Enola Holmes author Nancy Springer on her popular mystery series and the Netflix adaptation
Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown features in and as Enola Holmes in the Netflix film — an adaptation of Nancy Springer's The Case of the Missing Marquess — along with Henry Cavill as Sherlock Holmes, Sam Claflin as Mycroft Holmes and Helena Bonham Carter as Eudoria Holmes.
"I would very much like to know why my mother named me 'Enola,' which, backwards, spells alone," says Enola Holmes in the opening lines of The Case of the Missing Marquess, the first instalment in Nancy Springer's Enola Holmes mysteries.
And with that, we enter into the world of a fourteen-year-old Enola, who lives with her mother Lady Eudoria at their family's country estate, Ferndell Hall, near Kineford village in England. For her siblings, she has Sherlock Holmes, the world-renowned 'consulting detective', and Mycroft Holmes, a government official — both twenty and twenty-seven years older to her respectively. Both her brothers have lived in London for most of Enola's life, thus, it has been just her and her mother living by themselves. But on her fourteenth birthday, Enola realises her mother is missing, and she embarks on a journey to London in search of her. She must find her, on her own, alone.
Springer's first Enola Holmes book released in 2006 and it was followed by another five — The Case of the Left-Handed Lady (2007), The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets (2008), The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (2008), The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline (2009), and finally, The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye (2010). This award-winning author, currently based in Florida Panhandle, has more than fifty novels to her credit including the Book of Isle fantasy series, the Tales of Rowan Hood series and an array of titles in the magical realism, science fiction, contemporary young adult genres.
In her career spanning four decades, Springer has been honoured with several awards and accolades such as the Tiptree Award in 1995 for her novel Larque on the Wing (1994). In the same year she was also chosen for the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery for another of her 1994 novel, Toughing It. In 1996, she won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery for Looking for Jamie Bridge. She also received nominations for the same award in 2007 and 2010 for her Enola Holmes outings, The Case of the Missing Marquess and The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye respectively.
Now, a Netflix screen adaptation of The Case of the Missing Marquess is all set for release. Titled Enola Holmes, the film features Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown in the titular role along with Henry Cavill as Sherlock Holmes, Sam Claflin as Mycroft Holmes and Helena Bonham Carter as Eudoria Holmes. The Netflix film is being helmed by Harry Bradbeer, known for his direction in award-winning shows like Fleabag and Killing Eve. The screenplay has been drafted by the noted British screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne who has previously written for shows such as The Fades, This is England '88 and National Treasure; films like A Long Way Down, Wonder and The Aeronauts, and acclaimed theatre productions such as The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Hope and most notably Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Ahead of the release of the Netflix film, Nancy Springer spoke to Firstpost in an exclusive email interaction. Edited excerpts below:
When and how did the idea of a character like Enola Holmes occur to you? Were there any inspirations?
No one who asks this question expects the true answer: I developed the idea in response to an editor's request. Michael Green of Philomel Books, with whom I had a long time working relationship, who was very astute about what might sell, telephoned one day and asked me to write something set in deepest, darkest London at the time of Jack the Ripper. “Actually,” he said, “I’d ask you to write about Jack the Ripper, but somebody else is already doing that.”
I had never written historical fiction before, but I respected this editor’s judgment. So I thought about other books I had done for him. I am Mordred: A Tale of Camelot and I am Morgan Le Fay — both Arthurian – and I had read lots about King Arthur and his Round Table as a child. Rowan Hood, daughter of Robin Hood, and I had read my mother's Robin Hood book when I was little. What had I read in childhood about deepest, darkest London at the time of Jack the Ripper?
I had read – and reread so often I had memorised – my mother's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collection. So – Sherlock Holmes?
Could I give Sherlock Holmes a daughter, as I had Robin Hood? No. Absolutely not; Holmes is such a thoroughgoing bachelor – so I envisioned a sister for him, and somehow I knew at once that her name would be Enola.
What were the challenges in coming up with a premise that draws so much from the world of one of the most celebrated fictional characters of all time? What are the major similarities and deviations from Conan Doyle's world?
My first challenge was to get my dates straight. I consulted The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William Baring-Gould and discovered to my relief that Conan Doyle himself had fudged dates so badly that I could do no worse, and yes, Sherlock Holmes was in business at the time of Jack the Ripper and I could place my story in the late 1880s. The much larger, ongoing challenge, of course, was research and getting my facts straight. And writing in Enola's voice – although I enjoyed using the language of the period, and did not have too much difficulty, because I was raised to speak grammatically and was well versed with Victorian literature.
