From outside to inside

Julia Carlson Rosenblatt

Pleasant Valley, New York

[0.1] Abstract—The author recounts the history of female exclusion by the Baker Street Irregulars, contrasting it with the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. She reveals her reactions both to the exclusion and to her later admittance to the previously all-male realm.

[0.2] Keywords—Baker Street Irregulars; Male-only club; Sherlock Holmes Society of London; The Woman

Rosenblatt, Julia Carlson. 2017. "From Outside to Inside." In "Sherlock Holmes Fandom, Sherlockiana, and the Great Game," edited by Betsy Rosenblatt and Roberta Pearson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 23.

[1] What does one do when one has read the last of the 60 Sherlock Holmes stories and wants more? For me, the answer was to read everything I could about Holmes and Watson. I gravitated not to pastiche but to the "writings on the writings," mock scholarship that treats Holmes and Watson as real-life historical figures. This is not pseudo scholarship but genuine study, tongue in cheek, footnotes and all. As someone from the academic world, I welcomed a context in which I could take a break from the sort of study needed for professional advancement and act as a scholar with a sense of humor.

[2] This sort of Sherlockian study, encompassing a wide variety of topics, is often referred to as the Great Game. In this world, the original 60 stories are known as the canon. Everything else is commentary. And so I became acquainted with the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), a group of men who engaged in this discourse.

[3] When Christopher Morley established the Baker Street Irregulars, it was an outgrowth of his penchant for creating congenial luncheon clubs. Some were stag, but the most relevant, the Grillparzer Sittenpolizei Verein, encouraged the presence of women, while the men picked up the check. When the late Robert K. Leavitt described the nascent days of the BSI, he wrote that Morley included women in an early but unofficial BSI meeting for cocktails on January 6, 1934. It was coed along the lines of the Grillparzer club, but by the official establishment of the BSI later in the same year, Morley had decided to limit its membership to men (Leavitt 1990).

[4] Ironically, the December 1 annual dinner came after Morley had decreed that membership in the BSI would be granted to those who solved a crossword puzzle printed in his "Bowling Green" column in the May 13, 1934, Saturday Review of Literature. Although several women submitted suitably correct answers, they were not invited to full membership, which included an invitation to the December dinner (note 1).

[5] Before rushing to judgment, bear in mind how times have changed since the 1930s. Today we can hardly imagine that women would not expect to pick up their share of the tab. BSI membership, in which the gentlemen shared the check for the ladies, would not only be expensive but would hardly be membership on an equal basis. In addition, the inclusion of women in these early gatherings was more flirtatious than serious. If the BSI were to be an ongoing club, the wives of the men might object to the presence of other women as Irregulars in an arguably frivolous setting.

[6] In contrast, the British group, the Sherlock Holmes Society, founded the same year, has always accepted women as full members. Counted among the nine core founders were Helen Simpson and Dorothy Sayers, both of whom contributed to the literature of Sherlock Holmes. Records of the dinner meetings show a high level of intellectual discourse and delightful engagement in the Game (Green 1994).

[7] From the beginning, both the BSI and the Sherlock Holmes Society introduced literary elements beyond the canon, producing early transformative works. Views about Holmes's attitude toward women reflected the different makeup of the two societies on either side of the Atlantic. The BSI advanced a widely accepted myth that Holmes was a misogynist. On the other hand, S. C. Roberts, one of the original Sherlock Holmes Society members, wrote in 1934 of Holmes's appreciation of women: "Evidences of the affectionate feelings which Holmes entertained from time to time towards his lady clients peep out from Watson's narrative" (Roberts 1934, 186). To this, BSI member Elmer Davis wrote a refutation, calling Holmes a misogynist and claiming that Watson's marriages were not so good either (Davis 1940).

[8] In the early 1940s, the BSI began the practice of inviting one woman to the cocktail hour before the dinner. After toasting her as "The Woman" in honor of Irene Adler who had bested Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia" (note 2), they gave her the bum's rush out. After a critical mass of women had been so honored, these women began dining together on the same evening as the BSI annual dinner, welcoming the newest of The Women to the group, a practice continuing today.

