(Sorry, it’s an involuntary reaction to hearing that lyric.)
It’s no surprise to anyone reading this, I’m assuming, that the Victorians had some weird thoughts and practices in regards to women, especially single women. We were delicate flowers who couldn’t handle a slightly uncomfortable truth (“A Case of Identity“), were not expected to be as devious as our male counterparts or in any way their equal (“A Scandal in Bohemia“),were property whose worth was determined by our marriageability or our perceived purity (“The Noble Bachelor“), and were easy targets for blackmailers (“Charles Augustus Milverton“). This was an era when women had to fight to own anything of their own, could be utterly destroyed by a poor marriage or a hint of scandal, and had nearly no one fighting for them. I mean, married women didn’t even truly get the right to really own property in any real sense until The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, for God’s sake.
The mystery at the heart of “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” revolves exactly around those antiquated ideas of a woman’s worth and autonomy, taking James Windibank’s plot to trap his step-daughter in a fictional engagement in “The Noble Bachelor” to keep his hands on her inheritance to an all new low. What Mr. Carruthers and Mr. Woodley plan to do to Violet Smith is potentially the worst thing any Holmes villain has ever planned to do to another human being, and that includes the several of them responsible for murder.
Yes, there is something worse than murder.
Violet comes to Holmes and Watson not necessarily because of the odd business arrangement she’s found herself in – reminiscent of every odd business arrangement ever presented in a Holmes story, ever – but because someone has been following her on her weekly bike rides to the train station to spend her weekends back in London. She doesn’t consider the job offer or its connection to a dead relative in South Africa to be strange enough to worry about, but the creepy cyclist is weird enough to engage Holmes and Watson over. And, really, it is super weird and creepy, but so is the rest.
See, Carruthers and Woodley found Violet and her mother through an ad in the newspaper. According to them, they had known Violet’s uncle, her father’s brother, who recently died penniless in South Africa. His last dying wish had been for his friends to find his sister-in-law and niece and ensure they’re taken care of. To this end, Carruthers offers Violet a job teaching his daughter piano – and basically being a live-in governess – for a hundred pounds a year. That’s about double the going rate, by the way. The arrangement includes the ability to spend weekends at home, which is why she heads off to the station every Saturday on her bike, and rides back to Carruthers’ home the same way every Monday.
And is followed each way by a creepy bearded dude on a bike.
While Carruthers is nothing short of a gentleman to Violet, his friend Woodley is not. He is a bully and a prick who gets grabby with Violet and whose actions definitely imply he thinks he is within his rights to force himself upon her, either through just his company or physically. People that know him freely call him a blackguard for good reason. Carruthers disapproves of this behavior, so he throws his friend out of his house, and Woodley is smart enough to stay away, but that doesn’t mean Violet has any less reason to be concerned about what the bastard might be up to.
Holmes takes the whole affair pretty seriously (despite not wanting to be bothered early on), but Watson initially misses the seriousness of the scenario. I’d love to say that his initial cavalier attitude towards a woman being stalked by a man is unheard of in the present day and just another Victorian point of view we left far behind, but we hear the opposite on the news too often to dismiss it as such. Stalking is a highly under investigated crime, especially when the ones being stalked are women. But that’s another rant for another time. Holmes does at least eventually see the potential for danger and arranges to try to catch the creep in the act after Violet has to discontinue her working relationship with Mr. Carruthers. (She found his marriage offer to be a little inappropriate, especially since she was already engaged to someone else.) Unfortunately, Violet plans to leave on an earlier train and is already heading out – and caught by her pursuers – by the time Watson and Holmes arrive.
And that is when we find out the evil scheme at the heart of this mystery. We discover that Carruthers is the stalker (though he had pure intentions, he swears), that he and Woodley planned to coerce Violet into marrying one of them to get their hands on the money she inherited from her supposedly penniless uncle, and that Woodley “won” the right to be the bridegroom in a game of cards. They also discover that Woodley’s taken up with a disgraced and defrocked vicar who helps him perform a shotgun wedding very much against Violet’s will. I’m fairly sure the wedding night would have gone the exact same way if Holmes, Watson, and Carruthers hadn’t intervened. It’s probably pretty true that Violet might not have survived much past the actual collection of said inheritance, actually, and that her life would have been pretty much hell until then, too.
Here’s the sad thing: the laws and philosophies of the era this story was written about? Would have entirely allowed the overall concept of what Woodley and Carruthers planned. Even if parliament gave women a right to own property in 1882 (but only in England, Wales, and Ireland; the law didn’t apply in Scotland and it only applied in Northern Ireland once the split happened), the easiest way to get your hands on an unsuspecting heiress’ money was tricking her into marrying you. Lie your way to the altar. Coerce someone into agreeing. Or force her to do it if all else fails. We can only assume someone tried the last option at least once for Doyle to come up with the idea for this plot. I’m not saying he lacked the imagination to come up with the idea on his own, but reality does frequently inspire art, after all. I mean, look at how many episodes of the various Law and Order franchises had disclaimers about their similarity to true events? Hell, Dragnet started every episode with “These stories are true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” I’m just saying, there’s precedent for mysteries to be based on real events and for this slimy scheme to have at least been attempted.
Given his thoughts on women’s marriage rights (we’ll ignore his thoughts on suffrage for now), I can see why Doyle would choose to make these types of men his criminals. Which isn’t to say he set out to deliver a message with this particular story, but it certainly touches on one of those issues he felt passionately enough about to lend his pen to publicly. This was about six years before he published “Divorce Law Reform” after all, so maybe it was his way of decrying something fictionally he’d address otherwise later. A dry run, if you will.
There are a lot of things I can get irate over and then, in the next breath, hand-wave off as “it’s how it was; it was horrible and stupid and inhumane, but historical hindsight is always 20/20.” But Woodley (and Carruthers, whether he had a change of heart or not) did something that was inexcusable in any time. No civilized society could find a reason to consider forcing a woman into matrimony at gunpoint with the help of a scuzzball vicar just to access a fortune she doesn’t know she has as acceptable. The fact that doing so with false promises and no gun was less unacceptable is an unfortunate blemish on the Victorian legacy.
The good news is, Holmes and Watson stopped the unimaginable from happening, Violet married her betrothed, and inherited a nice chunk of change to boot. So even stories with potential rapey undertones can eventually have a happy ending.