I feel like I need to start this off by saying I have nothing against Irene Adler. She is a fantastic character that we did not get to see enough of, in my opinion, and that pastiche writers since have embraced beautifully. I love that one of the first people we see best Holmes is a woman, a very clever and slightly devious woman who uses his own skills and preconceptions against him. I have endless adoration for “The Woman.”
What annoys me, though, is this idea that she is the only strong, capable woman Doyle gives us; that every other female character that crosses Holmes’ path is little more than a cookie cutter damsel in distress needing to be saved by the Great Detective. When people have this argument, they’ll drag out Helen Stoner (The Speckled Band), Mary Sutherland (A Case of Identity), or Annie Ruscastle (The Cooper Beeches) as definitive proof of the hypothesis while holding up Irene as comparison. Miss Adler, in their minds, is an outlier. An anomaly. She is the exception to the rule. All other women in Doyle’s Victorian London are weak, desperate creatures that fade into oblivion next to Irene’s strength.
They forget all about Violet Hunter.
Violet Hunter is the kind of young woman that likes to be clear and direct and figure things out for herself. By the time she calls on Holmes and Watson for advice, she’s already weighed the odd circumstances of her job offer – leave London to come be a governess to governess to one child in a country estate and acquiesce to any odd quirks her employers might suggest – against her own lack of funds and the 120 pounds a year they’re offering for her services. She knows something about it seems strange and is looking for someone to tell her whether her suspicions are warranted or silly.
This is the same advice sought in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk;” it’s a similar situation to the one presented in “The Redheaded League,” as well. The main difference between Violet’s situation and Mr. Jabez’s and Mr. Pycroft’s is that the exorbatant pay is being offered for actual, related work – just with a few odd circumstances involved. Unlike her male counterparts, she’s at least not being wooed by a ridiculous premise attached to an unexpected sum of money. She’s a governess being asked to take care of a child – while sporting a specific haircut and occasionally sitting in front of a window in someone else’s dress listening to her employer tell her funny stories. That’s a bit more credible than being asked to copy out the encylopedia or the phone book. At least the job she’s taking on makes sense. Mostly.
Holmes sends her on with a vague warning that things may yet end up dangerous, even if he doesn’t know where exactly the danger lies, and Violet ensures him if things go wrong, she will send word. Not very long after, he gets a summons to the Copper Beeches.
Violet Hunter is an observant, clever woman capable of noticing there are strange things afoot. When Holmes and Watson arrive, she provides them a thorough, exacting account of her days in the Rucastle house. She provides them enough information that Holmes has the entire case solved before he ever sees the scene. When he arrives on scene, he already expects to find Annie Rucastle tucked away in that locked wing and a fairly good explanation of why. He’s able to make such a clean deduction because Violet not only provides excellent information, but also because she is brave enough to find a way into that locked wing and investigate its contents, based on a hunch. Violet may not cleverly disguise herself to play with Holmes and then slip away unseen into the night, but she matches Holmes’ curiosity and observation at the very least. She isn’t who Holmes and Watson have to swoop in and save – she’s the one that precipitates the rescue mission.
Of course, another woman – Mrs. Toller, the cook – manages that rescue mission entirely on her own before the boys of Baker Street arrive, providing another example of a woman in the canon operating outside the damsel in distress boundaries. Sure, she does it as much for a monetary motive as a humanitarian one, but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme.
I’m not sure why Violet gets ignored. Watson describes as an attractive woman, so it’s not because she’s plainer than Irene. She possesses a more conventional career for a woman of the era; does she thus get left off because she’s too common? Too boring in comparison to the infamous adventuress? Is the story just less exciting? I don’t know. But I definitely think Violet gets the short end of the fandom stick sometimes, and she really shouldn’t.