Sherlock’s younger sister takes a bow in Nancy Springer's delightful Enola Holmes mystery series for young adults.
If one doesn’t have a young lady of tender years among one’s acquaintances, one would be advised to arrange an introduction to such a personage at one’s earliest convenience. Then introduce her to Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series and one may likely be told that one is “awesome!”
Wry, witty, and wily, Enola is pretty awesome too. The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye, released in May by Philomel Books, is the teenage sleuth’s sixth and final exploit following in her famous, much-older brother’s footsteps. Or rather, Sherlock has finally caught up with his headstrong sibling, who has kept one step ahead of him since her 2006 debut, The Case of The Missing Marquess.
Springer writes for middle-grader readers, yet her stories are a shade darker than the adult tales spun by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Great Detective never had to confront the soul-searing questions that fuel Enola’s actions and her self-doubt: Why did her mother abandon her on her birthday, with no explanation but a handmade book of ciphers? And will Mum ever return?
As Enola searches for the answers, she finds other lost souls, including (in her third outing, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets) a kidnapped Dr. Watson. All the while, she is also evading Sherlock and eldest brother Mycroft, who aim to send the country-bred urchin to boarding school to acquire “some accomplishments, social graces, some finish.”
Not the life her mother, an artist and Suffragette, would have wanted for her. But now Enola suspects that Mum had been preparing her for an even more painful fate. “You will do very well on your own, Enola,” she would tell me nearly every day as I was growing up. Is it any wonder then that she gave her only daughter a name that, backward, spells alone?
And is it any wonder that Enola has earned adolescent admirers not just in the United States but also in Japan, Israel, and elsewhere around the world? (However, the second book in the series, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, was banned in Poland for its socialist theme and its mention of Karl Marx.)
Among the loyalists are my twin nieces, Sarah and Rachel Prindle, discerning readers and writers of mystery and history and herstory. My nieces bonded with the feminist Enola so strongly that it was a little difficult borrowing the books in order to write this article.
“Will you bring them back?” asked Rachel, who likes to re-read her favorite parts of any book.
“Of course,” I said.
“How long do you need them?”
“Just a week or two.”
“Will you return them the day you finish, or...”
“I will hop in my carriage and return them forthwith, milady!”
That seemed to satisfy her.
Sarah also savors the series, but had one caveat. “I wish the author had made Sherlock more heartwarming from the beginning—but don’t tell her that!” she quickly added, worried that she might offend a fellow storyteller. “I’m glad that they all worked together to solve the final case.”
Eighteen-year-old Rachel and Sarah may be a bit above the series’ target audience— grades 6 to 9—but Enola has deservedly won fans well beyond the tween years. “I get more emails from adults than kids,” reports Springer. “Smart kids do enjoy the books, but don’t hear the echoes.”
Those echoes are from a time, not necessarily past, when women’s behavior were circumscribed by social conventions, by male expectations and—perhaps even more so—by the latest fashions. The series spans July 1888 to 1889, from Enola’s 14th birthday to her 15th, and in the process chronicles a London, both splendid and gritty, heading toward an uncertain new century. The city is moving toward modernity—The first public lady’s lavatory, near the British Museum! An underground train system!—yet clings to its outdated social structure.
“Back in the 1850s it was all very much about hoop skirts—very sedate and settled and sober,” says Springer. “But by 1880 it was the equivalent of the 1960s. Things were starting to fall apart, be rebelled against. People were in shock about what younger people were up to—such as young women on bicycles in bloomers or knickerbockers!”
Springer hadn’t expected to find herself passionate about that era. She created unique worlds in her earlier fantasy novels and dealt with 21st-century dilemmas in her young adult novels. Then she was off to Camelot, with I Am Mordred and I Am Morgan le Fay, which was guided by Michael Green, then a junior editor at Philomel, now its president and publisher. “One day, he took me for an expensive French lunch with real cloth napkins, so I knew my stock was high,” Springer says. “He talked to me about Jane Yolen’s Sherwood anthology and I, all by my very own self, got the idea for the Rowan Hood series.”
