This post is a sequel to the earlier entry, called “The Woman”, which discussed the presentation of Irene Adler in the Sherlock episode “A Scandal in Belgravia”. This follow-up discusses the role of Irene Adler in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia” from which that episode of Sherlock was (loosely) adapted, which I have subsequently read. It will, however, include a few more comments about the ACD stories I have been reading, which currently total three, because of my strange and impractical reading rules.
“Scandal” takes place some time after the preceding two Holmes stories, in which he and Watson investigated several thefts and murders of varying degrees, with the ultimate end result that Watson got married and moved out of 221B Baker Street and in with his wife. In “Scandal” Watson returns to 221B on a whim, and Holmes recruits him to assist in an investigation which is about to ensue, having received a note from an anonymous gentleman Holmes deduces to be German. This man turns out to be the King of Bohemia, a German-speaking nation which is now part of the Czech Republic (in case you didn’t know…) who has gone and done something naughty with a lady named Irene Adler, who has photographic evidence of said naughty thing and is threatening to reveal it on the day the King announces his engagement to Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia, unless the Kind relents and instead marries Adler. Holmes investigates and, disguised as a drunken out-of-work groom, ends up being witness at the wedding of Adler to a different man. The next day he stages a fight in the street outside Adler’s residence, tricks his way inside, has Watson fake a fire so that Adler gives away the location of the photograph by glancing towards the place where it is hidden. The next day Holmes, Watson, and the King head to Adler’s lodgings to recover the photograph and discover her gone. She has deduced who Holmes was, having been warned that the King might involve him, and has run off with her husband, whom she actually loves. She promises that she will do nothing with the pictures if the King leaves her alone. For this she has the reputation of “the woman who out witted Sherlock Holmes”.
Responding to accusations of sexism in his portrayal of Irene Adler in the modernised Sherlock Steven Moffat mentions exactly what I picked up on reading this story: “In the original, Irene Adler’s victory over Sherlock Holmes was to move house and run away with her husband. That’s not a feminist victory.” I don’t believe that this was the criticism leveled at the episode, and stand by some of my agreement with the accusations, but my main concern – that the 21st century Adler came off less-well than the 19th century original – was completely alleviated. Irene Adler’s power in “Bohemia” is just as much – if not more so – her sexuality as it is in “Belgravia”. She has obtained the photography through sexual and duplicitous means. The way in which she “outwits” Holmes is that she has been warned of his coming, and that she has fallen in love with a man and run off with him instead. This does not, to me, seem like an intellectual victory. I am open to a counter-argument, however.
In reading the Holmes stories one has to be open-minded about the times in which they were written. The Sign of the Four is quite considerably racist, and even Holmes displays attitudes which we would consider shameful today. I have no particular problem with the anti-Mormon attitudes of A Study in Scarlet, as I know very little about the religion besides polygamy and the very negative attitude which Christopher Hitchens had towards it and its founder, but we might expect a more nuanced view today. So the attitude to women is unlikely to have been particularly enlightened. Holmes’ use of the “science” of graphology – I winced! – is another example of this. Once you get beyond the times – and it’s difficult, as I had been expecting Adler to be a marvelous creation rather than barely a character at all – the stories are very good, and the deductions expertly worked out. It is not difficult to see why the books have captured the imaginations of millions for over a century.
I disagree with Watson’s initial statement: “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.” I might argue that the emotion was not love but lust, however I suspect that we are supposed to believe that Watson has been misled on this issue, and that this is the closest Holmes gets to love. Certainly subsequent re-envisioning and fan fiction has come to that conclusion. The hints are there in this exchange with the king:
“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.
And, despite having taken the case primarily on one notion:
“There’s money in this case, Watson, if there is nothing else.”
His reward is something quite different:
“Your Majesty has something which I should value even more highly,” said Holmes.
“You have but to name it.”
The King stared at him in amazement.
“Irene’s photograph!” he cried. “Certainly, if you wish it.”
Perhaps I am being too simple. But I think it is more likely that ACD intended us to believe Watson was the deceived one here. And whatever we may ultimately conclude about Steven Moffat, Holmes certainly seems to have learned his lesson about women:
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 honorable title of the woman.