From Enola Holmes to Fanny Dickens: recognising 5 historical women ‘overshadowed’ by their more famous brothers
To coincide with the release of new film Enola Holmes, which follows the adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s younger sister, Netflix has erected statues around the UK of historical women who have been overshadowed by their more famous brothers. Historian Fern Riddell shares where you can find the statues and why the women involved are being celebrated in such a way…
Why is it sisters can often find themselves living in their brothers’ shadows? This is the question at the heart of Netflix’s new film, Enola Holmes. An adaption of Nancy Springer’s novel series (first published in 2006) about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s little sister Enola – and starring Millie Bobby Brown in the titular role – the film captures the joys and difficulties of being a young woman in Victorian England. To coincide with the film’s release, Netflix is creating statues of historical women who have been overshadowed by their more famous brothers across the country. Here’s a closer look at the women being celebrated…
Frances ‘Fanny’ Elizabeth Dickens
Known for: Professional musician
Brother: Charles Dickens
Statue: Portsmouth Guildhall Square
In Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square, opposite the statue of one of our most celebrated authors, Charles Dickens, will go a statue of his elder sister, Frances Elizabeth Dickens. ‘Fanny’, as she was known to her family, was a talented musician and much of Dickens early life was spent in her shadow.
At the age of 13, in 1823, Fanny won a place at London’s newly opened Royal Academy of Music (RAM), where she was taught by Isaac Ignaz Moscheles, a friend of Mendelssohn and Beethoven. She learned singing and piano, soon surpassing all those around her, long before her brother even contemplated picking up a pen.
It was believed by many in the family that Fanny’s talents, not those of her younger brother, would make the family a fortune and she soon became a teacher at the Royal Academy as well as a professional musician. But in 1837 Fanny married another former pupil of the RAM, Henry Burnett, and, as was expected of a wife and mother at the time, left her career on the church doorsteps.
She continued to influence her family, and it was her son, Henry, whose ill health inspired Charles to create the famous character of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.
Ill-health was something that sadly ran in the family and Fanny died from tuberculosis at the age of 38, leaving her little brother devastated.
Known for: Teaching
Brother: Thomas Hardy
In Dorchester, the famous statue of Thomas Hardy, author of Far From The Madding Crowd will be joined by one of his sister, Mary. Although not a celebrated author, Mary also had a deep love of words and forged a life as an independent Victorian woman by becoming a teacher.
Although this may not seem a surprising profession, it’s the Hardy family’s background that make the achievements of both of this pair of brother and sister so unique. Born in a tiny Dorset hamlet, Mary’s father was a local builder, and her mother, Jemima, a cook to the local vicar. It was Jemima who provided the greatest influence on both her children’s lives, believing that an education, not marriage, should be the goal for all her offspring.
For Mary, this led to a lifelong love of teaching, and in 1862 she wrote to her brother of her newest appointment: “The salary is £40 a year, with a garden & a house partly furnished. I have to play the Organ in Church”.
Princess Helena Augusta Victoria
Known for: Campaigning for nursing
Brother: Edward VII
The trappings of royalty do little to stop a sister’s legacy from being overshadowed by her brother, as Princess Helena Augusta Victoria was to discover. As the fifth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Helena was far from important in the line of succession, but in Birmingham, opposite the statue of her brother, King Edward VII, we can draw attention to her life and her tireless work campaigning for British nurses.
As well as being one of the founding members of the Red Cross, Princess Helena was also the founding president of the Workhouse Infirmary Nurses’ Association and the Royal British Nurses Association (RBNA). During the Franco-Prussian War, she played a hands-on role in recruiting nurses and organising relief supplies for the front line.
After the war, it was her determined campaigning on behalf of the RBNA that put her in a surprising conflict with one of our most famous nurses, Florence Nightingale. At this time, there was no formal register for nurses in the UK, and no specific organisation that kept track of their training and qualifications. This meant nursing was not seen as a noble or honourable profession, but one that was open to fraud and misrepresentation.
The princess believed that one of the most important things she could do was support an official register to improve "the education and status of those devoted and self-sacrificing women whose whole lives have been devoted to tending the sick, the suffering, and the dying”. But Florence Nightingale argued that this would exclude working class women, who couldn’t pass a written exam to be included on the register. However, in 1919, after decades of campaigning, the princess saw the Nurses Registration Act pass, creating the profession we know today.
Maria Anna ‘Nannerl’ Mozart
Known for: Music
Brother: Wolfgang Mozart
In Bath’s Parade Gardens stands a small monument to the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This will now be joined by a statue of his sister, the talented harpsichord player Maria Anna ‘Nannerl’ Mozart.
Four years older than Wolfgang, Nannerl was trained from an early age to be a musical prodigy. Her father, Leopold, toured her across Europe, and, even when she was joined by her little brother, it was often Nannerl who received top billing for many years, not Mozart. In 1763, when Nannerl was around 12 years old, her father wrote, “she plays with such skill that the world talks of her and marvels at her”.
Nannerl's relationship with Mozart was one of great joy and companionship; as children they invented a private secret world called the ‘Kingdom of Back’, where they ruled together. As Mozart’s own talents grew, he wrote a number of works for his sister to perform, including the 1782 Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394.
But Nannerl’s stardom was soon taken from her. As she became older she was no longer seen as a child prodigy but a woman, and the idea of a woman earning money from music was seen as deeply dishonourable (she would have had to perform for free for it too have been seen as respectable – but then wouldn’t have earned her father any money). We have tantalising mentions from Mozart himself that she began to compose her own music, but sadly none have survived and her music legacy has been forgotten as her brother rose to the greatest heights.
Known for: Fictional detective
Brother: Sherlock Holmes
And so this brings us to Enola Holmes, who will soon have a statue sitting alongside her esteemed detective brother in Baker Street, London. Although she is a work of fiction, Enola is one in a long line of female detectives who have perhaps been forgotten by history.
Some of the earliest detective novels were not about the ‘Sherlocks’ of the past, but their female contemporaries. The Female Detective, and Revelations of a Lady Detective, both published in 1864, were full of stories of intrigue and investigation at the feet of their erstwhile heroines.
And ‘lady detectives’ did not exist solely in the pages of fiction, Victorian newspapers often carried reports of female private investigators being used in criminal cases, and even by Scotland Yard itself. So Enola has a lot to live up to, as her mysteries begin.
Dr Fern Riddell is a historian specialising in sex and suffrage in the Victorian and Edwardian eras
Enola Holmes is on Netflix from 23 September