Adultery and the Solitary Cyclist
Why is there a fiancé in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”? What is the purpose of Cyril Morton? Why did Conan Doyle put him in the story? Why not make Violet Smith unattached?
But perhaps that is the wrong way to phrase the question, for it assumes that such decisions are conscious. Why, then, should the story have occurred to Conan Doyle as being about an engaged young woman? Why did she have to have a fiancé, yet one who does nothing?
Cyril Morton, the fiancé in question, is mentioned early in the story, when Violet explains her odd situation of being regularly pursued by a deferential or bashful – but certainly mysterious – cyclist. However, does she turn to her fiancé for assistance in this matter? No, she goes to Sherlock Holmes. Once things are settled, Violet returns to her fiancé and marries him; but prior to this he is off in Coventry, doing nothing. Sent to Coventry, you might say: exiled.
Is this because Conan Doyle has something against fiancés? Two other stories in the canon come to mind: both “The Speckled Band” and “The Copper Beeches” contain fiancés who are away from the main action; in the latter case, it is true, the young man in question does step in and save his young lady at the end, but that is not the focus of the plot. In “The Speckled Band,” it is even worse: the fiancé does nothing but offer disastrous advice, forcing the heroine to turn to Holmes.
Of course, in order for the Sherlock Holmes stories to work, it’s necessary that Holmes do the rescuing. There can’t be eager young fiancés around saving the damsels in distress, or what will there be for Holmes to do? There is, however, more to it than that in “The Solitary Cyclist.”
It is useful to look at what actually happens in the story in order to get a clue as to what might be happening deep below the surface. Violet Smith is hired, in mysterious circumstances, by Bob Carruthers, who falls in love with her and proposes marriage. At the same time she is virtually assaulted by a friend of Carruthers, Jack Woodley, who makes unwanted advances towards Violet and finally forces a kiss on her before subjecting her to a forced marriage. In the meantime, Holmes himself seems smitten by Miss Smith, taking her hand on the flimsiest of pretenses, praising her spiritual-looking face, and remarking how natural it is for a woman such as her to have admirers. Watson, too, appears to be under her spell, speaking of how beautiful and graceful she is, and the two men literally run to her defence when Woodley threatens her. Yet Violet Smith is, throughout all this, engaged to be married, so cannot accept even the proper advances of Carruthers, still less the violent ones of Roaring Jack Woodley, or the more suppressed feelings of Holmes and Watson.
At one level the story seems, in fact, to be all about suppressed advances or desires. A Jungian psychologist would have a field day with Roaring Jack, who is reminiscent of another dark creature from the late Victorian period, Edward Hyde, the incarnation of all the dark instincts Henry Jekyll has long suppressed. When Jekyll looses those instincts, letting Mr. Hyde emerge, he does indeed come out “roaring.”
In ‘The Solitary Cyclist’, however, even good Bob Carruthers has to suppress his own much more polite desires, because the object of those desires, Violet Smith, is already spoken for. It is an interesting situation, and reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s own at the time when the story was written (1903): his first wife, Louise, was seriously ill, and he had fallen in love with another woman. Like the men in this story, Doyle had to suppress his own desires; but suppressed desires usually find their way to the surface, and in Conan Doyle’s case “The Solitary Cyclist” seems to have been the result. The story was originally entitled “The Adventure of the Solitary Man,” and perhaps the author felt himself to be solitary, trapped in a non-marriage and unable to give himself to the new love of his life.
In any case, what emerges in “The Solitary Cyclist” is a study in frustration and male desire, with Conan Doyle examining the two sides of that desire in Jack Woodley and Bob Carruthers. Woodley is the violent brute forcing his affections upon women, and the forced marriage at the end of the story seems a euphemistic presentation of a rape. Carruthers, in contrast, is the polite face of male desire, all propriety and protectiveness; yet even his protectiveness leads to him seeming threatening when he mounts distant guard on his bicycle, frightening the woman he wants to protect to such an extent that she feels the need to consult someone, although that person is a detective, not her fiancé. The latter is out of the picture – at least on the surface – but his background presence is what prohibits even a proper expression of male desire, just as the presence of Conan Doyle’s first wife prevented him from fully expressing his desire for the woman who would eventually become his second wife.
Out of these murky psychological depths comes the notion that any male desire must somehow be tainted. Carruthers protests his love for Violet Smith, but Watson correctly notes that his love was selfish. Carruthers agrees in a way, saying that love often goes together with selfishness: an odd view to take, unless one is feeling so guilty over an illicit love that any love seems selfish.
What appears to be going on in the story, then, is that Conan Doyle is exploring the varieties of male desire, while at the same time suggesting that while there is, of course, some difference between the brutish advances of a Jack Woodley and the polite ones of a Bob Carruthers, in some ways all male desire is the same, all love is selfish, all men – even when trying to be protective – look like dangerous bearded brutes.
This is not to say that this view of male desire is true, or even that Conan Doyle always believed it. But at the time he wrote “The Solitary Cyclist” – a time when his desire for one woman was frustrated by his marriage to a wife who could not be a wife – this seems to have been his feeling. All desire, or all new desire, is forbidden, the story seems to say, because the object of that desire is committed elsewhere to a fiancé who may not be able to act the part, but who still has a claim which may not be challenged.
This is why the fiancé does nothing in the story. It is his role to be a doer of nothing who is important only because his existence prevents others from doing what he should be doing: loving and protecting a woman. Cyril Morton in “The Solitary Cyclist” is thus a strange representation of Conan Doyle’s first wife, whose presence prevented him from expressing his romantic desires for another woman.
This musing can be found in my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing. The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia, and this one was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of the Petrels’ magazine, the Petrel Flyer. It was republished in Canadian Holmes, the magazine of the Bootmakers of Toronto, in Summer 2007 under the title “The Mystery of the Missing Fiancé.”