Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Curious Case of Irene Adler

Art by Sidney Paget
Irene Adler has been on my mind quite a bit lately.

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’.” 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.


  1. That was very thought provoking, thank you.

    I found myself most interested in the point you make (admittedly not the central focus) regarding the quality of the relationship between Adler and Holmes.

    I believe that our existential perplexity regarding love to stem from unintuitive particulars in the exact nature of the phenomenon to the point where we don't really know what it is, a problem severely exacerbated by a history of observing this from only one homogenous perspective, something indicative in the immaturity of our culture's intellectual artifacts. That's why, I think, something like this makes so much sense but is rarely seen, it proves an incredible obstacle to look past the romantic paradigms and see love as banal where thought grandeur, rare when thought guaranteed, liberating where thought possessive.

    In a way I would argue that the relationship crafted is indeed love, and in a near true form... near being the key word.

    Simple where thought complicated. Respect. Respect and admiration for everything that an individual is to the degree where none can find peer within that respect, that is how I would define love, or to borrow a phrase "There was only one woman."

    That respect can only be found in the mind too, mind you. Our physical make up are all owed to genes and whenever we look upon another in terms of sex, genes are what we see. By definition, genes are common and shared, and do not make an individual more so than any other chemical in their body. You cannot respect a gene. The mind, however, is crafted by experience and will, two things that are impossible to replicate or emulate, there can and only will be one instance of an individual's mind, thus a relationship founded upon and limited to mind games and duels is indeed perfect. I can accept that...

    ...except that there is no communication between the two past their brief encounter, no opportunity to allow the reflection of the other to craft their own experience, to grow, and to learn. It is an instant, and an instant can't be life affirming, no matter how miraculous. Love should be few things, but life affirming is one of them. The tale has an aura of isolation, of an inherently binary system through the eyes a solitary cog. In that regard, the relationship suffers the same weak foundation as its peers despite itself.

    1. My goodness, your comment has gone all off into the biological and metaphysical and I have no idea what I am supposed to make of it. You write as if my brain did not short out while reading. I mean that as a compliment, of course.

      I did greatly enjoy your discussion of "A Scandal in Bohemia" being truly an isolated moment of a brief encounter. I distinctly remember picking up my copy of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" for the first time and being stunned that "A Scandal in Bohemia" was only a short handful of pages. I had heard of Irene Adler before reading the story and had assumed, based on her apparent importance to Sherlock Holmes, this would be some epic story. It's really not. It's as straightforward a mystery as you can get and like you said, Sherlock and Irene do not truly and resolutely interact.

      Perhaps that is why in the adaptations I mentioned, an entire backstory is often invented for the two of them or a profound relationship is created. These adaptations do not focus on the minute elements of this story but try to elaborate on a non-existent love story that even romantic Watson dismisses. We seem to forget that Sherlock Holmes is, at the end of the day, a very strange, eccentric and by all account, non-sexual or asexual, man and therefore, his ability to place incredibly importance on a barely known woman is not out of the ordinary for him. His respect is hard to come by but when he is impressed with you, he will bestow it on you unconditionally.

      I suspect that is why, as a feminist, I adore Sherlock and Irene so fervently. I should rather have an astonishingly impressive man's complete respect than anything else. Sherlock can be very belittling to women, but at the end of the day, his respect is willingly given to all who deserve it, regardless of sex.

    2. Respect and admiration above all else as the ideal one lone foundation of a relationship is something I can agree with whole heartedly, and It is regrettable that we don't see this too often in not only fiction but reality as well.

      I have a theory about why that is called "the social obligation" where popular consensus is that love is guaranteed and that finding someone and marrying them is a matter of coming of age, or perhaps success is the better term. You are expected to have a relationship the same way you are expected to go to college or get a job or retire. It's a chapter, and if you don't accomplish that something is wrong with you. The problem there should be evident: it is dehumanizing, puts a banal spin on what ought to be miraculous, and, yes, gets in the way of respect because it makes us possessive of one another. You possess your career and you possess your education in that you control them, if you define a relationship in the same terms you only objectify your partner. love becomes a means to an end when pursued thoughtlessly.

      Both Sherlock and Irene exist outside of conventional society and are two people who wouldn't really care if someone thought them to be "unsuccessful", and perhaps that helped them escape the stigma of "the social obligation" when Doyle was fleshing them out, and also why these adaptations feel the need to linger on the moment. It's what "ought" to happen in a narrative. Miracles should never have such expectations.

