I recently read Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes mysteries and thoroughly enjoyed each of the six books in the series. The books have been around for a number of years, so I’m not sure why I didn’t read them before now. Maybe it was because I felt they were for children or because I was suspicious of this alleged sister of Sherlock Holmes. Maybe it was a combination of both. It was only after listening to the Baker Street Babes’s 221B Con interview with Nancy Springer that I felt this irresistible urge to read the series. Although I still found a Holmes sister a bit suspect (which seems strange since I was able to accept a wife in Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series), I put a hold on the first two books at my local library. I hadn’t made it very far in the first book before I knew that I would definitely be reading the whole series and would need to reserve the four remaining books.
I don’t think I’ll be giving any major spoilers if I provide a basic outline of the first book, The Case of the Missing Marquess. On her fourteenth birthday, Enola Holmes discovers that her mother, Eudora Vernet Holmes, has disappeared. Naturally, Enola writes to her brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, about the situation, hoping to enlist their help. As there is such a big age gap between Enola and her brothers (twenty-seven years between Enola and Mycroft and twenty years between Enola and Sherlock), Enola has only met them the one time: when she was four and Mycroft and Sherlock returned to Ferndell Hall (the family home) to attend their father’s funeral. Not surprisingly, neither Mycroft nor Sherlock know anything about their sister other than the fact that she’s a girl who hasn’t been receiving a proper education – at least in the eyes of a Victorian gentleman. This means a boarding school in which Enola will most likely be subjected to the cruel practice of tightlacing. Enola learned about the horrors of tightlacing through her mother, who is a staunch suffragist and a proponent of the rational dress movement. Fortunately, Eudora Holmes has set aside money for her daughter (through a series of coded messages), and Enola is able to take that money and run away from home. And as Enola is a Holmes, it’s not long before she finds herself investigating a mystery.
Adherents to the Canon might be thinking that if Sherlock Holmes really had a sister, she would have been mentioned at some point in one of the stories. That thought was certainly running through my mind when I began reading the Enola Holmes books. However, I quickly realized that Sherlock Holmes barely knew his sister when he first speaks about his family (specifically Mycroft) in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. It’s quite possible that, having met Enola only once (and when she was four), Holmes barely thinks of her at all. When Holmes is first reunited with Enola, he assumes that she can’t be very intelligent because she has a small cranium. There’s also the fact that Eudora Holmes banished her sons from Ferndall Hall after their father died, so Holmes may not choose to think much about either his mother or his sister. In terms of that rather substantial age gap between Enola and her brothers, you have to remember how young Victorian women tended to be when they married and had children. If Eudora Holmes was only 19 or 20 when she gave birth to Mycroft, she would have been 46 or 47 when she had Enola.* Unusual in the Victorian period, perhaps, but not impossible. Of course, both Eudora and Enola are viewed with some scorn and suspicion by the people in the village as having a baby in your late forties was thought to be rather scandalous at the time.
The character of Enola Holmes is an interesting one. She is essentially a child who immerses herself in the adult world, the rather grim and dark world of London, no less. As Enola has always enjoyed looking for lost things, she creates a business for herself run by the fictional Scientific Perditorian, Dr. Leslie T. Ragostin. Enola herself poses as Dr. Ragostin’s secretary, Ivy Meshle. As Ivy Meshle, Enola takes down the details of cases and carries out initial enquiries on Dr. Ragostin’s behalf in a kind of Victorian Remington Steele scenario. I’ll admit that, while reading the books, I sometimes had to suspend my disbelief over the complexity of Enola’s whole operation as it seemed unlikely that a fourteen year old could accomplish that much. Then I would tell myself that the fourteen year old in question was Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes’s sister, which allowed me to believe just about anything. Springer is actually quite good at reminding the audience of Enola’s tender years. Enola has no idea what a “lady of the night” is when she first arrives in London and lacks other kinds of knowledge that an adult would take for granted. Enola also misses her mother desperately and often hears Eudora’s voice say You will do very well on your own, Enola whenever she is feeling particularly lonely or dispirited. In what was a very Victorian naming convention, Eudora called her daughter “Enola” because it spelled “alone” backwards.
What I probably enjoy most about these books is the battle of wits between Enola and both of her brothers. Enola continually outsmarts Mycroft and Sherlock because they underestimate her and don’t understand her. Enola also does the opposite of what her brothers might expect. Instead of getting as far away from Mycroft and Sherlock as she can, she runs away to London and hides right under their noses. She avoids the cliché of a girl disguising herself as a boy (assuming her brothers will be paying closer attention to boys for that reason) and almost always disguises herself as a woman, something she can easily accomplish because of her height. Enola actually has several run-ins with Sherlock while she is in disguise, and he is unable to recognize her. Because Enola embraces her femininity instead of dismissing it, she is able to see things her brothers can’t. She has insight into how women think and feel, especially the women of her own social class. She is well versed in the language of flowers, which allows her to leave coded messages for her mother in various London newspapers and provides her with crucial knowledge when it comes to the mystery in the third book, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets. Enola does end up wearing a corset, but she uses it to conceal such useful items as a knife.
While it may not seem like it, Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes aren’t entirely unsympathetic characters in this series. Well...Mycroft is until the last book, but Sherlock is genuinely distressed about his missing sister and wants to protect her, even if he tries to go about it in the wrong way. Mycroft and Sherlock reflect the beliefs and attitudes of their time. It would have been completely unrealistic if they hadn’t tried to control their sister and do what they thought was best for her, especially as she’s only fourteen. It is Sherlock who starts to crumble first. The more he interacts with Enola through brief meetings and near misses, the more he understands her. I don’t want to give too much away, but I think Springer provided a satisfying resolution to the series in terms of Enola’s storyline and her relationship with her brothers.
Although this book series was written for a young adult audience, it contains an incredible amount of detail. If you have an interest in the Victorian period, you might find it useful to read this series for that reason alone. Springer conducted a lot of research for these books – and it shows. Historical descriptions aside, these books are fun and entertaining. They make quick, easy reads. I’m a pretty slow reader, but I think the longest it took me to read any of the books was three or four days. I’m also happy to say that these books are going to be adapted into a film series that will star Millie Bobby Brown, who will also act as producer. I suppose if you need proof of just what a fourteen year old can accomplish, you need only look at Millie Bobby Brown!
* Actually, I just remembered that Eudora Holmes was supposed to be 65 (or thereabouts) when she disappeared in the first book. However, that would have made her 50 or 51 when she had Enola, so still biologically possible.
Crossposted at https://rusty-armour.dreamwidth.org/174559.html