[9] My husband Al is every bit as much a Sherlockian as I am. In January 1973, we attended our first BSI weekend. Al had been invited to the annual dinner; I enjoyed all the other activities, including the cocktail party that Julian Wolff gave at his apartment the following day. Shortly thereafter, the revival of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes (ASH), a Sherlockian society of women founded in the 1960s at Albertus Magnus College, provided me with excellent Sherlockian companionship during the Friday dinner hour.

[10] Al, who received his membership investiture of Inspector Bradstreet in 1974, tape-recorded the proceedings at the dinner so that I would know what had transpired there. These recordings, as well as some made by the late Wayne Swift, reside in the BSI archives at the Houghton Library. If you gain access to the tapes, you too can know what happened at those dinners.

[11] I reveled in Sherlockiana. Al and I would sit on either side of a cheery fire to read and discuss the stories, loving the atmosphere of what we call the gas-lit world of Victorian illusion. It would be delightful, we thought, to create this world with a dinner such as Holmes and Watson would have eaten. The Culinary Institute of America had just moved to nearby Hyde Park, New York. That would be the ideal place, and we organized our first such dinner in 1973, followed by 1976, 1981, 1987, 1991, 1995, and 2001, each supervised by Chef Fritz Sonnenschmidt. After the first of these dinners, someone casually mentioned "Wouldn't it be great to have a cookbook?" That led to my coauthoring Dining with Sherlock Holmes with Fritz.

[12] In the autumn of 1978, I received a letter from Julian Wolff, the head of the BSI, inviting me to be "The Woman" of 1979. As I walked uphill from the mailbox, I contemplated it. The idealistically feminist side of me questioned how I could possibly go along with such a sexist practice. On the other hand, I felt honored and did not want to rebuff Dr. Wolff's kindness. I wanted to say "yes." After all, I reasoned, while Sherlock Holmes refused a knighthood, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle accepted one. By the time I reached the house, I was ready to pen my acceptance.

[13] It was a good decision. This was not a time to isolate myself as some sort of feminist crank. I met some outstanding gracious ladies, mostly from a previous generation. None of The Women I met at that time were Sherlockians in their own right. They were all supportive wives of revered members of the BSI. Was I honored because of my writing the cookbook, or was it because I, too, was a supportive wife? I figured it was both.

[14] At the cocktail hour, I was standing near the bar chatting with friends when another friend approached saying "I wonder who The Woman will be this year." Then he stopped, took another look, and said, "Oh, yes, now I know." At that moment, I realized that admitting women to the BSI would not be as earthshaking as some believed.

[15] It took another 12 years for that to happen, and then it came as a surprise when Tom Stix invested the first six at the Saturday afternoon cocktail party (note 3). It caused a mixed reaction. One BSI welcomed me to the organization, pleased to have me as a member, but added "You know I don't agree with the decision to admit women." Of course, the membership was not polled. Al and I would guess that most members agreed with Tom's action.

[16] After Tom announced that the six women would be full members, including attending the annual dinner, there could be no argument. It was done, period. The BSI is not a democracy. The leader decides. Within my Sherlockian lifetime, there have been three: Julian Wolff with the title Commissionaire; Tom Stix, who retired the title Commissionaire and adopted that of Wiggins; and Michael Whelan, also known as Wiggins.

[17] An inner circle known as the Men's Room Committee (MRC) advises on BSI policy and general business affairs, but it does not decide. The MRC began in the days of Julian Wolff's leadership. The Saturday afternoon cocktail party had grown too large for his apartment, and he hosted us at the Grolier Club. Although he had issued discreet invitations, noninvited people also showed up. Julian, always gracious, took it in stride. A few men, including Al, retired to the men's room at the Grolier to confer about advising Julian, and that is how the MRC began. The most pressing issue was the concern that Julian, a man of modest means, should pay for such a large and expensive gathering. Despite well-intentioned advice, Julian insisted on continuing to pay for the Saturday afternoon cocktail party. The question of women's membership was not on the table at that time.

[18] The MRC still functions as an advisory group, although it no longer meets in a men's room. It may be significant, however, that it has not taken on any female members.

[19] The MRC that met the morning of the 1991 dinner had no inkling of Tom's intention. He planned it as a complete surprise.

[20] My husband, who feels uncomfortable belonging to a group that will not admit eligible women, had, as early as March 1987, written a letter saying he would no longer attend BSI dinners as long as women were excluded. I urged him, please, not to send it. People would think that it was because of me, that I had somehow pressured him. He agreed to postpone mailing it and continued going to the dinners. We still have the letter tucked away in a filing cabinet.

