In Defense of Irene
I finally sat down and wrote out my thoughts on the indomitable Irene Adler from the Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It’s not metacognitave, but when I’ve got an idea, I’ve gotta roll with it, and this one’s a good one.
Irene Adler has not been given her due.
I’m sure that if I said that in Sherlockian settings one of two things would happen: either I would be making waves, or barely a ripple because our dear Ms. Adler is a popular topic of discussion. Irene Adler is commonly listed as Sherlock Holmes’ greatest villain/nemesis, second only to the magnificent Moriarty. She is lauded thoroughly by our narrator Watson, and is one of the few characters to be mentioned in multiple stories, though she only appears in one. Even more, she is the only person for years who has “bested Holmes,” and on top of that, she is a woman.
Her character inspires essays and fiction, an entire mystery novel series, and speculation of a love affair between her and our favorite consulting detective. She’s a feminist icon, a mysterious, dangerous, and charismatic persona, and irresistible. She is immensely popular.
And that popularity is why it is all the more important that she has not been given her proper due. Do to her charms, and her popularity, readers, scholars, and armchair philosophers alike have missed out on the true extent of how she actually did best Holmes. Because her case is so succinctly stated, the reader can have a very superficial view on what actually happened between Adler and Holmes.
I really tried to dig on the internet to find anything written about Adler with the same observations that I have had, however, it is not forthcoming. There really is quite a lot written, and I feel like I only skimmed the surface even though I poured over this for hours. If someone has had the same theory as I do in this little essay, I do not mean to plagiarize in any means. I simply cannot find anyone, other than a few close friends whom I had to convince, who see what I see in this situation or the depth and complexity in the story Irene Adler appears in: “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
If you have not read “A Scandal in Bohemia,” I highly recommend it, and I’m afraid that this monograph will be completely full of spoilers. “Scandal” was the first story published in The Strand, though not the first written- two novels were published first- but it is the first short story, the format we best know Holmes by. Here’s a brief description before the spoilers begin: the King of Bohemia seeks Holmes’ help in recovering a photograph of himself and a well known former opera singer and “adventuress” together. (Adventuress is a Victorian term for a woman who lives off her wits and wiles, who could be a courtesan or mistress, but not necessarily.) The woman, New Jersey native Irene Adler, has threatened the King with releasing the photograph to the family of his future bride, an act that could ruin the future alliance. Naturally Holmes takes the case.
Now if you don’t mind spoilers, let’s go through the plot, briefly:
If we take a cursory reading off of the basic facts of the case, Adler weds a barrister she has been meeting for some time under odd and rushed circumstances to which Holmes is a witness disguised as a groom. Adler has kept the photograph hidden and reveals it when Holmes and Watson engineer a false fire alarm. Holmes, in disguise as a hurt clergyman, is led into the home for care while Watson prepares a smoke bomb. With the shout of fire, Adler dashes for the photo and Holmes knows where it is kept. Adler suspects, and in disguise, follows Holmes to Baker Street. She learns of his plans by listening in to his conversation with Watson. Holmes returns with the king to claim the photograph the next morning, but, alas, Adler has skipped town with her new hubby and the photograph, promising to never reveal it because she’s found someone who loves her (and is a better man than the King). In its stead is a photograph of herself and a letter explaining her moves, addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Relieved, the king asks Holmes to name his price, and Holmes asks only for the photograph of Irene.
This makes for a nice and tidy story. All the facts are nicely laid out, especially in Irene’s closing letter, and we see that Adler has clearly anticipated Holmes’ next move. She moves before he can, and he cannot retrieve the photograph. However, her letter fully assuages the King, as he believes her word to be honest and true.
But why would an honest woman, who has apparently found love and has been seeing her barrister friend for some time, continue to threaten the King of Bohemia and suddenly, unexpectedly, capitulate?
Sherlock Holmes often prescribes an “if its too good to be true, it probably is” philosophy to solving cases, notably in comparison to the police who like tidy little cases that solve themselves, though the solution invariably proves to be wrong. It is of my opinion that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started his Holmes stories off with a bang and has given us a puzzle that, despite Adler’s written assurances- and the King of Bohemia’s belief in them- is not as tidy as it seems. What Irene Adler has written in her letter is not the real story. It is the story she wants the King to believe.
We have reasons to suspect that there is more going on. First, the very opinion that Adler has “beaten” Holmes- a term used by Holmes himself in “The Five Orange Pips.” Holmes has had other cases get away from him. He has come to wrong conclusions, inadvertently led a man he was trying to help to his death, and has failed to solve cases from time to time. This is nothing new. As Holmes says himself in “The Musgrave Ritual, “They are not all successes, Watson.”