  2. I suppose it isn't surprising that the only series of novels to make Irene Adler a protagonist is entirely unknown to debaters of the recent controversial film presentations of her. The first novel, "Good Night, Mr. Holmes," was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1990 and the last book of eight was published in 2004.

    As the Irene Adler series author and the first author to make a female character from the Holmes stories a protagonist of her own adventures (and the second woman to write in the Holmes Canon at all; the first used gender-concealing initials), when reading the lively discussions of what COULD HAVE been done with Irene Adler as a character, I want to jump up and down and say, "I did all that already! Look, look!"

    "Good Night, Mr. Holmes" retells "A Scandal in Bohemia" from Irene's point of view, with added flourishes, but mostly it tells of how she became the only woman to outwit Sherlock Holmes through a previous stint moonlighting as a private inquiry agent while building her singing career. So she is a rival as well as one-time opponent. She and Holmes cross cases and swords throughout the series, but she is the star of the show and Holmes in his proper place as a recurring secondary character.

    The other books in order are "The Adventuress, A Soul of Steel, Another Scandal in Bohemia," the Jack the Ripper duology (three women on the Ripper's trail after Whitechapel) "Chapel Noir" and "Castle Rouge," and "Femme Fatale" and "Spider Dance."

    It's amusing to flirt, as Watson did, with the idea that these larger-than-life personalities might have generated some emotional spark, but that just doesn't play.

    In e-book is "The Private Wife of Sherlock Holmes," a novella, along with an essay on how the piece developed and the first chapter of "Good Night, Mr. Holmes," which sets up the entire Irene Adler series foundation.

    I too bemoan the opportunities lost in the Robert Downey, Jr. films and the "Sherlock" series, but I wish more dissatisfied readers and film fans knew about the fully substantial Irene who is already there.

    "Setting herself the task of creating a heroine worthy of Sherlock Holmes, Douglas...succeeds smashingly. In providing an inventive, believable past for Irene Adler, the one woman (and an American at that) who ever duped Holmes, Douglas writes in a voice that resonates of Dr. Watson's (or Conan Doyle's) when appropriate, and links Adler's adventures with information offered about her in Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia." Narrated with credible Victorian style and sensibility by Penelope "Nell" Huxleigh, a parson's daughter, this lively caper establishes Adler's sleuthing skills as she solves cases that involve Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker...The novel has more going for it than the usual Holmesian pastiche, presenting a truly original perspective of the one whom the great detective himself dubbed "the woman." She's a superior woman at that; readers will doff their deerstalkers."—Publishers Weekly

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! Now I absolutely have to check all of these out (and thank goodness you told me before I left for my trip to Ireland - I can download them all on my e-reader for the plane ride!).

      You're absolutely right, of course. The only contemporary Holmes novels/stories I have heard of are Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald," Stephen King's "The Doctor's Case" and Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series (which I always found rather alarming, though I must admit I have never read them and therefore, shouldn't really judge). For some reason, my snobbery tends to be focused predominantly on literature and therefore I rarely seek out other Holmes novels. That is a major shortcoming of mine that I need to rectify.

      I'm so happy that you also focused on Irene in your own work, not only because she's so fascinating but also because one gets the impression in the original Conan Doyle story that Watson does not fully grasp the true complexity of this dynamic woman, while Holmes clearly does. Watson, of course, is the model of the traditional, heterosexual, Victorian male and for a woman to be as cunning or independent as Irene is simply unheard of and therefore, cannot fully be expressed. Holmes, as Watson repeatedly tells the reader, is Bohemian and not a little bit outré and thus can recognize and appreciate (rather than feel sexual attraction to) the atypical nature of a fellow intelligent eccentric.

      Again, I want to thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this post. Having completed the entire Conan Doyle canon, I am hungry for more Holmesian stories and your comment has definitely inspired me!

  3. I'm glad so many online commentators are speaking up for the stronger version of Irene in the Conan Doyle story, and you did a particularly thorough and cogent job of it. Alas, you can't download the first four books of the series. I'm converting them to e-book as soon as I can, but they won't be ready until September, due to book deadlines. I put up the novella e-book as a "place holder" until then. The second set of four are in e-book, though.

    I agree that Watson's take on Irene in "Scandal" is a bit obtuse compared to Holmes's. You'll see that disparity revisited in the first chapter of "Good Night, Mr. Holmes" at the end of "Private Wife."

    I'm glad your interest has been stirred!