Author Nancy Springer invented Sherlock’s secret sister. You might remember back in 2017 when Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes met his secret — and criminally insane — sister Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke) in the 4th season of the BBC’s Sherlock, but Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) came first. Springer’s Enola made her splash in the 2006 middle-grade book The Case of the Missing Marquess (upon which the new movie Enola Holmes is based) which makes her the reigning champ of secret Holmes siblings, at least in the 21st century. Are there other secret Holmes siblings? What about the Holmes parents? Did Sherlock or Mycroft have any children of their own?
Mostly, the answer to these questions cannot be found in the canonical 56 short stories and four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, the tapestry of the Holmes family tree has been woven over the years, almost exclusively by fans. Because Sherlock Holmes fandom is so much older than most other fandoms, it’s tough to find the line between amateur fanfic and professional pastiches.
Sherrinford Holmes, the Eldest Holmes Brother
So, when I say that fan theories about a secret third Holmes sibling began in 1962 with the publication of Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street by William S. Baring-Gould, I could be wrong. But, in terms of published mainstream pastiches and fanfic, it’s the easiest place to start. Because that’s where we get the notion that someone named Sherrinford Holmes lived out in the country, far away from London, and looked after the ancestral home of the Holmes family.
“Sherrinford” was one of the earliest names Conan Doyle considered for the character of Sherlock. Famous Holmes scholar Baring-Gould used this idea as the basis for there being a third Holmes sibling, the eldest of the three, and that he — Sherrinford Holmes — managed the family’s country estate. Some fan theories even suggested that after Holmes returned from the dead in “The Empty House,” that he wasn’t Sherlock at all, but instead, Sherrinford taking up the mantle. For Batman fans, this would be kind of like when Jean-Paul Valley became Batman after Bane broke Batman’s back, only in this scenario, Jean-Paul Valley would be Bruce Wayne’s secret older brother.
The notion of Sherrinford and the idea that Mycroft and Sherlock’s family origins are unclear in the Doyle stories created fertile ground for fans to casually assert random theories as pseudo-canon. Holmes fandom is not like Star Wars fandom or Batman fandom, and that’s because, for at least a century, a huge amount of the scholarship precedes from the premise that Holmes was real and that Doyle was merely Watson’s literary agent.
This is why, if you read the superb The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Leslie S. Klinger, you’ll start to slowly believe all of this is historical fact, when in fact, you’re reading well-woven fanfic that represents a “consensus” of what fans believe about the early life of Sherlock Holmes.
For example, according to these books, Sherlock’s father died in 1860 when Sherlock was just six years old. This book also tells us that Holmes’ father was named “Siger Holmes” and his wife, the Holmes mother, was named Violet Sherrinford. Enola Holmes gives the siblings’ mother the name Eudoria Holmes, which, arguably sounds better, since there are a ton of other Violets in the Sherlock Holmes canon. (There are a ton of Marys, too, at least one of which became Watson’s wife, but we don’t need to get into that, right now.)
Can Eudoria Holmes and Violet Holmes be the same character? Can Enola Holmes somehow coexist in the same universe in which Sherrinford Holmes is also a secret Holmes sibling? The answer is yes, but it requires even more layering to your own personal fan fiction narratives.
Arguably, the patient zero for a more contemporary psychological take on the Holmes family comes from Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven Per-Cent-Solution. The primary conceit of this novel is that Watson’s stories “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House” (which featured Holmes’ death and return to life) were fabrications to create a cover story for what was really going on.
In Meyer’s version, Holmes was actually being cured of his cocaine addiction by Sigmund Freud during this time. The big denouement of the book is that Holmes suffered from severe trauma stemming from having witnessed his father (maybe Siger) murder his mother (maybe Violet) after having discovered that Violet was having an affair.
This novel brought a brutal dose of realism to the pantheon of Holmes pastiches but also suggested there was something horrible lurking at behind Holmes’ zeal to become a kind of vigilante. In a sense, Meyer gave Holmes an origin story much like Batman’s, but in this version, the hero sees one of his parents act horribly, in response to the other parent committing a lesser “crime.” Sherlock’s occasionally inconsistent sense of justice could be described as having stemmed from this.
Or not. Meyer has written three other Holmes novels since then, with another new one on the way next year. In 2019, after the publication of his newest Holmes book The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols, Meyer told me: “I’m sort of trying to have it both ways. If you want to stick with Arthur Conan Doyle’s version it still makes sense. And if you want to stick with me, it makes a kind of alternative sense.”
This notion of overlapping narratives is probably the easiest way for a casual (or serious) Holmes fan to sort out the competing truths. In Enola Holmes, brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin) isn’t much like the Mark Gatiss Mycroft we love in Sherlock, but neither Mycroft resembles the version crafted by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his novels and comic book series focusing on Mycroft Holmes.
In 2017, talking about his graphic novel Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook, Abdul-Jabbar told me that creating a more “roguish” version of Mycroft allowed him to be more “adventurous with [his] approach.”
But, even within Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft stories, there are some tonal shifts. The Mycroft who appears in The Apocalypse Handbook is a subtly different man than the Mycroft from Jabbar’s prose novels; Mycroft Holmes and Mycroft and Sherlock. For Abdul-Jabbar, this hardly matters, because “More important [than continuity], though, the Holmes stories are about the triumph of reason and logic over superstition and mob mentality, which is the basis for modern civilization. That struggle between reason and group-think is the major social issue in our country. To me, logic is the key to saving humanity from its self-destructiveness.”
A literal interpretation of the Holmes family tree might not be possible. Throughout the Doyle canon, Sherlock constantly berates Watson for embellishing the truth, which, of course, gestures at a deeper, hidden truth beneath all the stories. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer) Spock mentions “an ancestor of mine,” before quoting Sherlock Holmes. Spock is half-human, so did he mean, on his mother’s side, that he was descended from Dolyle or Sherlock? In 2010, Meyer told me it was the latter, and that Irene Adler was probably Amanda Grayson’s great great great great great-grandmother.
So, the Holmes family tree could extend far back into the early 1800s with a variety of different siblings with different names, and parents who did, or did not, love each other. And, that same family tree might push forward into the 23rd century with familiar characters connected to Holmes by their half-human green blood. The entire mystery of this family tree will never be solved. But, as the film Enola Holmes proves, that fact is just part of the fun.
Enola Holmes is streaming now on Netflix.