Back in 1886, a struggling doctor in England was trying to get his first novel published. It would be rejected by many prestigious publishing houses for many reasons, including that it wasn’t sellable because it lacked romance. The novel was A Study in Scarlet. The author was Arthur Conan Doyle and the unromantic character was Sherlock Holmes.
Over 125 years later, Sherlock Holmes still attracts thousands of fans, including women who include the Great Detective in their fan fiction, dreams and sentimental YouTube music videos. This is not a new phenomenon. Doyle received many love letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes as well as letters offering their services as a landlady. Even back in Victorian times, Sherlock Holmes was considered sexy.
Descriptions and Drawings
Doyle never once claimed that Holmes was a handsome man. He rarely described Holmes’ appearance in anything close to complimentary terms. Holmes was tall, but seemed taller because he was so thin. He had gray eyes, dark, thinning hair and a “hawk-like” nose. It was the illustrator Sidney Paget who first gave Holmes shape. He based Holmes on himself and his brother Walter. Doyle claimed that these drawings made Holmes too handsome.
There are other qualities that people can find extremely attractive rather than good looks. Holmes is a genius. He can play the violin. He is a success in his peculiar trade. He sometimes takes the law into his own hands, but always with good reasons. He is a self-made gentleman instead of one born in the upper classes who is (almost) always in command of a situation. He also has very dark shadowy side that can be very appealing. He is a magnetic personality partially because he keeps most of himself hidden away from others – even Watson.
One obvious reason that Sherlock Holmes stars in many women’s fantasies is due to the more than 150 actors who have portrayed him on stage and screen. Arguably the current popularity of BBC’s Sherlock is based more for Benedict Cumberbatch than for bringing the Great Detective to the 21st century. Over the decades, actors who have portrayed Sherlock Holmes have generally been more and more conventionally handsome, including John Barrymore, Robert Downey, Jr. and the most acclaimed of all, Jeremy Brett.
The first major actor to portray Holmes was the square-jawed American William Gillette. In 1899, he collaborated with Doyle to write a four act play called “Sherlock Holmes.” In order to make Holmes more likeable, Gillette asked Doyle if Holmes could get married at the play’s end. Doyle famously replied, “You may marry him or murder him or do anything you like to him.” Gillette would wind up playing Holmes for over 30 years.
The Great Unattainable
Holmes is presented as a celibate borderline misogynist in the writings of Doyle. Holmes never courted, married and claimed that he had never been in love. He had a low opinion of women. He explains in The Sign of the Four (1890) that the most winning woman he ever knew “was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance money.” Doyle never elaborated on this tantalizing memory. Doyle wrote that Holmes only had his head turned by a woman once in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Nothing ever came of it, except that Holmes kept a photo of the woman locked in his desk.
Doyle was a master at dropping tantalizing hints about Holmes without filling in the blanks. He left those blanks open for fans to fill in with their own imaginations. Women were able to fill in the blanks with whatever they fancied. Being able to turn the head of someone who famously ignored women presents a thrilling challenge to the imagination. Unlike real people, fictional characters have the virtue of never failing to live up to your expectations. They are the great unattainable prize, where the victory is not so much in the getting but in the hunt.