When Springer completed those four tales featuring Robin Hood’s daughter, Green nudged her in another direction. “He told me, ‘I want you to do something that is set in darkest London at the end of the 19th century in the time of Jack the Ripper,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What?!?’ Well, I read King Arthur and Robin Hood when I was a kid…. What else did I read that really stayed with me? Ah, Sherlock Holmes! So I figured out the dates, how he might have a teenage sister, and it all worked out perfectly.
“I knew instantly that her name was Enola. Alone. The name had fascinated me for a long time. My family moved to Gettysburg when I was 13 and a nearby town was named that after the founder’s mother. Since then I had been keeping an eye on Victorian names. There was Oscar Wilde’s younger sister, Isola—isolated. There was Perdita, the lost one. Dolores, the sad one…. I was thinking, ‘What are they trying to do to these women?’”
Certainly Holmes never said he didn’t have a sister. In “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” he says of Violet Hunter’s offer to be governess in the clearly sinister Rucastle household, “I confess that it is not the situation which I should like to see a sister of mine apply for.” Read into that what you wish.
Dr. Watson notes that Holmes was inhumanly close-lipped about his origins in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” in which the detective’s brother, Mycroft, the brilliant but slothful government insider, is first introduced and then seen or talked of in only three other stories. Holmes reveals only that “My ancestors were country squires....” and “my grandmother…was the sister of Vernet, the French artist.”
So Springer can have Enola claim that her parents were “a gentleman Rational logician and his well-bred artistic wife,” Lady Eudoria Vernet Holmes. Born “indecently late in Mother’s life” (at age 50), Enola sees her own existence as a scandal from which her brothers, at least 20 years older, would rightly disassociate themselves. Only with her mother’s disappearance does she learn that the estrangement began at her father’s funeral, when she was four: As the elder son, Mycroft legally took over the finances of the family estate, Ferndell Park, backed up by Sherlock. Chafing under such controls, their free-spirited mother made it clear her sons were no longer welcome at their birthplace. How she outsmarts her gifted sons turns out to be the means to Enola’s freedom.
Enola flees from Ferndell to the one place her brothers won’t expect the unsophisticated girl to go—London. Eventually Enola sets herself up as a finder of the lost, a “perditorian”—a job title made up by Springer, but perfect for her young sleuth’s skills and predilections.
She must pose as the assistant to her male boss, the nonexistent Dr. Leslie Ragostin, but no deerstalker cap or Inverness cape for Enola. “In so many strong-girl novels, the girl has to disguise herself as a boy,” says Springer. “I’d done that in Rowan Hood, but didn’t want to repeat it. To be a woman—even now, but more so then—meant to stick on a whole bunch of stuff, simply add a great deal of surplusage.”
So Enola stores a “steamer trunk’s worth of essentials” in the very sartorial tortures that Victorian women were subjected to—corsets, dress improvers, bust enhancers, hip regulators, and layers of over- and undergarments. She hides in plain sight on the city’s teeming streets under the curls of false bangs, pre-coiffed wigs, artfully applied cosmetics, emollients, tinctures, and theatrical prosthetics.
Enola also takes on the aspects of nearly every female role of the times: a widow, nun, match girl, secretary, scholar, gentlewoman, fashion plate. Through her eyes, we see how society treated each. But Enola’s most audacious camouflage is in some ways the most heartbreaking: The girl, whose features resemble most closely her brother Sherlock’s hawklike visage and describes her own body as stick-figure, transforms herself into a beauty. And face to face with the brother she both fears and adores, he doesn’t recognize her.
“Conan Doyle did me a tremendous favor by being a misogynist,” muses Springer. “Sherlock’s weakness is that he doesn’t pay attention to women whatsoever, so she can run circles around him simply by knowing all the feminine specialties and also how much one can stuff into a corset.”
Sherlock’s disinterest in romance is his undoing too. Since young people were not able to speak openly unless properly introduced, they spoke in code—messages were conveyed through the choice of flowers in a bouquet, or how the lady held her fan or handkerchief. Backward writing, codes, and ciphers also veiled communications. On innocuous notes, the colors of sealing wax and the placement of postage stamps spoke volumes. Enola picks up on these subtleties, and sees their dangers, invisible to her acclaimed brother.
