The Yellow Face
Racism: The late Peter Wood, a previous discussion leader in my Sherlock Holmes group, asked if this story, taken together with the derogatory depiction of the black boxer Steve Dixie in “The Three Gables,” indicated that Conan Doyle was a racist. A strange way to put it, because this story is typically contrasted with “The Three Gables” as one that is quite liberal on matters of race. But how then do we square this circle of the liberal Doyle in “The Yellow Face” and the indulger of stereotypes in the later story? Perhaps it is simply a matter of time: in this story and the next (“The Stockbroker’s Clerk”) a young author subverts conventional racist (or in the Stockbroker story, anti-Semitic) attitudes, whereas at the end of his career a more curmudgeonly author indulged in them.
Perhaps: But perhaps we should look more closely at the portrayals. Can they all be reconciled? “The Three Gables” mocks the black boxer, treats him as a joke and a coward, and disparages his physical characteristics. In “The Yellow Face,” the little black girl is treated lovingly and accepted into the Grant Munro family, to the applause of Watson and the silent approval of Holmes.
But what about those physical characteristics? When we first realize that the “creature” behind the yellow mask is not a monster, but a little black girl, she emerges with “all her white teeth flashing in amusement,” in contrast to the rest of her “coal black” appearance. She’s very non-threatening and even lovable, and yet the flashing white teeth conjures up something stereotypical, I would say.
Or how about Watson’s reaction to seeing the picture of John Hebron, Effie’s late husband? He is handsome and intelligent-looking (Doyle always thinks you can read character or in this case intelligence in a face): anyway, Watson says Hebron in the little portrait within Effie’s locket looks handsome, “but” (the “but” is important) shows clear signs of African descent. Handsome but African. So not so handsome? Or surprisingly handsome for an African? Or does it just mean handsome but now you can see why little Lucy is coal-black?
And Effie’s own reaction? Unfortunately, she says, the little girl takes after her husband’s people rather than mine. Now, does that simply mean that in a society with racist conventions it would be better to look white? Or does it show Effie’s preference for white over black?
Preferences versus actions: Of course, preferences are one thing and active discrimination is another. The whole thrust of “The Yellow Face” is to endorse acceptance of the little coal-black girl. That’s why it is hailed as liberal and ahead of its time. And yet, and yet … “Dark or fair, she is my own dear little girlie,” says Effie, which sounds noble, and yet perhaps should be interrogated, as they say. You could replace dark or fair with good or bad, and then which one would be good? Is this a story about accepting someone even though they are black? Which of course is better than rejecting them because they are black, and it says a lot about Grant Munro and Watson and Doyle that they will accept little Lucy. A lot positive, I mean, and yet behind that acceptance is still the notion of difference.
Locket and pipe: But let us move on to two interesting objects in the story, the locket and the pipe. First the locket, which Grant Munro had been led to believe did not open, but it does open and it reveals Effie’s secret: the race of her first husband. Grant Munro had begun the story by telling Holmes and Watson that he and his wife had no secrets from each other, that they shared every word and thought, and had not even had an argument in three years. An extended honeymoon, one might call that. But then it turns out that Effie hasn’t really shared every thought; she has this whole hidden past that Grant Munro knows nothing about. It is as if after three years Holmes finally revealed he has a cocaine habit. But Watson knows all about that habit, and deals with it as one does when you are one half of a couple that lives together in intimacy. Is the story in part about getting beyond the honeymoon and dealing with the reality of the other person rather than your idealized projection of them?
This is not a pipe: Or at least not just a pipe. Grant Munro’s pipe, that is, which he leaves behind, and upon which Holmes bases some character analysis. This is reminiscent of the hat in “The Blue Carbuncle,” but in that case what Holmes discovered seemed important. How important is it that Grant Munro is muscular and left-handed? But on closer examination there is something important about the pipe: it has been mended twice, which suggests that Grant Munro is one of those people who prefers to patch up something he values rather than throw it away in favour of something new. Is this symbolic of something? Of his tendency to hold onto things, like his marriage to Effie even if he finds it broken in some way? Even if she’s been hiding things from him, even if it turns out she has a coal-black child? Yes, even then he’s not going to move on to another marriage; he’s going to make this one work.
What did Effie think? Did she think her husband would throw her over when he discovered her black child? Divorce? And what was her plan? She told him to trust her and he would know all some day. When? What would happen to allow that? And in the meantime what was she planning to do? To run off every night to visit her child and still keep her husband in the dark? Effie keeps talking about trust, but she is the one who has no trust: she does not trust her husband to stick by her; she gives him less credit than he deserves, as he puts it. But then he shows what he is made of, and the new family of three walks out of the story together, presumably to become a stronger unit for no longer having a dark secret at its core.
Dark secret: Pun only half intended. That’s what’s at the core of this story, as it is of so many of the stories. This at first seems like so many of the other stories: a character has some unpleasant bit of history that has suddenly come forward to haunt him (or in this case her). Often this leads to blackmail and then murder. Holmes has seen this many times, and if he is guilty of prejudice in this story, it is not race prejudice but the lazy prejudice of thinking every case is just like another. So he assumes there is something like an American lover come to blackmail Effie, and there is bigamy or infidelity. Even Grant Munro fears there is some sort of infidelity, and though Holmes tells him not to fret until the truth can be known (good advice though hard to follow), he himself tells Watson it’s a bad business and constructs an elaborate theory which even Watson dismisses as pure surmise.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a dark secret is only dark because of skin colour. There is nothing criminal in Effie’s past. Though if you think of it more, and if we look at this story as an indictment of Victorian mores, maybe (by the standards of the time) Effie has done something wrong in marrying a black man. Such things were frowned on; that’s why she is so frantic to cover it up, to hide her first husband and her little girl even from her new husband. Not because of bigamy, infidelity, or any other sin or crime, but because in Victorian times one might be shunned for having done what Effie did.
But is she guilty of something else? We of course see nothing wrong with her marriage, but what about her treatment of her child: leaving her behind for three years or more, and for what? Because she fears losing her husband, over whom she seems quite smitten or something: half crazy with fear of losing him, based on what? Her own misperceptions of his character. It’s about time these two came to know each other better. Husbands and wives not sharing fully is a problem Doyle will touch on in “The Second Stain.” And of course there is Neville St. Clair’s secret in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” but would that have been a good one to hold onto? Ah, marriage.
Excerpted from 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.