She usually is, of course, what with being one of my top favorite female characters in literary history. I fell in love with her when I first read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” (which can be read in its entirety here) several summers ago and much like Sherlock Holmes, she is always The Woman to me.
Therefore, it is repeatedly disappointing that I have yet to see a film or television adaptation of “A Scandal in Bohemia” or Irene Adler that exhibits her full agency, her intelligence, her refusal to play by strict gender roles, and of course, her fierce independence.
Like most fangirlish Americans, I’ve been watching and re-watching the BBC production of Sherlock on PBS and with the premiere of “A Scandal in Belgravia” a few weeks ago, Irene Adler and our reactions to her have been dancing around my head. I was originally put off by this episode for several reasons, the most overt being that my beloved Irene Adler was updated into a dominatrix.
Let me be perfectly clear here: there is nothing wrong with being a dominatrix or working in the sex industry. Indeed, I wish our taboos regarding it were lessened if only for the protection and respect of those involved. My concern did not lie in the fact that a dominatrix was a central character in this episode but the fact that, for whatever reason, Steven Moffat felt compelled to overtly sexualize the most important female character in the Sherlock Holmes canon (outside of dear Mrs. Hudson). Why does woman = sex? Why does woman = body? Why does woman = this scene below?
Again, a woman exhibiting and owning her sexuality is awesome. That is why I was so torn about Lara Pulver’s Irene Adler. On the one hand, she is self-aware, knows how to get what she wants, and intelligent enough to outwit Sherlock Holmes a few times. On the other hand, she manipulates by using her body predominantly, she works, not for herself as in the original story, but for another man, Moriarty, and she ultimately does not beat Sherlock Holmes at his own game. In fact, she is saved by Sherlock, which downplays her capabilities and her “Ha, ha you can’t catch me” attitude that I so love in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
In the recent renditions of Irene Adler, she is typically in a pseudo-sexual relationship with Sherlock Holmes, or at least, a sexually manipulative one. Take Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. She flirts with Sherlock, plays with his apparent lack of sexuality, but all for Moriarty. In the first film, it is clear that Irene truly has no real agency of her own. She is not the free woman who outsmarts Sherlock Holmes to achieve her own ends that she is in the Conan Doyle story.
Turning back to the original story, Irene is a rather complex character and one that, by superficial reading, would seem an odd choice to be so beloved by a feminist such as myself. After all, this is a female character that has only three direct lines of dialogue in the only story that she features in, the most famous being: “Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes” (259).
Furthermore, all that the reader is given to understand this woman is through men’s eyes. The King that she so entranced into stupidly taking a photograph with her regards her as having, “… a soul of steel. She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men” (247-48).
John Watson, ever the traditional Victorian romantic, regards her as a kind, graceful “beautiful creature” (257). Superficial, but Watson never actually interacts with her.
Sherlock, meanwhile, is the only one who clearly grasps how intelligent and cunning Irene is; he acknowledges that she is above their level. She changes his perception of women (which had always been rather mocking and belittling) and, as Watson recounts in the famous opening of the story, “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. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. …And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory” (239).
I knew I would like Irene upon reading this opening. For the first time, I had a central female character that was not a romantic interest nor was perceived as such. For the central male character, she was an equal, a testament to his own shortcomings and fallibility. Sherlock does not love or feel any sexual attraction to Irene but respects and admires her. It is the perfect relationship.
But I truly fell in love with her around the same time Sherlock became thoroughly impressed with her; her taunting letter to Sherlock is a thing of beauty and demonstrates Irene’s resourcefulness, her intelligence and her ability to manipulate gender roles in order to get what she wants and outsmart even the greatest detective of all time.
What’s more, she does all this for herself. As stated earlier, she is not working for anyone else and therefore, she is not at the mercy of any other man. Indeed, all Irene wants is to marry the man she loves, Godfrey Norton, who is almost always overlooked in contemporary adaptations of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Someone online once referred to Irene as Godfrey’s White Knight, and I adore that image because it’s so true. She loves, marries and protects Godfrey by realizing Sherlock’s plan and runs off with her new husband and the incriminating photograph before she can be stopped. She is awesome.
Therefore, I found the latest Irene Adler terribly lacking. I know quite a number of reviews have derided the ending of “A Scandal in Belgravia” for portraying Irene as a damsel in distress that needed rescuing from Sherlock. I, again, have mixed feelings over this scene. While she is literally rescued from a beheading (rather harsh, no?) by Sherlock, I did sense that this scene was meant to portray them as having a somewhat vague relationship of equality. Sherlock uses her to solve the main mystery of the episode and then, out of respect and admiration, rescues her when she is in trouble. Nonetheless, I do see why this would not sit well with fans of Irene and to be honest, I don’t really blame them.
What really offended me, however, was Moffat’s insistence of making Irene fall in love with Sherlock. I cannot reiterate enough that Irene has absolutely no romantic interest in Sherlock Holmes in the original story, and Sherlock certainly has none for her either. I therefore respectfully disagree with Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock Holmes so brilliantly on the show. In a recent interview with Michael Ausiello, Cumberbatch claimed, “But the thing about [Irene] that is very obvious when you read [the 1891 short story by Arthur Conan Doyle in which the character is first introduced] is Sherlock definitely does fall for her and he does lose his cool; he’s no longer the logical machine. He fell for her charms.” Benedict, I love you but no, he did not. Romance belittles their relationship of mutual respect and veneration. Sherlock and Irene recognize that they are the same sort of person and are equally adept at deduction and slight-of-hand, nothing more. I adore it.
At the end of the day, there will probably never be an adaptation of Irene Adler that is as dynamic, complex and cunning as Conan Doyle’s original. We live in a society where romance and sex sells and therefore, Irene must be forced to exhibit these tropes rather than rise above them. The 1984 series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett as the great detective probably had the closest portrayal of Irene Adler to her literary counterpart. Sadly, I often felt that this episode also relied on subtle melodrama, though it’s still worth checking out. I really wish I could have loved the latest Irene in Sherlock as earnestly as I do the original, as this could have a chance to really delve into the agency of one of the greatest female characters of all time. Rather, I simply felt cold.
Luckily, I always have the original to revisit, which I do often whenever I need a quick feminist pick-me-up.
Ausiello, Michael. “Eye on Emmy: Benedict Cumberbatch on Playing Sherlock at 50, His Mad Men Envy and That ‘Mortifying’ Downton Abbey ‘PR Disaster’.” TVLine.com. 14 June 2012.
Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I. 239-63. New York: Bantam Classic, 2003.