Brainy is the new sexy: would Victorians have fancied Sherlock?

30 Nov

You don’t have to love every current incarnation of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate that considerable numbers of others do. If Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t float your boat, Robert Downey Jr might just, and if neither of them do it for you then maybe you like Jonny Lee Miller (although frankly, if that’s the case, you should perhaps consider having your head examined). Or, slightly further out, there’s Gregory House, the medical equivalent, working in a hospital in New Jersey. The variety of Sherlocks currently available to the consumer is such that it’s difficult to put it down to ‘man in a cravat’ syndrome, or ‘man in a suit’ desire. There’s something about the character that makes the way he is (currently) being played – whether in the UK, the States, the past, the present – incredibly compelling, and incredibly sexy.

 

What do they all have in common? Well, we know that from the books. All these Sherlocks are based on a sallow, languorous, stick-like figure whose hobbies include playing the violin (possibly not as well as he thinks he does) and smoking. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has an addictive personality and, probably, a mild form of autism. He likes things to be just so; problems to be solved, eggs to be served thus, a pipe to be packed in such-and-such a way. He is brilliant, but he is socially a little difficult. He is an observer of humans but he maintains an aloof distance from them, making a scientific study of his inquiries. He does not embark on personal crusades of justice, although he does have a moral compass. He takes on cases that interest him – and so invariably he appears bored when a problem that appears impenetrable to its proposer comes to him. He is, however, rarely rude (to peoples’ faces, at least) and behaves rather chivalrously in a way that we might find ourselves a little uncomfortable with nowadays, especially in his oversolicitousness for the women who come to him with cases. Imagine if you were his teacher when he was around nine. You just know he’d be the kid in the class who insisted on asking difficult questions and making your life harder. Precocious, obnoxious, fiendishly intelligent and dedicated to applying his considerable breadth of understanding and ability for lateral thinking to every problem he encounters. Bloody irritating, in short.

 

So what on earth makes this character so endlessly interpretable and generally delicious to womenfolk ? [1] And is this a recent trend?

 

It’s clear that in the last twenty years or so, there has been a move away from brawn and towards brain. You only have to look at statistics about couples meeting at university (I believe the figure stands at 1 in 5 couples beginning in HE) and the current obsession with the new Q in the recent Bond film, Skyfall. Moreover, those who acquire a reputation for intelligence are revered by all because, it seems, many people are just as happy to be shielded by a towering intellect as they are by enormous biceps. Granted, a brain isn’t going to keep your other half warm at night, although maybe we can hope that what the brain comes out with will keep them warm on the inside. There simply isn’t a requirement for a male to defend himself with his body any more, and now that the battlefield is one of minds, the war is open to women, too. And gosh, who’d have thought? It seems that, these days, the man who can wow us with his wit, his knowledge and his thick-rimmed specs is the one we’d rather go home with at the end of the evening. Take Avengers. Tony Stark, or Captain America? I know who I’d choose. And so ‘brainy is the new sexy’, the endlessly quotable quote from A Scandal in Belgravia, becomes the motto for a generation of nerd-lovers.  

 

If we look at Regency and Victorian literature – classic examples being Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, North and South and the like – we can see that maybe our fascination with this sort of guy isn’t that new. Fitzwilliam Darcy is clearly a well-educated, intelligent young man; he’s just misunderstood. Heathcliff is apparently ferociously unlikeable but that doesn’t stop him being incredibly attractive. Rochester is explicitly described as not exactly being a looker, but he’s clearly got wit and a dry sense of humour and has some great chat. The buffoonish Rawdon Crawley is nowhere near as loveable as George Osbourne, who in turn can’t beat the quiet devotion of Will Dobbin. Thornton is a self-made man intent on acquiring an education, as task which becomes entangled with his mission to make himself worthy of his lady. In all these novels, the self-aware, intelligent man is the one we want the heroine to end up with at the end; the self-interested, the buffoons, the braggarts are the ones we cringe to read about. I don’t think there is a woman in history who has found herself harbouring a secret crush on Mr Collins or Jos Sedley.

 

So clearly, our 18th and 19th – century forebears dreamed the same dreams as we do now when we imagine the kind of guy we’d like to propose awkwardly to us in the rain or send us an incredibly rude but heartfelt and intelligent letter by mistake. It’s no wonder that our Sherlocks are all different shapes and sizes and cheekbone-structures – it’s their minds, not their bodies, after which we’re principally lusting (well, mostly).

 

I do think there’s a disjunct, though, between the character Conan Doyle wrote and the other literary characters we all secretly fancy. Darcy and Thornton and their ilk are intelligent, yes, but they are physical and legal protectors as well as intellectual equals in a way that society made the norm in that era. The written Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, just isn’t the marrying type. He barely seems capable of taking proper care of himself, let alone anyone else. He’s not a guardian, except perhaps of public order. We don’t expect him to look after us; we don’t want him look after us. We just want to engage with him. Perhaps his standoffish-ness is part of his charm for us. He reminds us so much of all those slightly awkward young gentlemen with unkempt hair and big glasses who lurk behind dictionaries, textbooks, computers and lab equipment. We want brainboxes and geeks, these days, not just men with £10,000 a year and a disinclination to dance. Intelligence is valuable, and it’s taken a considerable shift of attitudes in men as well as women to come to this conclusion. That’s why our Sherlocks are experiencing new life. They draw so much on the original character because, thank goodness, the original character now plays both to our intellectual and to our emotional needs.  

 

I suspect that Sherlock was not the Victorian pin-up of choice. I think it’s a good sign of our times, though, that he is now.


[1] I don’t doubt there are gay men out there who subscribe to similar views, but I haven’t got one around to ask about it right now

 

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