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I am quoting from the Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Six Napoleons, by Arthur Conan Doyle:

In half an hour we had reached Pitt Street, a quiet little backwater just beside one of the briskest currents of London life. No. 131 was one of a row, all flat-chested, respectable, and most unromantic dwellings. As we drove up we found the railings in front of the house lined by a curious crowd. Holmes whistled.

So what do 'flat-chested' and 'unromantic' mean when speaking of a house?

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    WRITE AN ANSWER. Do not answer in comments. Comments will be removed without warning.
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 20, 2023 at 10:50

5 Answers 5

47

I visualise the houses as having a perfectly flat façade with no decorative porches, balconies or bay windows; unromantic in the sense of being perfectly dull and ordinary.

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  • Pitt Street exists, but that's not how I'd describe the houses there also it doesn't go up to 131, if you go along a bit to Dukes Lane you'll see some that would suit the description.
    – Separatrix
    Mar 23, 2023 at 15:27
  • @Separatrix - Well, famously there was no 221 Baker Street in ACD's time (he was still living in Southsea when he wrote the first Holmes story) - and it's not usual in England to add 'b' to a house number, though apparently it was known in Scotland. Mar 23, 2023 at 15:43
25

I agree entirely with KateBunting's reading of the passage, but some further explanation might be interesting ...

The usual application of flat-chested is to women; for example, Cambridge Dictionary defines "flat-chested" by saying "A woman who is flat-chested has small breasts" [link]. The Oxford English Dictionary gives three citations of "flat-chested" (under the headword flat), all applied to women, the latest dated to 1939.

As the terms respectable and unromantic would also, at the time Sir Arthur was writing, have been regularly applied to women-as-viewed-by-men, we might read the whole expression "one of a row, all flat-chested, respectable, and most unromantic dwellings" as a metaphor, drawing a parallel between women and houses.

And then, at the end of the passage Holmes whistled. Tut tut.

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    I don't think your interpretation holds water. The passage continues: " ...'By George! it's attempted murder at the least. Nothing less will hold the London message-boy. There's a deed of violence indicated in that fellow's round shoulders and outstretched neck.'" If he were making an oblique metaphor of houses being women, why would he wolf-whistle at what he's just characterized as drab and unattractive? And he follows it up not with commentary on the houses, but on the crowd and scene. He's impressed and excited by the level of interest on display; the houses are just scenery colour.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Mar 20, 2023 at 16:59
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    @Ruakh I strongly disagree. If you look at the passage, Holmes whistling begins a new paragraph. He makes no mention of anything related to the narration, and focuses entirely on the crowd. He continues to discuss the crowd. There's no more mention whatsoever of the houses or any allusion to the hypothetical metaphor. Holmes' whistle is clearly a separate idea and 100% unrelated to the narration. Even then, "romantic" doesn't mean only women, and would've been used to describe non-humans just as much as "beautiful" would've been. Reading it as a metaphor is projecting current ideas onto it.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Mar 20, 2023 at 20:57
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    @AosSidhe: Ah, I see, OK. In that case, I agree that the whistling thing is probably not relevant. Nonetheless, High Performance Mark's interpretation of "flat-chested" is obviously correct, and you've offered no reason to think it might not be.
    – ruakh
    Mar 20, 2023 at 22:29
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    It’s possible that Doyle is trying to slip past the implication that Sherlock Holmes is the kind of man who’d be attracted to flat-chested, unromantic people. But he’s consistently written as asexual.
    – Davislor
    Mar 20, 2023 at 23:52
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    I'd suggest that this view could be balanced by considering an undistinguished infantryman on parade: round-shouldered and flat-chested, while his more flamboyant comrades are ramrod-straight with their chests thrust out. Hence "flat-chested ... unromantic" might equally describe an undistinguished but respectable member of either gender, or for that matter their abode. Mar 21, 2023 at 8:44
3

I agree with Kay Bunting, but here I think "flat-chested" specifically means lacking bay windows.

In Britain in general, and London in particular, bay windows are a common feature of houses. They are both slightly more expensive to build, and also create a roundish protrusion from the house.

This means that usually, houses which front directly onto the street, having no front yard, usually do not have bay windows (because they would protrude into the street, which is public property).

So this indicates in a roundabout way that the houses

  • probably front directly onto the street
  • are less expensive houses

This figure of speech "flat chested" draws a direct simile with a woman's breasts, which connects figuratively with "unromantic".

We might today consider this a sexist comparison.

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I read that using my antiquated/extremely-sexist-colored glasses.

In it, Holmes reached a neighborhood of plain, boring, unattractive but perhaps functional houses. If you live in a place with housing stock that ranges from modern to 100-year-old houses, sometimes you see houses with Victorian flourishes, sometimes with interesting brick patterns, sometimes with decorative windows, and sometimes with an array of roof gables.

But sometimes what you see is a row of the most boring possible designed houses: Say plain clapboard, a door, a couple of windows and a flat roof. The whole house was painted white at some point, but now it's just a dingy grey.

I lived in a romantic Victorian in the 1990s in Rhode Island (lots of gables, a window bay that worked over two stories, and a tower). I could walk a few blocks and see, uh, "flat-chested, unromantic" houses.

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  • We don't use a whole lot of clapboard in the UK, but I agree with the sentiment. Flat chested in this instance means plain victorian bricks and windows with no bays or coving or other flourishes. A boring row of houses, cheaply made without care. It's a sexist comparison by modern standards. Mar 23, 2023 at 11:50
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It's a sexist-adjacent way to say the houses project forwards an uninspiringly minimal degree of three-dimensional structure while simultaneously featuring no significant artistic flourishes. Think: the typical American suburban duplex, built by capitalists, not craftsmen.

It also might imply you can't tell from the front whether these houses might have big back yards.

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  • Nothing round there has a big back yard, it's just not a thing in that part of London. Also it's high density with narrow streets and has nothing in common with a typical American suburb apart from being residential.
    – Separatrix
    Mar 24, 2023 at 10:39

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