The Victorian Superfluous Woman

by Elinor Gray Howell

“[T]hey are fully and usefully employed; they discharge a most important and indispensable function in social life ... [T]hey fulfill both essentials of women’s being: they are supported by and they minister to, men.”

Dr. James Hardcastle describes the Misses Allerton with whom he is staying as “old maids” and remarks that the old maid is “a most useful person, one of the reserve forces of the community.” This position is in alignment with the opinion of Greg above, that the women are well suited to the task of taking care of stray men.

Without these two women, or another independent older woman lacking the responsibility of a husband, Conan Doyle’s adventurous character(s) would have nothing grounding them, and no one taking care of the meals and the housekeeping. Sherlock Holmes would have no ready-made sandwiches to put in his pockets or walls around him to shoot. Dr. Hardcastle would have no one to minister to him as an “invalid stranger” and no good reason to wander the countryside without any other occupation. The old maid provides a safe home base for the “superfluous man” (i.e. unmarried, and in this case unemployed due to illness), and thus ultimately fulfills her natural ideal.

What are we to make of the so-called superfluous women? Speculation could abound, if one were inclined in that direction. Are they sisters? Cousins? Wives? How old are they, really? The term “spinster” was used at the time for unmarried women in general, so could refer to any woman over the age of twenty or so. “Old maid” however suggests a more established reputation. They own their farm, and Hardcastle suggests Professor Saunderson grew up around there, so they’ve owned it a long time. How far back in the family does it go? How do they have time to minister to an invalid while also keeping a farm full of livestock? Certainly they’ve managed to fill their days and contribute to the wellbeing of their north-west Derbyshire community, suggesting they might not be superfluous after all.


Coralie Canot. The Undesirable Spinster: The Organised Emigration of British Single Women, 1851-1914. Literature. 2013.

William Rathbone Greg. Why Are Women Redundant? London: N.Trübner & Co, 1869.

Suzie Grogan. Gender & the Great War - The myth of the ‘superfluous woman’. Emmy Jolly Blog. 2014. Accessed 2020-06-16.

A Vision of Britain Through Time. 1851 Census of Great Britain, Tables of Population and Houses in the Divisions, Registration Counties, and Districts of England and Wales; in the Counties, Cities, and Burghs of Scotland; and in the Islands in the British Seas, Table 1 : " Great Britain. Population in 1851".


Elinor Gray Howell is a writer and Sherlockian residing in Portland, OR, with her wife and small child. She is a member of the Most Noble and Singular Order of the Blue Carbuncle, the Sound of the Baskervilles, and the John H. Watson Society, where she served (2017-2019) as the editor for The Watsonian and now serves as an associate editor and layout designer. In 2015, Elinor achieved a Master of Arts in Human Geography from Queen Mary, University of London, for her work on Sherlock Holmes and the city of London. Her thesis work, “So Ardent a Bicyclist”: Women’s Mobility in Sherlock Holmes, is available to read on her website.