By BSB Melinda
I’ll get to Violet in a minute, but first: let’s talk about women on bicycles.
As an avid cyclist myself, I think that focusing on Miss Smith’s chosen form of transportation is a good way to reveal a bit more about the workings of her character. People usually don’t give the subject a second thought: it’s a form of transport, of exercise, and of recreation, as well as being a thing that both sexes enjoy and participate in equally. But it hasn’t always been this way. When the modern bicycle (then called a ‘safety bicycle’) with a chain drive was first invented by John Kemp Starley, it was a huge technological advancement over the dangerous and cumbersome penny-farthing, and people began to take up cycling as a hobby en masse. And by people, I mean men.
John Kemp Starley: one smart dude
The women who first worked up the courage to try cycling were, predictably enough, publicly shamed and ridiculed. Cycling required improper posture for a lady, strenuous exercise while wearing long skirts and a corset which resulted in dangerous conditions, and it also carried the very real possibility of injury: no lady of the day would willingly be seen with a bruise on her, that might mean she had been moving around or doing something equally unladylike.
But far worse than all of the above was that riding a bicycle required the rider to put her ladybits on a saddle (oh! the scandal!) with her legs on either side of the top tube (*faints*). There were naturally some side saddle options made available, but they were largely unstable and overly complicated. To have women ride bicycles the way they were meant to be ridden simply wouldn’t do, if women sat astride anything at all it would create a nation of hysterical nymphomainacs, not to mention it would call attention to their legs. In the Victorian era, to be a woman and to have legs was just considered rude.
As we are all aware a glimpse of a woman’s ankle would be enough to incite riots and ruin her family’s good name, so a device called Cherry’s Screen was invented to hide those gams from view so she’d look like less of a Slutty McHobag:
Cherry’s Screen: dumbest idea since the hydrogen balloon
Keep in mind that our drama takes place in the year 1895, and attitudes towards women on bicycles had not yet shifted - the safety bicycle was only introduced in 1887, which means that all of the above issues regarding women on bicycles were still very much a part of public perception at the time of our story.
Now with that bit of historical context out of the way, I think we can view Violet Smith with a more enlightened perspective than before. The fact that she rides a bicycle at all is a very clear indicator that she is not a woman to be trifled with. She knows what she wants, doesn’t give a damn what others think about it, and will pursue her goals with determination and single-mindedness. The fact that she had the wits to consult with Holmes at all once she found herself in trouble proves that she knows how to find the right tool for the job. And his initial cold reception didn’t phase her one bit: “It was vain to urge that his time was already fully occupied, for the young lady had come with the determination to tell her story, and it was evident that nothing short of force could get her out of the room until she had done so.” Translation: Oh, I’m sorry, is my being here inconvenient to you? Too bad dork, you’re going to listen to me anyway.
But her admirable qualities don’t end there. When Holmes pulls out his bicycling deduction, she’s quick enough to follow his line of reasoning and knows exactly how he came to that conclusion. She’s young, beautiful, tall, graceful, queenly, fit, observant, with a spiritual face and a presumably hot fiancee. Is there anything this woman cannot do?
Oh, and let’s not forget - while she believes herself to be alone and at her most vulnerable, she races forward on her bike like the Gino Bartali of her day to take on her own stalker. This is a move so gutsy it cannot be overemphasized. Here is a woman being tormented by a mysterious and unwanted attendant whose intentions are unknown, and while she is on a very lonely stretch of road chooses to confront her fears and her pursuer rather than allow someone to psychologically bully her. For that single action alone I think she can be regarded as one of the most courageous women in the Canon.
In 1896 suffragette Susan B Anthony said “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than any single other thing in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Violet Smith herself is the very picture of free, untrammeled womanhood. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.