of seductive charlatans.
Lady Frances is described as “spiritual”, “religious” and “pious”, but it is a craving for piety, rather than piety itself, which has her fleeing from a coarse but sincere lover, and into the company of a couple who call themselves the Reverend and Mrs. Schlessinger, and whose, “…particular speciality is the beguiling of lonely ladies by playing upon their religious feelings”. Lady Frances whiles away her days fawning over the convalescent “missionary”; Mrs. Smith, on the other hand, takes up knitting needles in her rheumatic fingers and sells her handmade items to help support “one or two very poor families in this neighborhood.”
There is another common thread – a point of intersection – in their immobility. Mrs. Smith is confined, by her poverty and infirmity, to a pair of rooms, unable to move from one to the other, or to be carried to the baths, without assistance. Lady Frances suffers a somewhat darker fate; the Schlessingers first manipulate her into emotional dependence, and then into physical imprisonment, and finally, drugged and unconscious, into a coffin.
Both women come perilously close to being buried alive – Lady Frances literally and Mrs. Smith, figuratively – or “gobbled up”, as Holmes expressed it, and are rescued by gentlemen who are not put off by difficulty or personal risk when a lady is in need of his help. Holmes will not wait for a warrant before tearing into the Schlessingers’ custom-ordered coffin to free Lady Frances. Captain Wentworth, “by putting [Mrs. Smith] in the way of recovering her husband’s property in the West Indies, by writing for her, acting for her, and seeing her through all the petty difficulties of the case with the activity and exertion of a fearless man,” restores Mrs. Smith to all that she had been deprived of by Walter Elliot.
(You may read an account of the romance and marriage of Miss Hamilton and Charles Smith in Lady Vernon and Her Daughter).
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