Sherlock Holmes, but make it supernatural: echoes of Victorian spiritualism in Netflix’s The Irregulars

Aga Serdyńska recently completed her MA in Modern Literature and Culture at King’s College London. She’s interested in various aspects of Victorian literature and culture, as well as neo-Victorian revisitations of the period across different media. In her future research, she’d like to explore the themes of memory and detection in Victorian and neo-Victorian fiction.

This post contains spoilers for Netflix’s The Irregulars.

The Irregulars, a recent retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, departs quite radically from both the source material and the historical reality of the Victorian period. A story of a group of street kids investigating supernatural crimes, the series goes against the materialism of the Holmes universe, where, in the detective’s words, ‘No ghosts need apply’ [1]: whenever the threat of the otherworldly disrupts the life at 221B, order is eventually restored through logic and reason [2]. In a similar vein, the show also takes creative liberties with the period setting, blending typical visual signifers of the Victorian past, such as horse-drawn carriages and images of urban squalor, with colour-blind casting, anachronistic costumes, modern-day language, and a vocal dismissal of Victorian hierarchies of class and gender. In other words, The Irregulars adopts a revisionist approach to the fictional world of Holmes and the historical context in which Doyle’s stories are rooted.

Even so, the supernatural element of the show is (ironically) based in historical fact, having been inspired by Doyle’s championing of spiritualism [3] –  the belief in the possibility of communicating with spirits of the dead which enjoyed widespread popularity in the late 19th century. The series gestures towards spiritualist practices by having various characters contact their late relatives using Ouija boards; it also references the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult organisation to which Doyle belonged [4]. Apart from lending The Irregulars some historical flavour, spiritualism is an interesting context in which to consider the show’s overturning of  Victorian hierarchies, seeing as the movement ‘might have actually participated in the transformation of social codes’ of race, gender and class [5] – a (possible) legacy The Irregulars continues. Because the series doesn’t meaningfully engage with race, I’m going to explore its treatment of class and gender, and relate it to the subversive potential of spiritualism.

The show focuses on a group of street children based on the Baker Street Irregulars in the Holmes canon. In Doyle’s stories, they play a marginal role as the detective’s unofficial ‘division of the police force’, useful because they can ‘go everywhere and hear everything’ [6]. This is a result of their ‘social negligibility’ [7], which is persistently emphasised in the text. The doctor describes them as ‘half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs that ever I clapped eyes on’ [8]. The phrase ‘street Arab’, which denotes children from the poorest slum areas, implies a racial (and racist) hierarchy that translates into an equally discriminatory hierarchy of class [9]. Watson drives the point home by likening the Irregulars to ‘so many disreputable statuettes’ [10] – a simile which objectifies the boys and pronounces them an aberration within the respectable milieu of 221B. Preoccupied with their offensive lack of social standing, Watson never betrays any interest in the Irregulars as human beings; they slip in and out of the story almost imperceptibly, forgotten as soon as they’ve served their purpose.

Expanding on the idea of street children aiding Holmes’s investigations, The Irregulars makes two significant changes: it challenges the social hierarchy coded in Watson’s language and adds a feminist twist by making the two main characters female. Relegating Sherlock and Watson to the background to tell the story of the Irregulars in their own right, the show endows them with the identities, backstories and inner lives that Doyle’s Watson is blind to: no longer objects of his disdainful gaze, they now have voices of their own. Accordingly, the idea of a class-based hierarchy is openly dismissed: in the first episode, during an unlikely encounter with a royal valet who orders the leader of the group, Bea, to know her place, she sneers at the suggestion of the man’s superiority: ‘Just because you ride around in fancy carriages and wear suits doesn’t make you my better’ [11].

Later on, in a conversation with Watson, Bea also explicitly addresses his disregard for women: ‘You talk about his [Holmes’s] greatness, about your greatness. How is it that men can be so obsessed with it, yet never see when a woman has it?’ [12]. In The Irregulars, Holmes’s greatness is, in fact, a thing of the past: his intellect has been blunted by heartbreak and drug addiction, and he self-consciously compares himself to ‘a dull blade barely capable of opening a letter’ [13]. With Holmes unfit to save the world from a supernatural apocalypse, the task falls to the leading duo of sisters, Bea and Jessie. Bea is the head of the Irregulars, the primary decision-maker, and connects the dots when Holmes fails. Jessie, on the other hand, has extraordinary powers which prove instrumental in solving the mystery, making her the unlikely saviour of humankind. Thus, instead of the respectable male heroes of Doyle, The Irregulars gives us a pair of heroines from the bottom of the social ladder.

These changes are very much in line with the tendency in neo-Victorianism to focus on ‘the dispossessed, and those traditionally viewed to have been “hidden from history”’ [14]: in this case, women and the poor. Yet while this approach can be understood as an attempt to ‘embrace the concerns of our own period’ [15], it also corresponds to spiritualism’s undermining of hierarchies. As previously mentioned, spiritualism took late Victorian England by storm. In doing so, it cut across all strata of society: middle-class intellectuals and professionals, the industrialised working class, even Queen Victoria – they all fell under its spell in one way or another [16]. The movement was democratic not just in its appeal; it also had a socially progressive agenda. The lower classes developed their own version of spiritualism which Logie Barrow relates to Owenism [17]. Middle-class believers who formed the ranks of the British National Association of Spiritualists likewise proclaimed themselves concerned with social reform: the Association’s prospectus declared that the organisation ‘was dedicated to remedying the “excessive irregularity in the distribution of wealth” with its resulting “crying social evils”’ [18]. In this context, Barrow links spiritualism to ‘democratic epistemology – i.e. a definition of knowledge as open to anybody’ [19]. Bringing this to bear on The Irregulars, it seems significant that the characters who manage to contact the other side (which, in the world of the show, translates into acquiring supernatural powers) are all of middle- or a lower-middle-class background: an ornithologist, the daughter of a dentist, a seamstress, and a botanist. The show also touches on the ‘crying social evils’ mentioned in the BNAS prospectus: in episode two, the Tooth Fairy plans to use her powers to murder the Duke of Wellington, whose decision to raise the rent on his lands drove her father to suicide [20]. Though the plan ultimately fails, this plotline suggests an (unpursued) connection between recourse to the spirit world and a desire for social justice, which corresponds to the historical ties between spiritualism and socialism.

