"A Scandal in Bohemia," Strand Magazine
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891
The Annotated Sherlock Holmes
William S. Baring-Gould, 1967
"A Scandal in Bohemia"
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Granada Television, 1984
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.
So begins the account of one of the most talked about, argued over, reinvented and reinterpreted characters in Holmes canon. Irene Adler was invented for, and only appears in, the first Sherlock Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia".
A series of novels by Carole Douglas star Adler as a detective in her own right. Laurie R King posits her further encounters with Holmes in The Language of Bees, and invents a son who is an artist. John Lescroart implies that the son of Holmes and Adler is Rex Stout's 30's detective Nero Wolfe. In the 2009 movie, Adler (Rachel McAdams) seems to be a professional thief, or at least a classic femme fatale who has a romantic history with Holmes.
Of course, to the dismay of all of these people, the next line of the story is:
It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
You can argue, of course, that this is Watson's perspective, and in later stories Holmes is shown to be sympathetic and caring toward women who come to him for help, and understanding of others' love interests. In "The Copper Beeches", Watson even holds out hope that his strongly protective feelings toward Miss Violet Hunter might grow into something more, but nothing comes of it.
....And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
Hold it. Depending on your reading of that line, the woman whom so many Holmes readers and pastiche writers put forth as the love of Holmes' life has just been killed off at the end of her introductory paragraph, a mere three years (by publication date) from her encounter with the detective. So much for the later affair.
What actually interests me here is who is Irene Adler. Not working from the pastiches, just from Doyle's text. Speculation is necessary, but I'll try to keep it to a minimum.
Is Irene Adler a criminal?
She "defeats" Holmes. This is not argued. But what is Holmes' task? He is attempting to recover a photograph on behalf of the King of Bohemia. It's her photograph of the two of them, ostensibly from when they had an affair. In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", Watson cites this case as one "free of any legal crime".
Now, the King wants the picture because Adler has threatened to blackmail him, to prevent the King's marriage to another woman. This is according to the King. According to Irene's account, the photograph is her protection from the King, and she has been "cruelly wronged". By the King's own account, he has paid agents to steal the photograph five times:
"Twice burglars in my pay ransacked her house. Once we diverted her luggage when she travelled. Twice she has been waylaid. "
Waylaid. As in, accosted in the street. Nice guy.
The Granada Television adaptation of this story chooses to play up this aspect, including a potential motive for Irene. They imply more directly that the King led her on with talk of marriage, but then dismissed her because she was lower class. This is somewhat supported in the text: "Well! I wish she had been of my own station! What a queen she would have made!"
Irene is referred to in the text as an "adventuress" only once, by the King himself. An adventuress would lead on rich men to part them from their money. Whether or not she did this in the past, when we meet her she refuses to accept money for the photograph.
Holmes' biography of Adler:
“Let me see!” said Holmes. “Hum! Born in New Jersey in the year 1858. Contralto—hum! La Scala, hum! Prima donna Imperial Opera of Warsaw—yes! Retired from operatic stage—ha! Living in London—quite so!..."
Here we come to a more plausible potential connection, if we must invent a romance. Not the detective and the adventuress, but the violinist and the singer. I admit to being influenced again here by the Granada episode, which subtly plays up their mutual love of music. Irene is a trained actress and opera singer, which in some places and times is seen as no better than a criminal, but we won't dwell on that here. Incidentally, this is also the story in which Watson first observes "The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when [Holmes] became a specialist in crime. " Again the arts connect them.
Of course, a hiccup in all these romantic notions is that on the day Holmes first meets her, she gets married to Godfrey Norton. (A less-lethal explanation of the phrase "the late Irene Adler" is using late to merely mean former, since she is now Irene Norton.) Holmes, following her, witnesses the wedding, then comes up with a plan to find the photograph. Masquerading as a clergyman, he fakes an attack in the street to get into her home, then has Watson pitch a smoke rocket in through the window, surmising that she will head straight for the precious photograph to save it from the fire. The person operating outside the law here is not Adler, Holmes even cautions Watson that he risks arrest by helping. After thus discovering its hiding place, Holmes and Watson take off for home, planning to return in the morning and seize the picture. Irene, meanwhile, begins to suspect that something was off about that whole episode, follows the men home in disguise to assure herself that they are who she thinks they are, and immediately takes off for the Continent with her new husband and the photograph. She leaves Holmes with a letter of explanation and a sense of embarrassment that she had seen through his ruse.
The fact that Irene herself is now married, in her own words "I love and am loved by a better man than [The King]", makes the King's account, that she was threatening his upcoming marriage, feel a little...thin.
Incidentally, her use of male costume, which she seems to use to travel safely where women cannot go, is plausible for non-nefarious purposes:
"Mr. Guy Warrack, in Sherlock Holmes and Music, has correctly concluded that "It is therefore to the male-impersonation contralto roles that we must look to in trying to reconstruct Irene Adler's career." He cites several such roles..."
-The Annotated Sherlock Holmes
So in the end, what do we know about her?
American, spent most of adult life in Europe: Italy, Poland (then under Russian rule), London
Professional Opera Singer, with acting experience
Occasionally wears male costume
Had affair previously with King of Bohemia, kept photo
Clever enough to build secret panel to keep photo in
Smart, perceptive and quick to act
Arguably takes a bit of pleasure in taking Holmes' arrogance down a peg
She is probably a bit bohemian herself (the movement, not the country in this case), probably flirted with many rich men in her youth, but now at age 30 appears to be settling down, far from London.
I am not one to say it would be out of character for there to be an affair between Holmes and Adler, later in life, but to justify such there is no need to make her into anything she is not. Holmes keeps her photograph, although
"Those who are sentimentally inclined seize on the fact that Holmes asked... for her photograph as evidence of attachment," Dr. Richard Asher wrote in "Holmes and the Fair Sex." "Is it not patently obvious that Holmes, having been decieved by her skill in disguising herself, wanted the photograph to add to his records to make sure that he would recognize her if she ever crossed his path again...?" -The Annotated Sherlock Holmes
Can you tell that a lot of this rambling was inspired by my mixed feelings about the new Sherlock Holmes movie? And they are mixed. On principle I object to the Catwoman-izing of Irene Adler in the film, even though I like Catwoman. I don't mind her in the context of the movie, but I did come away feeling the need to look for different interpretations of the character. And I think Doyle gives her enough. Graceful under pressure, sincere in her passion (if we are to believe her letter), artistic and lovely.
“What a woman—oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we had all three read this epistle. “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”
“From what I have seen of the lady, she seems, indeed, to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly.
The story closes with a healthy dose of mutual respect on both sides. She doesn't need to be a femme fatale to outwit Holmes, she just needs to be herself.
And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.