So Irene gives him the slip. Irene also does not accomplish much in this surface reading. She does nothing more than many of Holmes’ smarter criminals would do, even if she is more adept at playing his game. Simply put, for a man and mind such as Sherlock Holmes, giving him the slip on one occasion is not possibly enough to turn something that is a small failure into being beaten.
We also have clues that there is something more going on from Holmes’ reactions after the case. Irene Adler is a woman who “eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex” in Holmes’ mind. If it weren’t for his cool calculating mind, Watson may well insinuate love or infatuation. Holmes is hung up on her for deeper reasons than Watson can put his fingers on.
Watson leans to, and the reader may well agree, that Adler gains his esteem simply by playing Holmes’ game. Adler dons costume, interacts while in disguise, observes her quarry (Holmes) reveal his secrets, and trumps him in the end. I however, do not think this is enough to satisfy Holmes. The story is not that simple. There are too many open questions that are left wide open in the story. Unlike many Holmes stories, there are many things that are not explained. Indeed the whole story leaves gaps of unexplained portions even the most obtuse reader can pick up on: we are never let in on what is in the Adler-King photograph, we do not get the completion of knowing where Adler goes after the end of the story, how she fell in with her lawyer, and the King himself is rather obtuse and misses the relevance of Holmes’ retort, “From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty.”
Let’s take that moment for a minute. Holmes is seized immediately by Adler’s actions. While reading her letter, it occurs to him some extent of her movements that do not occur to the King. We can say for certain that the King, who trusts Adler’s word, takes her letter at face value. She will not reveal the photograph. She was wronged by the king. She has found love. She will leave immediately. The letter is not written for Holmes. It is written for the King of Bohemia. Everything in that letter is exactly what he wants to hear. After crossing the continent, waylaying, burgling, harassing Adler and searching her belongings and residences, the king finally hears what he needs to stop his pursuit.
But she could’ve said all this in person.
Instead, Adler has left a ransacked home. Alone there to meet the three men is an older woman who identifies Sherlock Holmes- who is taken by surprise and has a “startled gaze”- and states that her mistress told her “‘that you were likely to call. She left this morning with her husband by the 5:15 train from Charing Cross for the Continent.'”
What makes this odd is twofold:
First, there is no concrete reason for Adler to run from London. As Holmes and Watson note, Adler sings on a regular basis, has set up a house rather than a room or apartment, and has been living in London for some months after being chased around. She has firm attachments there. More importantly, she learns in the evening of Holmes’ plan to come round for the photograph in the morning. If she were to travel, she has time to pack her belongings and take what she most needs or values. Sure, things might get a little messy with her clothes, but that would happen in her bedroom. Instead, “The furniture was scattered about in every direction, with dismantled shelves and open drawers, as if the lady had hurriedly ransacked them before her flight.” Adler has turned over her own furniture as if searching for things- like a common burgler. This does not fit her. We well know she safeguards and knows exactly where her most valuable possession is at all times. Everything after that is second. Even if she were a messy packer, there is absolutely no reason for Irene Adler to toss around her own furniture. She makes it look as though she had flown, “as if” she were in a frantic rush. Of course, were she up all night, she would have had hours to arrange things properly. In short, Irene Adler has set the stage- she has made it look as though she were rushed and in a hurry in the one room she knows Holmes and the King would enter.
Adler is an actress. As a contralto, she would have a majority of character roles playing “witches, bitches, and britches” as the saying goes. She admits to theatrical training. She has mastered aspects of disguise and costume. There is no doubt from this impossible ransacking that she also has sense about setting and stage.
Adler also knows what the King wants to hear- she knows exactly what will stop his chase, a promise not to reveal the photograph. With that, he would return to Bohemia an his future bride. He very clearly still holds her in high regard. Though “wronged,” as an observant woman, Adler would recognize the King’s lasting affection for her. He is not one to harm her person or her home. Once satisfied, he would return to Bohemia and go on with his wedding. There is no need to flee London because the King has no reason to stay in London. In short, her flight is illogical. Because there is no reason for her to flee London, her harried departure can only be for dramatic effect.
Now here’s the second odd thing about that fateful morning: Holmes, Watson, and the King of Bohemia are greeted by “an elderly woman,” who, out of the three men, instantly identifies Holmes. When Holmes was in the house disguised as a clergyman, the only help he sees are the coachman, and the loafers from the street. Where does this woman come from? She is decidedly not present when Holmes stakes out the house, nor when he feigns injury. Doyle usually mentions, via Watson as narrator, or Holmes speaking to him, any servants who are present, even if only to set the scene. This elderly woman is singular in her appearance. She also is described as “sardonic.” Why would a hired elderly woman be full of derision and carry a mocking demeanor towards him, a stranger and well regarded person? How would she know even which one he was without ever thinking?
