by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
A lifelong addict to Conan Doyle’s fictional accounts of Sherlock Holmes, I am generally intolerant of those adaptations that clash with my images of the sleuth and his trusted Dr. Watson. The bakers dozen or so of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were marginally acceptable to me. Their adaptations of the Doyle accounts involved irksome deviations from the canon, but Rathbone’s acerbic coolness and Bruce’s winning bumbles charmed. Other contemporary efforts have been off-turning to me. So I approached the Netflix adaptation of Nancy Springer’s account of Sherlock’s younger sibling, Enola, with considerable reservations. But I will confess being won over—for the most part.
The movie artfully invokes almost every device to enhance its appeal. It is a coming-of-age story in which a young woman discovers her independence. It invokes the classic appeal of a child searching for her parents. It is packed with teenage romcom appeal. It makes a centerpiece of John Stuart Mill’s 1869 prescient classic On the Subjection of Women in which he argues that women should have full social equality, predicting that they will be the last class of humans to achieve it. Parallel to the Holmes in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, it involves decrypting secret messages. And, uniquely, it makes heavy use of asides to the audience, temporarily dissolving the narrative wall between the protagonist and the observer, establishing a supplemental emotional bond between them.
The movie takes place in 1884 when the British House of Lords was considering The Representation of the People Act, the adoption of which would nearly triple the number of Britons eligible to vote—all men, of course. The movie manufactures a circumstance of the outcome depending on a single vote, that of young Lord Tewkesbury, whose accession to his father’s title is occasioning efforts to kill him. Enola, whose name is an anagram for “Alone,” has run away from home to search for the mother who has disappeared, abandoning her. When she discovers the plot against Tewkesbury, she is diverted from her original quest, seeking to discover the identity and motives of those pursuing him. Her efforts are complicated by the circumstance that she must also frustrate the efforts of her brother, Sherlock, and their older sibling, Mycroft, to find her. Mycroft, who has become designated her guardian, wants her placed in a finishing school where she will learn how to become a proper and marriageable Victorian lady. Enola, who had been home schooled by her mother, an assertive feminist reader of Mill’s tract, not to sew, embroider and the like, but a variety of martial arts.
Avoiding her brothers, seeking to protect Tewkesbury and finding her mother constitute a suspenseful scaffolding of events for the film. Describing the details would be a spoiler, so I will close with a few additional carping comments. The historical context is weak in that the tension over passage of the Restoration Act did not hang on a single vote, but on prime minister Gladstone’s political maneuvering. In addition, despite the film’s feminist tilt, the 1884 Act did nothing for women. It was not until 1918 that British women won the right to vote—when they got to be thirty.