Another excerpt from my book, a musing about the first short story in the canon, the story of the woman, Irene Adler, and the scandal she almost caused.
A Scandal in Bohemia
Never to return: That’s what we learn of Irene Adler. She’s left England, never to return. She has this one brilliant turn in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and then is gone – poof! – never to be seen again. (Except in countless pastiches, adaptations, and the fantasies of Sherlockians.) I shouldn’t make that a mere parenthesis, though: it raises a big question: Why the fascination with this opera singer from New Jersey?
New Jersey? Yes, I know, how can that be right? Here she is, the one woman who can outsmart Sherlock Holmes, and she comes from New Jersey. One’s class snobbery rises – and perhaps that is the point. The whole series is about not judging by class or caste or status. There can be brilliance come from New Jersey: why not?
But back to the significance of Irene Adler: For Sherlock Holmes, of course, she is always the woman. Why? Because she was smarter? Like Mycroft? No, that doesn’t take us anywhere. Or perhaps it does. It humbles Sherlock, perhaps humanizes him. And how daring of Doyle to do this in only the third appearance of his detective, and the first in the Strand Magazine. This would be the first introduction of many readers to the man who is supposedly the master, the incisive reasoning machine who is invariably successful – and he fails! He is bested by a woman, who sees through his disguises, or at least one of them, who fools him with her own disguise, and even drags him into her own wedding and tosses him a coin for his trouble. This is what made fans out of the readers in 1891?
Well, perhaps Doyle knew what he was about: It reminds me of the opening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when the heroes are unable to shake a posse. They are failing despite all their tricks, but this somehow impresses us: we just know that usually they get clean away. Just as usually Sherlock Holmes outsmarts all he meets. But this time …
This time he meets a woman: Yes, and what’s a woman doing in the canon? I mean, there are lots of stories in which Holmes comes to the aid of women, but here is one who impresses him. Some Sherlockians imagine she does more than that, and see a repressed romance here, but is that what’s going on? Is there in fact any place for romance in the canon? Well, among the clients, of course, but can our heroes give way to it? Oh, come on, I hear you say, Watson is always falling for the latest pretty face; he even marries one in the story just before this one, and is still married and perfectly happy, he says, as this one begins – and yet he can’t help venturing back to Baker Street and even ends up sleeping over there.
Watson and Holmes: There’s the real couple in the canon. I don’t mean romantically (though some Sherlockians speculate about that too). I mean more like Boswell and Johnson. Holmes even calls Watson his Boswell here, and says he’d be lost without him. Why? Does every man need a biographer, a sidekick, a butt? Perhaps, perhaps, a Sancho Panza for every Don Quixote, a Robin for our Batman. But then how does Irene Adler fit in?
Well, she doesn’t: And she could be very disruptive, as could Watson’s wife if she had any reality. The true reality in the stories is Holmes and Watson as a team. It’s a very male bonding thing, a boys club, no girls allowed. So again, what is Irene Adler doing in this keystone story?
Maybe to show the limits: With Holmes and Watson we are in a world of Boy’s Own adventures, or if you prefer, the single-minded knights pursuing the Holy Grail, or Curly the cowboy in the movie City Slickers. It’s a man’s world, even if part of it is spent investigating the crimes involving women. But there is a world beyond, a world of romance, marriage, domesticity. As the critic Michael Atkinson points out, Holmes dresses up as a groom and ends up at Irene Adler’s wedding – as a groom! Is he marrying her? Well, of course not, she’s marrying Godfrey Norton, and yet how odd …
And he keeps her picture: Rather than a snake ring (which admittedly doesn’t sound nice), Holmes prefers a photo of the woman. What will he do with it? Some speculate that he will keep it under his pillow (does Holmes have a pillow?). Some say it is merely for his files. I think it is probably meant to be a keepsake to be admired, not necessarily in a romantic way, and yet there is something of the pining knight in all this, the courtly lover. And like a courtly lover, he is drawn to an unattainable woman: she is married to another, and by now she may even be dead (Watson calls her “the late Irene Adler,” though there is dispute over what that means).
So that other world is delineated but kept apart. There she is, the woman, and she will always be the woman, precisely because she is hurried off the stage to become a mere memory or memento. Holmes had his moment with her, penetrating into her inner sanctum even, finding the one thing she would show no one, but then she is off, she is gone, he is deflated, defeated, and it is over, but not in a sad way, more in the way Curly in that movie describes the young woman he once glimpsed while riding the range. He saw her only once, but she is the love of his life – and having established that, he can get back to being a cowboy, just as Holmes can get back to what he’s meant for: solving crimes.
And developing a relationship with Watson: His Boswell, whom he needs. But why does he need him? To tell his stories? Perhaps. He also gets him, in this story, to throw a smoke bomb through a window. It seems rather unnecessary. He hires a whole street full of accomplices: why couldn’t one of them throw the bomb? Why drag in Watson, good old flat-footed innocent Watson, who here declares his willingness to break the law and be arrested, all because it’s in a good cause. What cause? Serving the King of Bohemia? That turns out not to be such a good cause at all. Conspiring against Irene Adler? That makes him ashamed. No, the good cause is the partnership with Sherlock Holmes; that’s what this story is setting up. Watson will do anything for Holmes, and so will we.
And who is this Holmes, anyway? Watson says he has a Bohemian soul. Who, Holmes? In some ways he seems the furthest thing from an artsy, passionate Bohemian. And yet he is unconventional and does drugs, so maybe, but … It is interesting that there is a scandal in Bohemia, or there almost is, until it is averted, and here we have Holmes the Bohemian. What does it mean? Is the Bohemian scandal really about the relationship between the King and Irene, or is it more to do with the relationship between Irene and Holmes? The scandal of a woman intruding into Holmes’s “Bohemian” world? But she doesn’t intrude very long.
Lingering Questions: Why does the King say the matter will be of no importance after two years? Will the photograph not matter once he is securely married? Yet in the meantime it could threaten the peace of Europe. And what is the significance of grouping Irene Adler with a rabbi and the naval officer who wrote a tome on deep-sea fishes? Adler, by the way, means eagle in German, and therefore, well, who knows?
But the main thing is that this story sets up a Master who impresses all, and who wins the loyalty of his biographer, and yet someone who, despite Watson’s description, is not an infallible machine. Throughout the canon we will frequently see touches which qualify or modify our sense of Holmes as some sort of automaton – and that’s all to the good, for who can identify with an automaton? And yet he will still have the whiff of superiority about him; we will marvel at his triumphs, and we will identify above all with his relationship to Watson, the ordinary human being who is just like us. And the woman? She is just a photograph.