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Mary Russell: If Sherlock Holmes Was A Woman, And A Feminist…

2012 September 3

While I wholeheartedly approve of fanfiction, I’ve never been a big fanfic reader. Not because of any quibbles over canon or squeamishness about interpretation, but because I’m too stubborn to spend any time in anyone else’s version of something I love. The versions I craft myself tend to stay in my head, but they entirely prevent me from enjoying myself with fanfic.

However, in the pursuit of pop culture adventures I’ve recently found myself spending some time with Mary Russell, the heroine of a series of books by Laurie R King which also feature Sherlock Holmes as her mentor, and later her husband. Like Holmes, Russell (her preferred moniker) is intelligent, logical, brave, unconventional and excellent at fighting, with a superb aim and a talent for disguises etc etc. She is Jewish, British-American, and studies theology at Oxford. She also dresses in men’s clothes.

What drew me to the books was the fact that Russell is a self-described feminist. Although she mentions her political beliefs in the first book, 1994’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the second is all about feminism. Well, feminism and theology. And murder. It’s even called A Monstrous Regiment of Women. I enjoyed it immensely, despite many silly moments and patchy writing. Incidentally the majority of the writing is pretty good, and I feel that the voice of Holmes rings true most of the time, which is no mean feat.

The author says of the series:

Mary Russell is what Sherlock Holmes would look like if Holmes, the Victorian detective, were a) a woman, b) of the Twentieth century, and c) interested in theology. If the mind is like an engine, free of gender and nurture considerations, then the Russell and Holmes stories are about two people whose basic mental mechanism is identical. What they do with it, however, is where the interest lies.

I find this intriguing, and I’m tempted to read the books again with that genderless mental mechanism in mind. For Holmes, the mind as an engine is his proclaimed ideal; flawless logic and cool rationality. Watson (in Conan Doyle’s A Scandal In Bohemia) famously describes Holmes’ low opinion (and fear?) of those “softer passions” which “might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.”

Of course, it’s Holmes’s human deviation from this mechanical ideal that is often most interesting to readers and fans. (See also: Mr Spock.) Russell is more well-adjusted; that is to say she acknowledges her emotions, and her desire, although grudgingly. Whether this is because she is a woman, because she is a citizen of the 20thC or because we as readers have more access to her thoughts than we do Holmes’s I couldn’t say.

Cover of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Alphonse Mucha-style drawing picture of a pale, auburn haired girl among dark trees She’s also very androgynous, something I enjoyed reading in a historical setting. But her masculine traits made me wonder if a feminine female Holmes is an impossibility. Would the character be in a permament spasm of contradiction or would they make a better go of reconciling femininity and reason than Holmes seems to be able to? Perhaps Conan Doyle came closer than most himself with Irene Adler, often positioned as Holmes’ female counterpart. While she is formidably intelligent, she is also impulsive, emotional, and sexual.

The thing I found most difficult to deal with, like many readers I suspect, is their May to December romance. When they meet, he is 52. And she is 15. When they marry they are 58 and 21 respectively. And for added creepiness, after their first (awful, awful) kiss: “By God,” he murmured throatily into my hair. “I’ve wanted to do that since the moment I laid eyes upon you.” What is there to say except *vom*?

Thankfully, the first hint of anything sexual between them arrives right at the end of the second book in the series when Russell is 21. Holmes just spends most of the first novel in which she is a teenager stroking her hair in a fatherly fashion. Still, there are some unsettlingly groom-y undertones which means the novels rely very heavily on the reader’s trust in Holmes as the embodiment of honour.

The other bothersome thing for me is Russell’s unavoidable Mary Sue-ness. As well as acting as an avatar for the author (also a Jewish, British-American, feminist theologian) she ticks lots of the boxes: succeeds at everything, is effortlessly friends with everyone, has a dramatic and tragic backstory, no flaws that aren’t endearing, and so on.

Arguably though, as far as being a freakish overachiever goes she is no more of a Mary Sue than Holmes himself. I think there’s a lot of truth in the argument that Mary Sue and her counterpart Marty Stu face double standards, and that successful, powerful female characters are dismissed or undermined through accusations of being a Mary Sue. Rhiannon at Feminist Fiction writes:

…once the words “Mary Sue” have been uttered, all productive conversation is shut down. It says that the character is not worth talking about, not worth analyzing, because she’s somehow incomplete… She’s not a character but a projection of female fantasy, and therefore innately, indisputably bad. Any character who falls into this category might be somewhat one-dimensional, lacking the depth and flaws needed for a really compelling character, but the term goes beyond that, throwing on implications of worthlessness (at best) and a kind of superior disgust at girlish dreams and ambitions (at worst). Because “Mary Sue” only refers to female characters.

Although I picked up the first book because of the fandom, I found myself wishing the Mary Russell books had simply been a series of novels about a feminist woman detective in the early 20thC. I think Russell would make a fine addition to the ranks occupied by Miss Marple and Mrs Bradley, being a little less genteel and younger, more impulsive, and more of an action detective in the manner of Holmes, employing disguises and fisticuffs as necessary. They’re good stories, and although Holmes is in the background I’m not sure he needs to be there at all.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Rebecca permalink
    September 3, 2012

    Their marriage didn’t make me that uncomfortable because of their ages – what did irk me massively was that their friendship was developed so slowly and intricately, and then suddenly at the end of the second book – without any preamble – they just…suddenly elope. Surprise! It felt very rushed and quite bad epilogue-y.

    In a way I think my issue with it is the very opposite to yours, actually: the problem I have with it is that I think as characters they had a lot more potential for sexual tension…just not quite as things were played out in the books, because it would have made the father figure sense of the first book way creepier. If they’d been closer in age that might’ve nullified the father figure thing, or if they’d met when Mary was older, but either way I think ignoring any sexual relationship between them at all actually doesn’t do justice to how interesting a pairing it could be. Even if the point is that they don’t have a sexual relationship – you still need to mention it at all to get that across.

    In general I think if Mary had actually shown more of a sexual side that it might have rounded her character out a lot more. She comes across as a bit hypocritical sometimes when it comes to feminism and emotion – which can be an awesome point that King explores, or it can leave her a bit wanting as a character, and I think it tends to the latter more often than the former.

  2. September 18, 2012

    There is the term Gary Stu or Marty Stu as well for male “Sues”. But I don’t think the reason for the prevalence of the Mary Sue critique is down to sexism – it’s more likely because in fanfiction, most writers tend to be female, and more often than not teenage girls who are too young to recognize what they’re doing. When I was reading fanfic (Harry Potter), I think it was something like 90% of original characters were female and created by girls (often with the author’s name).

    Holmes himself has Gary Stu-ish aspects, but I don’t think it’s the male vs female debate that’s relevant there, it’s the fanfiction vs canon problem. There are canon protagonists out there which have suspicious traits in line with being fantasy versions of the author, but they’re more likely to get away with it. Possibly because published works tend to be of a good story-telling quality that compensates for the Sueishness, whereas most Sue/Stu fanfics tend to be a poorly disguised personal fantasy being shared.

  3. May 12, 2014

    I haven’t read the early books yet, but yes the relationship feels creepy to me – even more so now I know they first met when she was only fifteen! How hard would it have been to make Mary Russell just a few years older?

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