The renewed interest in Sherlock Holmes of late, due in part to the American film series starring Robert Downey, Jr. and also to the British television show Sherlock, has made me aware of exactly how little most people know of the actual character of Holmes as was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Many of the people who are now “fans” of Holmes have, in fact, never read the original stories. That’s not an altogether new phenomenon, as films have been the primary source of mainstream Holmes-related knowledge since somewhere in the early 20th century. You know the line, “Elementary, my dear Watson!”? That was never said in the stories, but instead likely came from a 1929 film.
However, one area of misunderstanding has been perennially perpetuated, and that’s Holmes’s misogyny. It’s well-documented in the various Holmes stories that he doesn’t like women. The quotes in which he says negative things about them are nearly overwhelming. Doyle, known for his subtlety, was really trying to drive this point home. Here’s the most famous:
“Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.” -The Sign of Four
While most of the others are contextual and don’t make for easy quotability, Holmes is generally described as being very courteous and polite to women, but having no respect or understanding of them. He essentially considers them to be fundamentally irrational, and thus beyond the ken of his keenly rational mind.
At the time that the original Holmes stories were written, being a misogynist was more widely accepted in mainstream culture than it is today, but by no means was it considered ‘okay’. Doyle absolutely used misogyny as a way to show that Holmes was an unfeeling, monstrous machine of a man. Doyle even famously remarked once, “Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love.”
And yet we’re presented with the problem of Irene Adler. Not only is her role in the Holmes universe contradictory to what we’ve come to expect in Holmes’s behavior, but she also appears in the very first non-novella story. In case anyone in the world is unfamiliar with the character of Irene Adler by now (since she appeared in both the American films and the British show), Adler is renowned as being the only woman to ever “beat” Sherlock Holmes, and she occupies a special place in his mind if not his heart as “the woman”.
Much has been made of her as a character over the years, and many men and women alike look at her as an excellent example of a strong female character. So much so that when the television show Sherlock portrayed her as falling in love with Holmes and needing to be rescued like a damsel in distress, the outcry was immense. The blogosphere (I love that word) lit on fire with people condemning the portrayal as sexist. Whether it was or not is beside the point for now, but let’s look at Adler’s character in the only story she appears in, “A Scandal in Bohemia”.
First of all, here’s the full quote in which Watson recounts how Holmes considers Adler to be “the” woman:
"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. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen…. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory."
There’s a lot going on in this quote, but the very first thing you may notice is that the quote specifically mentions that Holmes doesn’t love her. While Watson could in many ways be considered an unreliable narrator, given the meta-textual quote from Doyle that I mentioned earlier, I think it’s safe to assume that this was intended to be the truth. This is important, because both recent film versions of Holmes have in some way had a relationship with Adler.
Second, Adler has a reputation for “outsmarting” Holmes, or of beating him at his own game. Because of this, an unreasonable expectation has arisen about Adler’s capabilities. The fact of the matter is that we don’t really see much of her capabilities in the story. Let’s take a look at her accomplishments in the original text:
That’s it. That’s the whole story.
Now let’s examine it.
First of all, it’s never made entirely clear why she’s trying to ruin the King’s marriage. There are vague allusions to her being spiteful and not wanting the King to be with anyone else, or something. It’s pretty confusing, and Holmes doesn’t seem to bat an eye at this. This sort of undermines the idea that Adler is somehow “better” than Holmes, or at the very least, not an emotional, irrational woman. Though there’s nothing to say that you can’t be emotional, irrational, and also extremely smart, so let’s move on.
Second, when you look at the plot of the story, the entire way in which Adler “beats” Holmes is that she recognizes him. That’s it. The story hinges on Holmes returning to her house and retrieving the picture from where he successfully divined its location, but when he returns, she’s gone and has taken the picture with her. This is due only to the fact that she successfully recognized Holmes while in disguise. While she did quickly dress up as a man to follow him in order to make sure that it was him, it’s made clear that she has worked in theatre, so dressing up in costumes is in her line of work. Not to mention that working in theatre may have made her more likely to recognize people in disguise.
So, the story hinges on Adler recognizing Holmes. How big of a feat is that, really? Well, much is made of Holmes’s ability to disguise himself. He does this in many stories, and even fools Watson on occasion. Watson, unlike the bumbling idiot he is sometimes portrayed as, is a competent guy in the stories, so it’s not an entirely unimpressive feat.
However, remember that Holmes appeared to Adler twice in one day, in two different disguises. First as an out-of-work groom who was the witness at her wedding, and then once as a wounded priest. In both cases, she would have gotten a good look at him. So far as I can recall, in the entire canon of Holmes stories, he never again appears to the same person in two different disguises, and he definitely doesn’t do it in the same day. Even an ordinary person may have a weird sense of deja vu when interacting with the same person twice, albeit in disguise both times.
That she puts on men’s clothing and then follows him is quick thinking, but given that she was already on alert from the King having sent men to ransack her house twice, it’s safe to assume that she might be slightly paranoid.
What I’m trying to get at with all of this is that Irene Adler wasn’t really anything special according to the text. She’s apparently vindictive (threatened the King), of average intelligence (gave away the picture’s location), and quick-thinking (recognized Holmes and followed him).
But if Irene Adler wasn’t anything special, how did she elude Holmes?
The answer is simple, and it also explains why this story appears first among the short stories: Holmes messed up. He underestimated her because of his misogyny, and assumed that she wouldn’t recognize him when he disguised himself for the second time.
Doyle designed Holmes to be the perfect analytical machine, capable of inferring vast amounts of information from only tiny details, and all of his personality flaws are made to enhance that capacity. He’s rude, over-dramatic, self-indulgent, and some would argue sociopathic, but all of those things in some way contribute toward making him a better crime-solver. Except for his misogyny, which in his very first regular case contributes to his failure. This, I believe, was a sly nod and wink from Doyle, who was distancing himself as an author from the views of his character, as if to say, “Look, Holmes hates women, and look where that got him.” This was actually a subtle jibe at misogynists.
So while the story both opens and closes with Irene Adler, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is, like all Holmes stories, really about Sherlock Holmes. It’s an important story for feminism not because Adler was really a strong female character who beat a strong male character, but because Doyle was implying that Holmes would be a better man if he respected women’s abilities. It may not exactly be a positive role model, but at the same time, it’s certainly better than nothing. So when you watch adaptations of Holmes stories, remember that Adler was both more and less than a romance and an equal: she was an object lesson in what happens to those who underestimate women.