I do not think I deviated much from Conan Doyle's world, although I did decide Enola would solve no murders; her destiny was to be a perditorian, a finder of the lost.
In the initial stories in the series, Enola's relationship with her brothers — Sherlock and Mycroft — seems rather tensed which gradually gets better. At some points, one often thinks the brothers are almost antagonists. Is it just a narrative device or is there a statement that you wanted to make?
It was not so much a narrative device as a simple fact: in the Victorian world, women were regarded as insignificant. Conan Doyle may not have been a total misogynist; he might have been merely as short-sighted as other male writers of his generation – but for whatever reason, he created Sherlock Holmes to be almost entirely ignorant of what went on regarding the female half of England’s population.
Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes fail to understand the cruelty of corsets. They fail to track their runaways because they do not realise what can be stored in a bustle. They are unaware of the language of flowers and for that reason cannot crack a simple code between Enola and her mother. Sherlock is ignorant of the languages of fans, sealing-wax, dangling handkerchiefs and much else that coming up with ideas for these books was, as Holmes would say to Watson, "so absurdly simple". Of course, there was friction between the brothers and their sister. I was telling a story more than making a statement, but the story was about how Victorian women managed to outwit the males who attempted to run their lives.
In the world of mystery fiction, which is largely dominated by a male-centric narrative, where do you think characters like Enola stand?
All fiction was dominated by male-centric narrative until recently, so characters like Enola must struggle against the weight of hundreds of years of tradition. Luckily, it is not difficult for them to do so. Female-centric fiction seems to strike most readers as fresh, new and delightful.
How did you build the character of Enola with every book? Unlike Doyle's Sherlock, your Enola matures and develops into a more layered personality as we proceed with every story.
I must admit, when I first started writing the Enola Holmes books, I intended to write many of them, each much like the others. I did not want Enola to change, but she insisted! You know how characters, come alive, stand up on the page and defy the author? This is a sure sign that a book in progress is going to be good. Enola herself insisted on character arc, growing closer to her brothers and resolving her conflict with them. I hated to have to stop after six books, but Enola rules.
Enola comes across as a very contemporary character for the Victorian era. How did you strike that balance of creating a strong feminist character in an era where feminism was fairly uncommon?
I did not have to worry about striking any balance; I myself am out of balance with society and always have been. Novelists are uncommon. I guess in my own way I am a strong feminist character. I just wrote from the heart. I never mean to challenge or preach; I just am.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Enola is her relationship with her mother. Having these two strong women living an almost clandestine existence yet doing extraordinary things is such a refreshing change. Could you talk about how you developed this relationship in the series?
Enola's relationship with her mother very much echoes my childhood relationship with my own mother, who was a professional artist. Not that I was strong; I was a satellite orbiting my mom at a discreet distance. The way Enola's mother abandons her is a sad reflection of how my mom was often absent even when she was physically present. But yes, we did some extraordinary things together, such as removing snakes from the basement or going fishing and catching turtles instead of fish. Also, during the conformity of the 1950s, my mother set me a good example; she left the dirty dishes in the sink and did her art instead.
How did the whole Netflix screen adaptation thing happen? How was the experience of seeing Enola translate from word to screen? Are you also collaborating on the screenplay as well?
The whole movie thing happened because Paige Brown read the Enola Holmes books and recommended them to her sister Millie Bobby Brown, and MBB determined to make a movie from them. Although only a young teenager, she was the driving force, and in a few years she produced and starred in Enola Holmes, a feature film under the banner of Legendary Studios.
Netflix became involved only because the COVID-19 pandemic closed the movie theatres; I am lucky and delighted the movie was picked up by Netflix. I had very little to do with the process of making the movie, although I did see the scripts and also a few days of the filming. The script changed so much during filming that I soon realised my suggestions were obsolete before they left my mouth, and the creative dynamics of the movie-making process absolutely thrilled me.
The first book in the series came out in 2006 and you continued writing until 2010. Any reason in particular why you didn't continue the series further? Or can we expect a few more adventures of Enola Holmes in the coming years?
As I already explained, Enola simply finished reconciling with her brothers and finding her mother. However, there is a possibility of a book or two in which she partners with Sherlock.
Lastly, as a writer what has been your biggest takeaway from the world of Enola Holmes?
The popularity of the books and the devotion of Enola's fans. I had published forty-some novels previously, many quite good, but thanks to Enola Holmes I am now truly basking in the warmth of the love of the reading public. Life is good.
— Enola Holmes premieres on Netflix on 23 September.
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