Mrs. Hudson – Who Are You Really?
By Barry S Brown
The mystery surrounding Mrs. Hudson’s identity has been well and frequently described. Her ancestry is unknown—although suspected by some to be Scottish; her age is unknown—although she is most often characterized as being in her middle years; a description of the woman’s physical characteristics is lacking—beyond a single reference to her “stately tread”—whatever that may mean; her marital status is unknown although speculation is rife—she has been described as a widow, as separated, and as simply bearing the honorific accorded women in certain occupations. Finally, even her first name is unknown—although, again, there are two schools of thought. Some argue she is the Martha who follows Holmes into his Sussex retirement, some that the servant, known only as Martha, is another person entirely.
What we do know from Watson’s own words is that Mrs. Hudson is the “long-suffering”landlady at 221B Baker Street, an extraordinarily patient woman able to tolerate her lodger’s “incredible untidiness, … addiction to music at strange hours, … occasional revolver practice within doors, … weird and malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him ….”
Watson reports as well that Mrs. Hudson “stood in the deepest awe of him [Holmes] and never dared to interfere with him ….” It seems reasonable to conclude that her forbearance may, in some part, have been related to Holmes’ penchant for indoor target practice. Regardless, the good doctor goes on to report that Mrs. Hudson was “fond of him,” and, indeed, her good feelings can be seen in her despair about his apparently imminent demise in The Dying Detective, and her willingness to risk life and limb to help Holmes capture a murderer in The Empty House.
In the end, however, the references to Mrs. Hudson are most remarkable for their scarcity. As described in James C. O’Leary’s informative blog, Mrs. Hudson appears in only 11 of the 60 stories describing Holmes’ cases, speaks just three times, and is accorded a mere 26 lines of dialogue. We can assume, given the characteristics of her lodgers and the nature of their activities, her silence would not be for want of something to say.
But, as luck would have it, the good woman could not be restrained for long. As rarely as Mrs. Hudson appears in the Canon, just that frequently does she appear in film versions of the Holmes stories. In America, the first significant movie series based on the Holmes stories are the 13 films released between 1939 and 1945, starring Basil Rathbone as the ever coolheaded Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as the ever (and inappropriately) bumbling Watson. Whatever may be thought of those films with regard to their faithfulness to Sir Arthur’s writings, their popularity and influence would appear inarguable. And, in contrast to her infrequent appearances in print, Mrs. Hudson appears in nine of the 13 films. Moreover, the actress, Mary Gordon, who portrayed Mrs. Hudson on the screen, portrayed her with regularity on the popular Sherlock Holmes radio program, which aired during the same period the films were made, and which also starred Rathbone and Bruce. Later films, starring Peter Cushing, Roger Moore and Robert Downey, Junior in the role of Holmes, similarly made a place in the Baker Street household for Mrs. Hudson. In a word, whatever might have been Sir Arthur’s intentions, Mrs. Hudson became a constant presence—if not, to be sure, a commanding one.
(Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson)
Indeed, she typically appears as more housekeeper and cook than landlady. The confusion is not restricted to movie portrayals. In Sir Arthur’s The Naval Treaty, Mrs. Hudson serves Holmes, Watson and their guest the tea, coffee and breakfast she has prepared. And Watson’s reference to Holmes’ “incredible untidiness” suggests that maintaining a clean home was a part of her housekeeping responsibility as well. At other times, however, Mrs. Hudson is portrayed as the master of her domain, having at least one servant available to her (Study in Scarlet).
As Catherine Cooke described in her excellent article in the Baker Street Journal, the inconsistency in reporting about Mrs. Hudson has proven frustrating to devotees of the Canon. Never is that frustration more evident than when Mrs. Hudson disappears altogether, to be replaced, however briefly, by an interloper assuming her duties. InScandal in Bohemia, the first of Sir Arthur’s short stories, a Mrs. Turner enters the Baker Street household without explanation or apology. Those of us who are solidly in Mrs. Hudson’s corner are tempted to assume that Sir Arthur dropped her for the moment in favor of the colorless Mrs. Turner lest Mrs. Hudson’s formidable presence overshadow that of Irene Adler, the (other) woman. Admittedly, this interpretation has not yet gained widespread acceptance. Instead, as Ms. Cooke describes, a number of rather tortured explanations have been put forth to account for Mrs. Hudson’s absence.
Mrs. Turner has been seen as a friend filling in for Mrs. Hudson, a maid working for Mrs. Hudson, and as Mrs. Hudson herself during a brief fling at marital bliss, and before discovering that her Mr. Turner was already someone else’s Mr. Turner, after which she removed herself from the bigamist relationship and restored her former name. Perhaps most creatively, Mrs. Hudson has been seen as selling 221B to a Mrs. Turner, who soon revealed herself as so unsuitable to the task that Holmes bought back the lodgings, and hired Mrs. Hudson to fetch, carry and cook. Ms. Cooke rightfully debunks these improbable scenarios, preferring to see the unexpected and brief appearance of Mrs. Turner as nothing more than “a slip of the pen from Watson.” Well, maybe.
Given what we already know about the paucity of reporting about Mrs. Hudson in the Canon, it seems likely that the sudden appearance of Mrs. Turner, and her equally sudden disappearance, reflect an unconcern about the role of landlady/ housekeeper, and inattention to whomever was playing that role. A secondary, if not tertiary figure, reduced to near anonymity and cameo performances, there seems no more reason to be concerned about a constancy in her character than there is in delineating that character. As described above, it is only later that Mrs. Hudson comes regularly on stage, although still fitting neatly into the background.
There is, of course, another school of thought, this one of a conspiratorial (if not downright paranoid) bent that sees an effort to suppress from general awareness the true contribution of Mrs. Hudson to the workings of Baker Street’s consulting detective agency. That school—in which I confess I am the prime, if not sole student—views Mrs. Hudson as the unfortunate victim of the Victorian bias against women generally, and women of a certain class particularly. A victim, but not a person to be victimized. In this scenario, Mrs. Hudson becomes the mistress of her own fate, organizing the consulting detective agency based on her extensive knowledge and her capacity for informed observation, and recruiting Sherlock Holmes as the male figurehead essential to her agency. Watson will not tell you, but should you wish to know more, you can visit Mrs. Hudson of Baker Street on Facebook, or go toBarrySBrown.
Whatever the speculation, what is clear is that Mrs. Hudson presents a nearly blank canvas on which anything may be drawn. She may be a landlady / housekeeper maintaining a home for two occasionally appreciative lodgers, but there’s also the possibility she is a great deal more.
Barry Brown is the author of the Mrs Hudson series of novels including Mrs Hudson in New York which is available from all good bookstores including The Strand Magazine,Amazon USA, Amazon UK, and for free shipping worldwide Book Depository .In ebook format it is inKindle, Kobo, Nook and Apple iBooks (iPad/iPhone).