Even more so than with issues of class, spiritualism was concerned with the ‘Woman Question’, and contemporary critics often credit it with advancing the feminist cause. According to Tromp, spiritualism ‘granted women a new kind of self-determination’, ultimately ‘precipitat[ing] a shift in women’s roles’ not just within spiritualist circles [21]. Paradoxically, however, women’s privileged position in spiritualism stemmed from prescriptive gender stereotypes. Women were considered more suited to the role of mediums on the basis of what the Victorians understood as innate characteristics of femininity: passivity, frailty, ‘a moral and spiritual sensibility’ and ‘de-eroticsed sexuality’ [22]. Interestingly, Jessie, who assumes a medium-like role in the show, fits this profile rather well. Because she suffers from recurring nightmares, the other members of the group initially assume she’s mentally unwell and strive to keep her out of danger; even once the supernatural nature of those dreams is revealed, Bea invariably assumes the role of her sister’s protector. Later on in the series, we find out that Jessie can also enter people’s minds – sensibility taken to a literal extreme. Owen’s point about eroticism is likewise worth examining. Neo-Victorian texts are notorious for their ‘attempts to restore the sexuality we believe [the Victorians] repressed’ [23], and The Irregulars is no exception, but it does so through Bea, not Jessie. Even though Jessie repeatedly encourages her sister to seek out physical relationships (advice Bea eventually follows), her own are strictly platonic; her sexuality is therefore not so much de-eroticised as non-existent. This is not to say that Jessie is a paragon of Victorian femininity; yet she is portrayed as more ‘feminine’ in the Victorian sense, which correlates with  the spiritualist image of womanhood.

In teasing out the Victorian echoes in The Irregulars, my aim is not to defend the series as historically accurate, nor argue that it self-consciously plays on discourses of Victorian spiritualism; rather, I’m suggesting that it’s possible to trace a thematic continuity between the show and the social history of spiritualism, though a similar argument could be made along the lines of genre, looking at Gothic and sensational tropes and the fantastic as ‘an interrogator of established categories’ [24]. Ultimately, The Irregulars highlights Louisa Hadley’s point that neo-Victorian texts take a ‘dual approach’, relating simultaneously to the Victorian past and the present moment out of which they arise [25] – even if it ultimately gravitates towards the latter.

Footnotes:

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. Volume II (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020), p.738.

[1] This pattern can be observed in ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ and Hound of the Baskervilles, though whether Holmes is entirely successful in laying the myth of the Baskerville curse to rest may be open to debate: for a reading that explores this possibility, see John Pennington, ‘“Eliminate All Other Factors”: Fantastic Hesitation in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles’, in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol.15, No.2 (2005), pp.132-143, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43308736>.

[3] The Irregulars: Interview: Tom Bidwell <https://scifibulletin.com/uk-tv/the-irregulars-interview-tom-bidwell>.

[4] Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1985), p.160.

[5] Marlene Tromp, Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), p.2.

[6] Arthur Conan Doyle, The Study in Scarlet (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), p.47.

[7]  Rosemary Jann, ‘Sherlock Holmes Codes the Social Body’, in ELH, Vol.57, No.3 (1990), pp.685-708 (p.696) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/2873238>.

[8] The Study in Scarlet, p.47.

[9] Andrew C. Long, Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880-1930 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2014), p.145.

[10] The Study in Scarlet, p.47.

[11] ‘Chapter One: An Unkindness in London’, The Irregulars, Netflix, 2021.

[12] ‘Chapter Seven: The Ecstasy of Death’, The Irregulars, Netflix, 2021.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Imelda Whelehan, ‘Neo-Victorian Adaptations’, in A Companion to Literature, Film, and Adaptation, ed. by Deborah Carmell (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), pp.272-291 (pp.275-6). While this is a notable tendency, this is not to say that all neo-Victorian texts engage with the period in this way: there are many definitions of neo-Victorianism, and not all of them presuppose such a presentist approach.

[15] Whelehan, p.275.

[16] Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), p.21.

[17] Logie Barrow, ‘Socialism in Eternity: The Ideology of Plebeian Spiritualists, 1853-1913’, in History Workshop, No.9 (1980), pp.37-69 (p.38) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/4288284>.

[18] Owen, p.26.

[19] Logie Barrow, Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebeians, 1850-1910 (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), p.146.

[20] ‘Chapter Two: The Ghosts of 221B’, The Irregulars, Netflix, 2021.

[21] Tromp, p.68.

[22] Owen, pp.6-7.

[23] Joss Marsh and Kamilla Elliott, ‘The Victorian Novel in Cinema and On Television’, in A Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. by Patrick Brantlinger and William Thesing (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), pp.458-477 (p.471).

[24] Lyn Pykett, ‘Sensation and the fantastic in the Victorian novel’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. by Deirdre David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp.192-211, p.194.

[25] Louisa Hadley, Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative. The Victorians and Us (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p.15.