Another Holmes movie has hit our livingrooms. This time though, it is not Sherlock Holmes but his sparkly 16-year-old sister who is solving a mystery. Directed by Harry Bradbeer and starring Millie Bobby Brown, Enola Holmes was released by Netflix last week. The film is based on author Nancy Springer’s Sherlock Holmes spin-off, Enola Holmes mysteries, that she wrote between 2006 and 2010.
Enola Holmes is a product of 19th century England gripped by a radical women’s movement demanding political and personal rights. While Enola’s mother Eudoria is part of a group of suffragettes, the protagonist herself is depicted as a complete misfit in the restrictive and male-dominated world of Victorian England. In the background is a politically charged atmosphere of reform bills being passed in the Parliament amidst great debate and family discords.
In a 2018 interview with the News Herald, Springer had stated that Sherlock Holms reflected author Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian views on women as a weaker sex, and thereby her Enola Holmes is a disgrace to her brothers thanks to her independent ways. “The character of Sherlock Holmes by author Arthur Conan Doyle most certainly subscribed to a certain brand of latent sexism. Of course, he never engaged in any sexual violence or any prominent violence against women in his fictional world but he was always biased towards the ‘fairer’ sex. Very often during his process of deduction he referred to the popular and contemporary stereotypes against women,” says Aninidita Ghosh, Assistant Professor in the department of English at Maitreyi College, Delhi University. “Enola serves as a befitting reply to the Sherlockian world without stripping him off the essential goodness he serves in all the paradigms.”
The feminist movement of 19th century England
Springer’s creation of Enola Holms is best understood in the background of the womens’ suffrage movement that surfaced in England. At 16, Enola had inherited her mother’s love for word games, her expertise in martial arts and her rebellious nature. She is disappointed at the sudden disappearance of her mother, but soon unravels her involvement in a radical women’s group as she comes across explosive substances being created by them to bring about a militant reformation in English politics.
This was the time when groups demanding political rights for women had cropped up all over England. A report produced by journalist Rebecca Meyers in the Independent in 2013, notes that “Both Parliament UK and the British Library claim that there were seventeen societies in favour of suffrage for women that came together in the late 19th century to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.” She further narrates that “by 1913 nearly five hundred regional suffrage societies had joined, making the NUWSS a most influential alliance.”
The relentless efforts of the suffrage movement for almost a century led to the passage of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928, that gave women electoral equality with men. The first petition for the women’s vote came in 1832 from Stanmore in Yorkshire, who stated that she paid taxes, and therefore did not see why she should not have a share in the election of a representative.
In 1865, the Kensington Society was formed which consisted a group of middle class women, who were barred from higher education. They organised the first campaigns for women’s voting rights, property holding and higher education. After much discussion, they formed a committee for drafting a petition and gathering signatures. It was led by activists like Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett. The petition containing 1500 signatures was presented by the philosopher John Stuart Mill in the House of Commons in 1866.
The Manchester Suffrage committee, the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Primrose league, the Women’s Liberation Front, and the Women’s Franchise Front, were some among the many groups that came up in England in the late 19th century.
In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed. Its members called themselves the suffragists, and aimed to achieve enfranchisement for women through peaceful and legal means. It believed in educating the masses through literature and influencing the government through petitions and bills.
However, a group of women from among the suffragists were growing increasingly impatient and frustrated with the lack of progress being made. Consequently, in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed under the leadership of Emelie Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The group preferred to call themselves suffragettes and aimed to employ militant and illegal tactics to win their cause, as their motto, ‘deeds not words’ made clear. The group heckled politicians, held mass demonstrations, attacked prominent buildings, burned down unoccupied houses and churches, went on hunger strikes, and when arrested endured forced feeding. Two of the most famous mass rallies were held by the suffragettes in 1908 and 1913, with the former being attended by around 300,000 people.
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One of the first and most prominent acts of militancy on the part of the Suffragettes was that of chaining themselves to railings of public buildings. In January 1908 as activists Edith New and Olivia Smith chained themselves to the railings outside 10 Downing Street, their companion Flora Drummond slipped into the building to disrupt a cabinet meeting. Myers in her article notes how in the act of chaining themselves, the activists suffered sexual violence in the hands of the public and police.
Finally, in 1918, the British government granted propertied women aged above 30 the right to vote. Ten years later in 1928, voting rights were extended to all women above the age of 21, bringing them at par with men.
Scholars have often commented upon the fact that the movement for women’s suffrage in England was as much a political fight as it was personal. “In fighting for enfranchisement, suffragists sought no less the total transformation of the lives of women. They set out to redefine and recreate through political means, the sexual culture of Britain,” writes historian Susan Kinsley Kent in her book, ‘Sex and Suffrage in Britain, 1860-1914’.
Attorney Sophia Van Wingerden who authored the book, ‘The women’s suffrage movement in Britain, 1866-1928’ in 1999, notes how despite the apparent lack of progress in political rights, made by women’s groups in the 19th century, they made progress in various other fields. “Women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge universities were founded, women were permitted to take medical degrees, educational institutions for girls were established, married women acquired rights to hold property in their own names, and mothers gained rights of access to and control over their children,” she writes.
The overlap of the political and personal in the movement for women’s rights in England is beautifully explored in the relationship that Enola is shown to be sharing with her mother. The film concludes with a monologue by Enola in which she reflects over everything her mother has prepared her to become: “To be a Holmes you must find your own path, my brothers have, my mother has, and I must too…she wanted me to find my freedom, my future, my purpose.”
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