In Search of Irene Adler

Warning: Spoilers for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

Last Sunday BBC America ran a Sherlock marathon. Even though the character Benedict Cumberbatch portrays is not Sherlock Holmes, I sometimes like the show, mostly for the banter and for Martin Freeman’s deadpan delivery as Watson. And I love the musical theme. The marathon meant that I was going to have to watch “A Scandal in Belgravia” again, though. I suffered through it, because you do, but then I went and hunted up a .pdf of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” as a palate cleanser, so I could read about the real Irene Adler.

I don’t know why it is that no modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes can handle Adler. I don’t know why it is that writers and showrunners like Michael Robert Johnson and Steven Moffat actually create Adler characters who are weaker and less feminist than the one created in 1892 by a Victorian male. Something is seriously wrong here.

The “Irene Adler” of the Robert Downey Jr movies may be a possible stretch from the original character. It appears she left her husband, the love of her life, because he was “boring.” Anyway, what is a retired opera singer to do after that but become an international criminal? Right? What is bad about the movie Adler is that she becomes a “refrigerated” woman in the second film. The second film has no need of her, or the actor wouldn’t sign for a second film, so the writers kill her off. (Lestrade has no role in the second film, but he isn’t killed. Only the woman is, because there is a new woman character, and women, as we all know, exist only to gaze adoringly at men, and meet their plot needs… and they are disposable.)

Rachel McAdams’s Adler, though, isn’t as bad as the woman Sherlock tries to convince us is The Woman.

This is not a knock on Lara Pulver, who plays “Irene Adler” in Sherlock. Whatever role she is playing there, she does it to perfection; it just isn’t Adler. This character, whose name is Irene Adler, is a villain. She works with Moriarty. She falls in love with Sherlock Holmes. She is bested by him and still later has to be rescued by him. There is nothing wrong with this character necessarily, or even the story, which is twisty and even fun in some places. The only thing wrong with her is her name. If this character had been called Willa Gotobed or Gemma Greengages, I’d have been fine.

In Conan Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia” the king of a small Bohemian nation hires Holmes to recover a damning photograph. The king admits that he had an affair with an “adventuress,” American born Irene Adler, an opera singer and great beauty. They carried on while he was the crown prince. Once he became king he put her aside. Now he is betrothed, and Adler has threatened to make public their letters and a photograph of the two of them together. She does not want payment; plainly this threat is about revenge. The King has had her houses broken into several times, had her abducted (they call it “waylaid’) and searched twice, but they cannot find the photo. Plainly, Adler is smarter than the king.  In desperation, the king turns to Holmes.

Adler is living in London. In disguise, Holmes goes to her house. To his surprise, her one regular male visitor, a barrister, hurries off to a nearby church. Moments later, so does Adler. When Homes, disguised as a horse groom, follows them, the barrister grabs him off the street and asks him to be a witness at their wedding; the barrister and Adler get married. Overcoming his shock, Holmes continues with his commission to recover the photograph. He uses a clever trick to get Adler to reveal the location of the photo, but she sees through him. When Watson, Holmes and the king come to the house to retrieve the photo, it, Adler and Adler’s new husband are gone, and all that’s left is a letter to Holmes and a photo of Adler herself, alone. Plainly, Adler is smarter than Holmes.

This Adler is the invention of a Victorian era male doctor. When we see Adler through the eyes of the king, we see a beautiful, vindictive “adventuress.” Adler’s moral code is not that of the time; at least in Britain. Royal men do have mistresses, but it is plain in the story that Adler is not a socially-approved mistress (who would most likely be of Bohemian aristocracy). She performs on stage. The old-fashioned phrase “no better than she should be” comes to mind. As the story progresses, though, we see that something has changed in Adler’s life. Possibly it’s love. Whatever has happened, Adler is interested in returning to the conventional fold of customary morality. Her desire to wreak vengeance on her former lover has faded away. The Adler that Watson and Holmes see is kind and helpful.

In her letter at the end, Adler tells Holmes that she is keeping the royal photo only for protection, and that with her lawyer husband she has found a man much better than the king could ever be. When the king ruminates on what a queen she would make if only she were at his level, Holmes quips that indeed, yes, Adler is on a much different level than the king. And he keeps the photo.

You don’t have to stay faithful to the story to do this character justice. Mostly, modern showrunners don’t seem interested in doing this character justice though. I’m going to turn again to the “Adler” character on Sherlock. This female character, working with Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty, works best as a trickster. She is a wealthy dominatrix who gets state and military secrets out of her powerful male clients. Why this would even be allowed to happen is not explained. She keeps everything on a password-protected cell phone. Sherlock is roped into the case by his bother Mycroft. He’s told there are compromising photos of a low-level royal on the phone but this is a lie. Well, it’s not a lie, the photos are on there, they just don’t matter. The Woman (her work name) has a scrap of code from a top secret project, and she needs it deciphered. She begins a convoluted game with Holmes to get it.

So much here is just wrong. First of all, a dominatrix is not a powerful woman. A dominatrix is a sex worker. She may make good money; she’s not a power-broker or an information-broker. Men who pay women to role-play as dominant are not confused about this. They don’t think they’re interacting with a powerful woman. The “power” so-called madams have (and it isn’t much) comes from the names on their client list and the fear of exposure, and many high profile madams still end up on trial and in jail. The Woman has no power. The Woman might pick up and put together lots of juicy political information or stock market information; it beggars belief that she would get ultra-top-secret computer code.

Secondly, the story tells us that The Woman is a lesbian. Certainly her female assistant is in love with her, and secondly, The Woman point-blank tells Watson that she’s gay.

Watson: For the record, if anybody out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.
Adler:  Well, I am.

She’s attracted to women, but somehow falls in love with Sherlock, and this leads to her downfall, which is really the biggest way she isn’t Adler; Adler is the only woman (and one of very few people, period) to ever best Sherlock Holmes.

The Woman also fakes her own death, even to providing a body. Whether she lets another person get killed in her place, or kills the other woman herself and disfigures the face, we’re not told. As a trickster, she works very well, especially following the tradition that say tricksters often accidentally trick themselves.

She’s simply not Adler, and I’m getting tired of it, the same way the woman who called herself Irene Adler in Elementary wasn’t Adler. It’s frustrating.

The best depiction of the real Adler was given by Gayle Hunnicutt in 1984, opposite Jeremy Brett as Holmes. This was Grenada television’s Holmes series, and it stayed faithful to the story. And I think there are some mystery novels out there with Adler, her loyal barrister husband and a vicar’s wife as a friend, that are pretty good representation. I haven’t read them; I’m afraid to.

Why can’t modern storytellers create a genuinely strong woman to go up against Holmes? Why do they have to undercut her? I just don’t know.

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