"I have seen those symptoms before," said Holmes, throwing his cigarette into the fire. "Oscillation upon the pavement always means an affaire de coeur. She would like advice, but is not sure that the matter is not too delicate for communication. And yet even here we may discriminate. When a woman has been seriously wronged by a man she no longer oscillates, and the usual symptom is a broken bell wire. Here we may take it that there is a love matter, but that the maiden is not so much angry as perplexed, or grieved. But here she comes in person to resolve our doubts"

- Sherlock Holmes, A Case of Identity

Here, Holmes says that if a woman is seriously wronged, the result will be a broken bell wire. Now from all I can gather from the internet, "bell wire" just means an electrical cable commonly used in doorbells etc. I have to infer that a "broken bell wire" either means one that has been deliberately broken or it symbolically means that the bell has been rung incessantly. I would assume that the bell wire referred is Holmes', indicating that the woman is furiously clicking on Holmes' Bell. Is this inference correct?

  • Is this inference correct? In this particular case, I think the word deduction would be much more fitting: Is this deduction correct?
    – J.R.
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 17:16
  • I used the word inference to because i am trying to infer what Holmes meant by "broken bell wire", and I am not trying to deduce why a broken bell wire indicates a resolutely angry woman. But since I am trying to infer what it means by trying to follow Holmes' deduction, I guess deduction would be more fitting...
    – ColonD
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 7:45

2 Answers 2


The 'bell wire' is not any kind of electrical wire. It is a rigid solid wire, connected at one end to a knob which protrudes from the house wall, by the front door, and at the other end, inside the house, to a bell. When the knob is pulled, the wire, being rigid, pulls the bell, and it clangs. An angry person might pull the knob so hard that the wire breaks. This type of arrangement was common in the 19th century in Britain.

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  • You're absolutely right! They have telephones but it seems no electric bells. I searched through a few stories, and in the Adventure of the Beryl Coronet Holmes says "... rushed at our door and pulled at our bell until the whole house resounded with the clanging." I'll edit my answer.
    – jonathanjo
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 16:44
  • Yes, so even if my assumption that the bell wire was an electric wire is wrong, my conclusion is correct right - That the woman would show her anger on Holmes' Bell
    – ColonD
    Commented May 3, 2019 at 7:46

Literally bell wire is what you say, the kind of wire used to join the bell-pull (a handle) by the door to the bell inside the house. In the stories, 221 Baker Street has a mechanical bell, as can be seen in The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, where a visitor "pulled at our bell" in the opening. (In later times, "bell-wire" refers to the kind of wire for electric bells.)

In this context it seems a little ambiguous and might mean:

  • She would be so angry she would break the bell wire when she pulled on it, or
  • A metaphor for a kind of signalling mechanism which no longer works.

Initially I read it as the metaphor, but thanks to comments I now think it means the first, literal, sense -- which is along the lines of many sayings in English about the anger of a scorned woman.

("Oscillate" is an unusual word for this kind of movement, today we might say "rocking" or "moving backwards and forwards". I don't know if it was unusual in the period.)

  • 3
    I think the 'broken bell wire' would be literal, not figurative, and it would be the wire connected to the bell in Holme's lodgings, which the woman has just rung. Commented May 2, 2019 at 16:50
  • 3
    Lambie, it's in the previous paragraph. "I saw that on the pavement opposite there stood a large woman with a heavy fur boa round her neck, and a large curling red feather in a broad-brimmed hat which was tilted in a coquettish Duchess of Devonshire fashion over her ear. From under this great panoply she peeped up in a nervous, hesitating fashion at our windows, while her body oscillated backward and forward, and her fingers fidgeted with her glove buttons. Suddenly, with a plunge, as of the swimmer who leaves the bank, she hurried across the road, and we heard the sharp clang of the bell." Commented May 2, 2019 at 17:00
  • 2
    @MichaelHarvey I now think you're right, it's literal. I edited my answer to give both meanings.
    – jonathanjo
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 17:02
  • 1
    Ach,Michael: it is a generaility: "When a woman has been seriously wronged ...""
    – Lambie
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 17:07
  • 1
    I think 'oscillate' means moving forwards and backwards - in an indecisive or hesitant manner on the pavement, unsure whether to come up the steps or not.
    – Owain
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 19:52

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