Enola, too, is more sensitive to society’s inequities, the casual cruelties suffered by children and the “fairer sex,” the working class, and the destitute. As a newcomer to the city, she describes its offal-lined neighborhoods with awe and horror, as well as discovers the London beneath London, its tunnels and old rivers.
In The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, Enola learns secondhand of the gross mistreatment of soldiers during the Crimean War, 34 years earlier, when she joins forces with none other than Florence Nightingale—bedridden since 1857, but actively involved in political, military, and social reform.
“As in my book, it’s true that her home was a meeting house—the third House of Parliament,” says Springer. “But it’s a matter of scholarly argument as to why she chose to be an invalid after she returns from the Crimea.” So Enola discovers that Nightingale’s “illness” lets her avoid the social frivolities that would have interfered with her more important pursuits.
In Enola’s second investigation, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, a young noblewoman’s personality splits under such strain. “That was a symbol for the total repression of everything in women’s society,” says Springer. “I had in many ways a blessed and wonderful childhood. My father, God bless him, was Irish and had the gift of gab, and my mother was well educated. The whole house was full of books and no one tried to tell me what was appropriate to my age group. When I was ten, I was reading Gone with the Wind.
“But my family didn’t do emotions. I reached adulthood in a complete state of dissociation. I identify with Lady Cecily—she came from my own experience of being more than one person.”
Enola, too, finds Lady Cecily Alistair a kindred spirit and helps her escape from an arranged marriage in the fourth book, The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan.
But Springer relates even more strongly to her conflicted heroine. “Enola is probably the character closest to myself—a lot came naturally,” Springer reveals. “I was practically raised in the Victorian era. My mother didn’t have me until she was 40. And she didn’t actually run away, but she seemed to lose interest in me around age 14. I realize now that it was a combination of menopause and cancer, but we didn’t communicate.”
Like Lady Eudoria Holmes, though, her mother thought Springer would do very well on her own. “I ran free as a child, galloping through the woods and swamp. I was raised in Eden, so to speak,” she says, along a river in northwest New Jersey still surrounded by farmland and wildlife. Springer now lives—with her second husband, a pilot—on the Florida Panhandle along (coincidentally) Holmes Creek, among wolves, panthers, and water moccasins.
“The writing is what saved my life, just getting it all out. I started with fantasy [1975’s The Book of Suns, re-released in 1980 as The Silver Sun]. It was all about taking my hang-ups and giving them horses, swords, and names. Of course, I didn’t realize what I was doing until later.”
Also unbeknownst to Springer, her later contemporary young adult novels were veering toward suspense. “I had no idea I was writing mystery until I won an Edgar,” she says. Springer won two, for Toughing It (1994) and Looking for Jamie Bridger (1995). Her first Enola adventure as well as last year’s The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline were both nominated for Best Juvenile Mystery.
“I don’t consider myself talented in plotting mystery. I don’t do red herrings, subplots. I knew from the beginning how Sherlock would find Enola, but otherwise all I did was follow her around.”
That led to her finding out Enola’s and her mother’s fates in The Gypsy Good-bye. “I didn’t want the series to die with a whimper,” says Springer. “I wanted her to progress, so in each one she kept getting closer to Sherlock. It seemed right to stop at six.” But now she finds herself missing her young perditorian. “I would have happily written 20—I had so much fun!”
Still her creator has no plans to write more about Enola, especially not by reversing her boots on a return trip from Reichenbach Falls. But that doesn’t mean her readers can’t imagine her future.
“Sherlock Holmes has got to be the most alive fictional character ever created. People believe in him as a historical figure in a way that they don’t think of Tarzan, for instance,” Springer notes. “So I have had people come up to me and ask, ‘Did he really have a younger sister?’ And my only reply is: ‘She’s as real as he is.’”
And, one hopes, just as enduring.
All illustrations are details from the jackets of the Enola Holmes series published by Philomel.
A SELECTED NANCY SPRINGER READING LIST
The Enola Holmes Mysteries
The Case of the Missing Marquess, 2006
The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, 2007
The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets, 2008
The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, 2008
The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, 2009
The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye, 2010
Other Mystery Novels
Toughing It, 1994
Looking for Jamie Bridger, 1995
Blood Trail, 2003
Possessing Jessie, 2010
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #116.