Let me posit that this woman, who only appears once, when Adler has no concrete reasons to leave London, and who recognizes Holmes at first sight and has a “sardonic” expression, is Irene Adler herself.
In the words of Holmes, once again to dear Watson, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” (The Sign of the Four)
Let’s give Irene (and this theory) the benefit of doubt. After all, she does best Holmes. If this is her in another disguise, then the pieces of the story fall into place. Adler is intelligent, and has motivation. She does not run haphazardly. She lives by her wits and is a prima donna and trained actress. She can wrap kings around her little finger. Remember, he is chasing her here. She is in control of her situation. Consider her, as someone who could beat Holmes, on the same “level” as him and Moriarty. Adler is leading the King of Bohemia on a wild chase, though we do not learn the nature her motivations as facts. But with her in control, we can easily explain her actions and her sudden wedding.
To understand her actions, we can take the fact that Adler is on the same level as Holmes and consider what Sherlock Holmes himself would do in such a situation. Step one: data. In her letter, Adler states that she “had been told that if the King employed an agent it would certainly be [Sherlock Holmes].” She would have had sufficient time to do a bit of her own research on Holmes, and learn his famous “methods.” She writes that she was given his address. She would have him as a certain adversary and life in London would become a known quantity. It is also stated that Adler “lives quietly, sings at concerts, drives out at five every day, and returns at seven sharp for dinner. Seldom goes out at other times, except when she sings.” It is strange for a woman who lives in society to become a shut in and more for a musician to live quietly. If we take the further statement of Adlers that she “often takes advantage of the freedom” of dressing in men’s clothes, it becomes highly probable that she slipped out of the house in the same manner Holmes slipped in. Adler was never seen leaving the house because the loafers and grooms expected to see her in a proper dress, not in the garb of (most likely) a youth. When reading that from her letter, Holmes realizes that she was most likely monitoring him when he thought he was monitoring her.
Step two: give Holmes the lie to convince the king. If Adler could observe Holmes, and knowing she is on familiar terms with her coachman, she could have easily picked him out when he arrived and started asking questions about her. Adler knows that the king would believe her words and that of Holmes, but she’s got to sell the story- to give Holmes a singular view which would hearten the king. If Adler could pick Holmes out, she could easily stage the dramatic cab hailing scene to make sure he follows her to the church.
Adler’s “wedding” is a secret one. As a person of society, she is neither seen with a beaux nor announces any engagement publicly. The one male visitor she has is a lawyer, either there to advise her or there to befriend and woo her. It would be necessary, regardless of truth, to convince Holmes of the latter. But still, the wedding is a secret affair, so secret that both the bride and groom forget a to bring a witness! For such a secret affair, why then would Norton (the lawyer) burst forth from the house and hail a cab and shouts his destination, looking rushed, and offers quite a hefty fare, only to have Adler emerge from the house, hail her own cab, and cry out the same destination and princely fare? Why, to attract attention, of course. The one to hear it? Why, Sherlock Holmes, of course.
Now Norton. It is true that Norton yells up to the driver to stop at a law office first, but this does not give a reason why Adler cannot accompany him there and then both go to the church together. Or better yet, for him to have gone to the office prior to seeing Adler. That would be more normal. The separate cabs cry out for mischief and wanting it to stay secret, which would of course intrigue Holmes all the more. Norton though, is a suspect lawyer. He has troubles with the marriage license, he forgot that he would need a witness, and he even is pressed for time as though the license were to suddenly expire on him like milk left out all day. For someone supposedly aquatinted with law, he is certainly struggling with the legal aspects of his own endeavor. He does put up a good show in the church, however, but leaves all of the key points to Adler. He is playing a role for her. He’s a lawyer- another profession that prizes a bit of acting talent. The need to stop at the law office may not have been truly necessary.
Potentially, Irene could well have entrusted him with the royal photograph at this very moment if she knew that Holmes would attempt to retrieve it in the near future. It’s an easy pass off, and falls neatly under the guise of retrieving legal documents and the strange legal troubles our lawyer is having. This may or may not have happened, but it is a possibility nonetheless. As for how Norton knew when to arrive, Irene could simply have (for example) slipped out and had a message sent to him. Potentially as well the clergyman may be another accomplice, though he does not need to be one.
Indeed the act of the rushed marriage itself is questionable. As already shown, Adler has no reason to flee London, and the reason assumed for the rushed marriage is that she and Norton were planning to run. This, however, would only be true if they had a reason to flee the next day. The only pressure to do so, even from the cursory reading of the story, is when Irene Adler identifies Sherlock Holmes, but this does not occur until after the wedding. In her letter, she writes, “I, rather imprudently, wished you good-night, and started for the Temple to see my husband. We both thought the best resource was flight, when pursued by so formidable an antagonist; so you will find the nest empty when you call.” If Adler and Norton had not planned on leaving until that night, they would not have had reason to rush a wedding. Adler would have had to anticipate Holmes’ presence prior to the wedding, prior to Holmes investigation of her so she and Norton could plan for it and their flight. Thus, the words in her letter are false, and the wedding and flight a sham.
