I reviewed the first book in Nancy Springer's Enola Holmes series a while back, and only recently got the rest from my public library after asking for them to be purchased (it didn't hurt that Netflix announced a second Enola Holmes movie, too). They are short, slim volumes which I've seen recommended as middle grade, but although Enola is 12, these are actually quite dark, and I'd classify them as lower YA, for readers ages 12-14 or 15ish. They revolve around some of the more brutal aspects of Victorian life, late 1870s to early 1900s.
The woman in question is Lady Cecily, a cultured, upper-crust young woman who's had to hide the fact that she's left-handed and in fact may have developed a split personality because of it.
Lady Cecily the right-handed is an obedient daughter of a good family, who does what's expected of her; Lady Cecily the left-handed sketches England's destitute and forgotten, hiding her true self and growing outrage at the injustices and inequalities all around her. She's mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night, seemingly by crawling down a ladder out her front window.
Enola's famous detective brother, Sherlock, is called in to find her. But of course, Enola gets there first, by subterfuge, and she finds what only another woman can find: Cecily's hidden chalk drawings in her private room (that Sherlock is not allowed into); that the ladder is way too heavy for Cecily to have moved to her window (from inside the room, no less); and she gets an interview with a "department store" clerk the family fears Cecily has eloped with, who further reveals Lady Cecily's concerns about social injustice.
I can't say much more without giving away the whole plot, but suffice it to say, Enola's instincts are spot-on, and her encounters with her brother set the stage for slowly earning his respect (which is quite astonishing, given what Sherlock thinks of "females.").
I love this series for how it depicts Victorian England's strictures on women, with an entirely separate women's sphere Sherlock has no hope of ever penetrating (and not just because he's blind to it), and how Springer uses it to build Enola's cases.
Dr. Watson goes missing, and in fact, you dear reader know he's locked up in a hospital of some sort, against his will, and that his "captors" -- a nurse and doctor -- think he's delusional, believing he's Sherlock Holmes' trusted and famous assistant.
But neither Enola nor Sherlock know this.
They're on Watson's missing person's case, working parallel lines of investigation, but of course, only Enola's shows much promise. Enola uses her extensive knowledge of flowers from the codes her mother taught her to decipher a bizarre bouquet that arrives at the Watson home when his disappearance goes public. It contains all kinds of deadly flower messages, but most disturbing -- spears of asparagus. Even for Enola, that's a first. What does it mean?
She finds the bouquets' delivery boy and interviews him and learns a most interesting fact -- the person who paid to have the bouquets delivered took off his nose.
And this is a key clue. She uses her growing knowledge of disguises to track down the one place in London where a person missing a nose might go to find a way to disguise it, a place she's been a few times herself in search of disguises to throw her brothers Sherlock and Mycroft off her trail. And she stumbles upon one of Watson's previous cases, a person who still harbors a grudge against Watson.
None of which tells her, what have they done to Watson?
I can't write any more without divulging the whole plot, but it was well-played out and again, spotlighted the cruel practices of Victorian England -- the horrors of extreme poverty and child abuse, the practice of admitting patients to hospitals under false names, prejudices toward war veterans with disfiguring injuries or basically anyone with a physical deformity, regardless of the cause.
Enola stumbles across her next case, quite literally. In the lady's lavatory she encounters, yet again, Lady Cecily, who this time is chaperoned by two old society women who've got her on a super-tight leash, literally. They're taking a break from shopping for Lady Cecily's trousseau. She's hobbled in a skirt that makes it impossible to run away.
Nevertheless, Lady Cecily recognizes an ally in Enola and manages to pass a peculiar pink party-favor fan to her. It's Enola's only clue, and she tracks down where it came from, the party Lady Cecily got it from, all by subterfuge. It's not until she looks at the fan in a completely different light that she gets an entirely different clue.
Dressed as a garbage-picking waif, she figures out where Lady Cecily must be held against her will, again, and later encounters Sherlock, who's been retained by Lady Cecily's mother to rescue her daughter from the sham marriage that's being foisted on her by her father.
Brother and sister have to work together to escape a cleverly laid trap, and by now, Sherlock's respect for his little sister's prowess with disguises and finding missing persons has grown to such an extent that he's willing to risk arguing her case for independence and personhood to Mycroft.
