For Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler was always ‘the woman’

The entire body of work featuring Sherlock Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is (rather grandiosely) known to Holmes addicts worldwide as “The Canon”. There are 4 novels. There are 56 short stories. Irene Adler only featured in one (though she is mentioned in 3 others).

Is that a problem?

The readers want more. With films and television now, the audience wants more. How can you bring in such an intriguing character for one short story, and then never use her again?! Therein lies the problem.

For those who do not recall the Sherlock Holmes stories (or those who have watched the Guy Ritchie films, which is much the same thing), Irene Adler originally appeared in “A Scandal in Bohemia”, the very first Holmes short story, published in The Strand magazine in 1891. This was later anthologised in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes the following year. Since then, it has been a staple of most stage, screen, television and fan-fiction adaptations or extensions of the Sherlock Holmes … well, canon!

Now, the story. The King of Bohemia approaches Sherlock Holmes in disguise, and is soon unmasked. He then asks for help in retrieving a compromising photograph and some letters from a “well-known adventuress”. Why? Because the King (a) had dallied with the lady (Irene Adler), (b) could not marry her (because he was obviously an insufferable snob) (c) then got engaged to a fresh young princess of the “Royal House of Scandinavia (d) was mortally scared that Irene Adler would tell his prospective in-laws (also, presumably, a set of stuffy snobs) about the King’s past affair.

Holmes enters the lady’s home (in disguise) and observes where the materials may be hidden, but fails to retrieve them at that point. The lady realises his real identity and follows him back to Baker Street – again, in disguise! By the time Holmes reaches Adler’s home the next day, she has disappeared with her new husband. She leaves behind a letter to Holmes that is a masterpiece of restrained gloating and a sort of feminist triumph. She has the letters and the photograph, but will not use them unless her erstwhile swain the King of Bohemia attempts to harm her. Irene Adler had thus recognised Holmes, outwitted him, vanished with the compromising materials and taken the moral high ground. A most complete victory!

The story operates on many levels. Holmes’ admiration for Adler introduces a hint of (oh, joy!) sexual fallibility into his monkish character. It establishes his indifference to wealth and titles – he refuses to accept a valuable ring from the King – and his innate fairness (he brushes off the King once he is satisfied that Irene Adler is in the right). But what does it say about the lady? Or rather, about The Woman?

That she is attractive. Men seek her attentions, and even a King was charmed.

That she is talented. She is an opera diva, having performed as a contralto at La Scala and at the Imperial Opera in Warsaw.

That she is well-travelled and sophisticated.

So far, almost run-of-the-mill. Every other Holmes story features a lady client whose appearance, or bearing, or both, inspire admiration in the very susceptible Watson. But wait, there is more to Ms. Adler.

The King of Bohemia terms her an “adventuress”. In 1891, this term was closer in meaning to Fanny Hill than to Lara Croft. Whether the insinuation is true or not (but what a douchebag the King is, for using the term!), she establishes her moral superiority and wins the support of not only the reader but also Holmes himself. This in itself was a notable aberration in the Victorian era.

She is perceptive, since she recognises Holmes’ identity when he is in disguise. She is intelligent, and half a detective herself, because she understands his mission without ever having met him before. She is as good an actress as she is a singer, because she follows Holmes in disguise and remains undetected. And she is decisive – she marries her fiancé at short notice, follows Holmes also at short notice, and eventually leaves the country quickly with all the materials the King seeks. All in all, quite a formidable person and a worthy opponent. Holmes’ admiration for her seems quite justified.

But above all, Irene Adler has become a sort of feminist icon as a woman of substance. The only woman who, objectively, bested the misogynist Holmes and earned his genuine respect. Is she diminished in any way by the suggestion that she uses her sexuality to get her way? Not in the original story, at least. In later adaptations, notably in the Guy Ritchie film and in the television series Sherlock, she is more of a seductress than a mastermind. The Sherlock episode A Scandal in Belgravia is notable for the appearance of Lara Pulver as a nude Adler, with a hunting crop between her teeth and enough attitude to intrigue Cumberbatch’s bemused Holmes. The nudity may be in keeping with the role of a dominatrix, but it is quite at odds with the moral compass and the intellectual capacity of the original Irene. In fact, the modern versions of Adler are either morally ambiguous or downright villainous.

There remains the question that plagues most readers and viewer. Were Sherlock and Irene an item? Did they meet later? Did they have regular trysts? Holmes scholar William Baring-Gould and detective fiction writer John Dickson Carr have this brilliant theory that they even had a son, the large, immobile and brilliant Nero Wolfe who was a throwback to his uncle Mycroft. Actor-writer Mark Gatiss, however, opines that they have a running battle of wits, that “something like that happens between Sherlock and Irene every six months and that is their idea of a night of passion”. The question may never be resolved. Which may be a good thing, because unrequited passion is way hotter than consummation.

The real question that needs to be cleared up, however, is – how on earth did a smart, independent woman like Irene have an affair with an unrequited cad like the King of Bohemia?

The author is a writer based in Kolkata. He writes under the pseudonym J Alfred Prufrock

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