Now to the wedding ceremony itself: It cannot be a coincidence that out of the people in the church, Adler, Norton, and the clergyman all seized upon Holmes to act as witness, drag him up to the altar, and “before I knew where I was I found myself mumbling responses which were whispered in my ear” by Adler herself. The whole affair was “all done in an instant” and Holmes is left spinning on his heels by the “preposterous” situation. To only add to it, Adler offers him a full sovereign herself. The absurdity and unexpectedness of it all takes Holmes completely off guard. He falls for it. He believes it, laughs over it with Watson, and convinces the king of it’s truth. It is this moment in which Irene Adler has bested the great Sherlock Holmes.
For one afternoon, he is completely and utterly duped. Sherlock Holmes, the great detective, has failed to see the truth and became a willing vehicle of Adler’s fiction. He’s been conned. The extent of Adler’s actions would only occur to Holmes when he sees the letter. While it’s contents are clearly for the king, the letter itself is addressed to Holmes, and concludes, “and I remain, dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Very truly yours, Irene Norton, née ADLER.” Adler signs with a personal and intimate farewell to Holmes, and with emphasis on her maiden name (yet a further clue to Holmes).
The incidence of the fire alarm at Adler’s house is her one moment of question. She writes to Holmes that “You really did it very well. You took me in completely. Until after the alarm of fire, I had not a suspicion. But then, when I found how I had betrayed myself, I began to think.” It is most likely that she could not identify him at first as the clergyman and took him into her home as the kind hearted person the king makes her out to be. She barely sees him and falls for his ruse. But, she does catch on and is able to turn it to her advantage.
Adler’s actions are really thus:
She arrives in London, keeps a schedule, and learns from her own contacts that Holmes would be on her case. Using men’s dress, she is able to leave the house and go about her business, including checking up on Holmes. She formulates a plan to convince Holmes of a situation that would appease the king. It does not matter whether Holmes figures it out afterwards or not because the king will be satisfied and drop the case. When Holmes arrives, she is able to identify him and makes her move. She and Norton make positive that Holmes follows them to the church to see a wedding. They rope him into the actual proceedings to tie him to the event and display heightened emotions to convince him of their actions. When Holmes and Watson stage the fire at her house, Irene takes Holmes in. She reveals the location of the photograph to Holmes. She follows Holmes to 221 B and learns that he will come round with the king in the morning. She has the rest of the evening to make arrangements, like securing the photograph with her lawyer if she hadn’t already and rearranging the furniture and items in her house to simulate rapid packing and flight. Secure in her arrangements, she dons the costume of an elderly lady and is waiting by the door to greet Holmes, Watson, and the King as they arrive. She is sarcastic and mocks Holmes as he arrives. She ushers them in, gives the story that she has left. The king is convinced, Holmes has his dawning realization, and Irene is left to live out her life, free of pursuit.
What a mad chase! The King is wrapped around her finger, and Holmes has been played like his very own fifty-five shilling Stradivarius! He’s been manipulated. That is what sets him off, and it only really hits him at the end. Adler has performed admirably and has qualities of the mastermind. We can’t really decry her mild mocking of Holmes at the end- if you had beaten him, wouldn’t you get a little cheeky too? And yet the most credit Adler gets from Doyle’s readers is an emotional fight or flight response in how she runs from Holmes and the King, strength of character for keeping her photograph and seeing through Holmes’ disguise, and a huge dash of dangerous sexuality- from her inferred love affair with Norton and dressing as a man to her relationship with the king and, as a forefront to many, a future relationship with Holmes himself. That, of course, is another topic entirely. But this I will say: by the time the letter has finished, Adler has been set into the firmament of Sherlock Holmes’ mind. As well as Watson can dissuade us, the readers, of any affection akin to love coming from his great mind, he has set on her in his own special way
In these ways Adler is not given her credit as an intelligent woman on a level high enough to not just meet, but beat Sherlock Holmes. And we have to take that singular piece of data as the kernel of truth in this story. Adler beating Holmes, and his regard for her, is the very reason Watson has for writing and publishing the story in the first place. Watson gives us an open invitation to observe Holmes because of these observations of his friend. If they are true, then the story as presented does not follow. It is clearly fallacious. But through Holmes’ reactions, and the holes in the odd tale, we can piece together the actual events as Holmes would have done in reading Adler’s letter. Suddenly, we can see the machinations behind the scenes in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Adler’s genius is realized; she’s given her due.