I can't say much more without exposing the whole plot. I love the way this book carefully delves into the divide between men and women's expectations for women, and the fact that young society women, in particular, were not considered people capable of making their own decisions -- the exact situation Enola is in with her brother Mycroft.
This was an exceptionally fast-paced Enola story, moving us one step closer to re-uniting Sherlock and Mycroft with Enola, but some serious learning has to take place first and for both those men, that's a difficult proposition -- for Enola.
First of all, let's get what a crinoline is out of the way, because most readers will have no idea. It's essentially scaffolding for skirts. It provided an upside down bell shape to lay the skirt over, so it spread prettily. The wider and more voluminous, the better, and women wore them in Enola's times, the mid-19th century. Key here is crinolines didn't get washed. They were made of concentric bamboo, steel or whalebone rings and held together with ribbon. This simple fact is what the whole book hinges on.
The book opens with a foreshadowing event of a woman, almost deaf, losing her husband in a horrible hospital, Scutari, in Turkey during the Crimean War. A nurse, who later the reader learns is Florence Nightingale, rescues this woman from wasting away in the bowels of the hospital. You don't know who the unfortunate woman is, but in the next chapter, an observant reader can take a pretty good guess right off the bat.
Enola's nearly-deaf landlady, Mrs. Tupper, receives a cryptic message: deliver her bird-brained message or she'll be sorry she ever left Scutari. (Hint, hint!) Proving she's not blind or stupid to all of Enola's disguises, she enlists Enola's help, but not fast enough. Two men kidnap Mrs. Tupper and then it's up to Enola to find the message, decrypt it, and find and rescue Mrs Tupper.
Enola figures out Mrs. Tupper and Nightingale were in Scutari at the same time, but the eccentric Nightingale will not see visitors -- period. Enola's no exception. Until she finds the message in the crinoline. Then the Nightingale is ready to sing.
I won't go any further, just know, Nightingale is a kind of guardian angel to Enola, although they barely even talk, because Nightingale educates Sherlock about what it really means to go to a girls' boarding school in the mid-19th century in the frankest of terms. She lays out the kind of physical disfigurement wearing a corset and crinoline and all the other "ladylike" accoutrements did to women's bodies when taken to the extreme. The reader is left with no doubt of why Enola runs from her brothers, while wondering if Sherlock can get the message. After all, it's staring at him, day after day, in English society, all the time.
Its sets the stage nicely for the last book, as well.
Ok, so this review has a caveat: the word used in the the title, and throughout, while used accurately for the time period the books are set in (i.e. it would have been widely used by Victorians in this time period and social / class circles in England), is highly pejorative, extremely hurtful and not considered appropriate to use in children's literature now, and pushes this into NA or adult literature. But the grim nature of the story does that, to a certain extent, as well.
This one be prepared to read through your tears. I won't spoil what happens, but be prepared for the brutal worst Victorian high society could do to a woman.
Again, it centers around a missing person's case: Lady Blanchefleur del Campo goes down into a subway without her ladies in waiting and ...disappears.
Sherlock is retained by the family to find her, but it's Enola's knowledge of the women's sphere -- particularly that surrounding women's clothing -- that solves this case.
Enola learns Lady Blanchfleur spoke first with an elderly woman in the underground, and only after disappeared. When Enola tracks the woman down, she has a message for Enola, one Enola doesn't quite understand, but the woman is wearing an amulet painted by her mother.
Then Enola's brother Sherlock uses the family dog to "out" Enola from one of her more sophisticated, genteel disguises and delivers a package to her. The outside is covered in drawings of the "evil eye," a symbol warding evil away from the package. In it is a message from her mum, but one, like all the others, she'll have to decode.
In the meantime, she and Sherlock track down Lady Blanchefleur. I won't spoil what happens, but the horror of what's been done to the Lady is truly awful, not in a graphic sense, but more in a "thank goodness I (a woman) didn't live in Victorian times" sense.
This was a truly phenomenal wrap-up to the series.
Note: Except it isn't -- there's more, since the Netflix movie came out, but the look and feel of the covers has totally changed, and I couldn't get it in time to read, write the review and photograph it for the holiday. So look for my review of The Black Barouche in 2022!