An Analysis of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” Sherlock Holmes is consulted by an unemployed governess who has just received a very strange job offer. Violet Hunter has been assiduously looking for a job for some time, and is getting desperate; so when she is finally offered a position—for much more money than she had been getting in her previous job— it seems ridiculous to hesitate.
At the same time, the job requirements sound extremely strange. Violet’s prospective employer, Jephro Rucastle of the Copper Beeches in Winchester, is not even remotely interested in her educational qualifications; his grown daughter Alice is now living in America and his small son is virtually uneducable due to severe behavioral problems. Rucastle’s one inflexible requirement of his new employee is that she cut off her long auburn hair. Because in Victorian times long, beautiful hair was considered central to a woman’s beauty, Violet initially refuses. But Mr. Rucastle writes her the following day and urges her to reconsider. He raises his salary offer, but adds one more requirement; not only would she have to cut off her hair, but she would have to wear a bright blue dress, which he would provide.
The salary is certainly tempting to a person as broke as Violet Hunter. But his requirements seem so peculiar that she decides to consult Sherlock Holmes before accepting Mr. Rucastle’s offer. He tells her that as of this moment, he sees no reason for her not to accept the job, although he agrees she has reason to be cautious. Nonetheless, after Violet leaves, he tells Watson he expects to hear from her again soon.
And so he does. In a few weeks he receives a telegram from Violet urging him to come to her aid, and he and Watson leave for Winchester at once. When they meet at a local hotel, Violet tells Holmes that the situation at the Rucastles’ is even stranger than she had suspected. One of the oddest things the Rucastles have asked her to do is put on the blue dress at a certain time every day and sit in front of the window while Mr. Rucastle tells her jokes. He is tremendously amusing and she laughs until she nearly weeps, but she cannot see the point of this activity. On another occasion, Mr. Rucastle asked her to sit in the same spot and read to him, while wearing the blue dress. She does so, reading for quite a while, but then he suddenly interrupts her and tells her to go upstairs and change her clothes.
She begins to suspect that she is, in fact, putting on some sort of performance for someone who may be outside the house looking in. So she conceals a small mirror in her hand and sees that there is indeed a man looking toward the house as she laughs, or chats, or reads. However, Mrs. Rucastle detects the mirror in her hand, and asks Violet to get up, face the window, and motion the man away. Since that, Violet has not been asked to wear the blue dress or sit in the window.
Several other odd things occur in the Rucastle house. In a bureau drawer, Violet finds a long coil of cut hair that looks just like her own—but it’s not. And Mr. Rucastle makes a point of showing her his vicious dog, and warns her never to go out of the house at night. When she ventures into an unoccupied wing of the house—a wing that she’s been told is off-limits to her—Mr. Rucastle tells her that if he ever catches her there again he’ll set the dog on her. This causes her to wire Sherlock Holmes for help.
Holmes tells her that she has behaved bravely and with great intelligence throughout this entire episode. Consequently, he feels secure in asking her to do one more thing: when he and Watson arrive at the Copper Beeches that night, Violet is to lock the servant Mrs. Toller in the cellar while the Rucastles are away. That will give Holmes and Watson free rein of the estate. Holmes suspects that Violet was actually hired to impersonate Mr. Rucastle’s daughter, who is probably being kept prisoner in the locked wing of the house. The cropped hairstyle and blue dress are intended to fool Alice’s suitor—the man snooping outside the front window—into thinking that she simply no longer wants to see him.
When they break into the locked wing, however, they find it unoccupied. The skylight is open, and a ladder reaches from the eaves to the ground. Holmes assumes that Mr. Rucastle has smuggled Alice out of the house, but when Rucastle returns, furious, Holmes is forced to change his mind. As Rucastle runs outside again, Violet cries that he’s going for the dog— but an agonized scream tells them the vicious dog got to Mr. Rucastle first.
The housekeeper, freed from the cellar, tells them the whole story. Mr. Rucastle’s daughter was actually the child of his first marriage, and upon her mother’s death was willed money which her father freely used. Her engagement to a seaman, however, threatened Mr. Rucastle’s position. When Alice conveniently became ill, he locked her up in the unused wing and hired Violet to impersonate her, and thus give Alice’s seaman the impression that his fiance was giving him the cold shoulder. The intrepid seaman, however, has seen through the ruse and rescued Alice through the skylight. They are now long gone and on the way to a new life.
As always in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, evil is punished and order is restored—all thanks to the logical deductions of Sherlock Holmes.
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