[21] In 1991, after the MRC meeting at the Williams Club, Al took Tom Stix aside, telling him that it was wrong to continue the exclusion. The practice had gone on long enough, it was no longer acceptable, and he could not continue going to the dinners under the circumstances. Al reported to me that Tom simply shrugged, not letting on that within a few hours he was about to reverse history.

[22] Robert Thomalen may have been the only BSI in on the plan because his wife, Terry, had done the calligraphy on the investiture certificates. He congratulated me as I walked into the cocktail party. I accepted the congratulations, not knowing what possible triumph he had in mind. He was afraid that he had given it away, but the possibility of investiture was not on my radar screen. The secret was safe.

[23] Before the announcement, BSI members had voiced their own opinions as to the admission of women—many, but not all, in favor. Some said that it was a matter of numbers, that it was simpler to keep the BSI to a manageable size if it were men-only. Others wanted the BSI to be a gathering where it was always 1935. On the other hand, many saw it as a matter of social justice. It was not fair to exclude women from the self-styled preeminent group of Sherlockian scholars.

[24] As for me, I had taken no position. I loved being a part of the beautiful history of the BSI, except the sexist part. I partook of the Baker Street tradition through my reading and association with friends. The BSI recognizes a network of groups called scion societies, each with its own requirements for membership and types of activities. Scion society members are affiliated with the BSI. Our own scion society, the Hudson Valley Sciontists, that Al and I had founded along with enthusiast Glenn Laxton, had never dreamt of excluding women. Of course, it would be nice, I thought, to belong to the core BSI itself with an investiture of my own, but I could continue being a Sherlockian. Social justice was not part of my calculation. The question for me was whether the BSI would admit women to full membership or whether it would fade into irrelevance by excluding half the population.

[25] The world continues to change. The Baker Street Irregulars continue the annual meeting but with an expansion of activities surrounding the dinner. Scion societies continue to assemble. The Baker Street Journal and scion newsletters continue to publish. But now, most communications among Sherlockians take place on the Internet. E-mails, texts, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, and the like have surpassed pen and paper means of correspondence.

[26] Sherlock Holmes thrives in the world of fan fiction. Pastiche blossoms in this world, and the canon on which it is based is not limited to the original 60 stories. A new all-female organization of Sherlockian enthusiasts has emerged, the Baker Street Babes. The Holmesian world is no longer male-dominated. The extent to which the BSI will change with change remains an open question.

2. Notes

1. Approximately one-third of the successful entrants were women. Of these, Velma Long, Gladys Norton, Katherine McMahon, and Dorothy Beverly West were still alive 50 years later. Mrs. Norton recalled that Morely had congratulated her on being a Baker Street Irregular, but this did not include being invited to the dinner (Rosenblatt and Rosenblatt 1985).

2. "To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman."

3. The six invested on January 12, 1991, were Dame Jean Conan Doyle, "A Certain Gracious Lady," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's daughter; Katherine McMahon, "Lucy Ferrier," one of the original solvers of the Crossword Puzzle; Edith Meiser, "A Fascinating and Beautiful Woman," who wrote a series of Sherlock Holmes radio programs; Evelyn Herzog, "The Daintiest Thing under a Bonnet"; Susan Rice, "Beeswing"; and I, "Mrs. Turner."

3. Works cited

Davis, Elmer. 1940. "On the Emotional Geology of Baker Street." In 221B, Studies in Sherlock Holmes, edited by Vincent Starrett, 37–45. New York: Biblo and Tannen.

Green, Richard Lancelyn. 1994. "The Sherlock Holmes Society (1936–1938)." Sherlock Holmes Journal 22 (1): 6–15.

Roberts, S. C. 1934. "Sherlock Holmes and the Fair Sex." In Baker Street Studies, edited by H. W. Bell, 177–99. London: Constable.

Rosenblatt, Albert M., and Julia C. Rosenblatt. 1985. The Sherlock Holmes Crossword. St. Paul: Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota.

Rosenblatt, Julia C., and Frederic H. Sonnenschmidt. 1976. Dining with Sherlock Holmes. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

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