A Defense of Irene Adler: Part One

18 Feb

2000irises: A Defense of Irene Adler, Part One

It turns out I’ve worked up quite a froth about Irene Adler. I’ve been sitting on this post for quite a while and it turned out l o n g. (Could I edit it down? Sure. But why? It’s the bloody Internet.) So I’ve broken it into two pieces. Pace yourself. Take stretch breaks. Drink water.

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part One
The Rant

Irene Adler is a woman with a reputation. Even though she appears in just one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sixty Holmes stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia,”) readers and filmgoers can never get enough of her. Countless pastiches have expanded on her story – some rather creatively. (Notably, see Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler series. )

Most recently, Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes casts Adler (Rachel McAdams) as Sherlock’s former lover and capricious sidekick.

(She’s the wily one who tied a naked Robert Downey, Jr. to a headboard, for which many men and women offer their gratitude.)

Thank you again, Irene.

For Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie modernizes the classic characters, styling them edgier, sexier, scruffy and slick. This makes for exciting movie watching, but as many others have noted, his explosive vision dispenses with all of Conan Doyle’s subtlety. The characters lose dimension for sensation’s sake. Unfortunately, Irene Adler’s character suffers the worst betrayal.

Conan Doyle’s Adler is actually a fascinating and nuanced female character, but she’s often only remembered as the one woman who ever impressed Sherlock Holmes, the only woman he might have loved. Thus, Ritchie’s version of Irene is neither original nor surprising, but still it misses the mark. She’s only a supporting character in the film, so naturally we don’t get much of her backstory, and her history with Holmes is merely implied. But for Adler enthusiasts, the final shot of her handcuffed on a scaffold, weeping and love-sick, sitting passively while Holmes steals her necklace – honestly, it’s just revolting. I’d hardly consider myself a purist, but really, this departs so completely from the character of Irene Adler as written by Conan Doyle, I was insulted. She’s not stronger for Ritchie’s revamp. He keeps Irene’s sauciness, sneakiness, and self-interest, but he loses everything that makes Irene cool.

Long before strutting through Richie’s steampunk London in a shockingly fuchsia silk gown, Irene Adler made a name for herself by accomplishing the impossible. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler goes head to head with Sherlock Holmes and she wins. Of the four people who ever best Holmes, Irene is the only woman to do so, and she’s the only one who merits a whole story.

But beyond outwitting Holmes, Irene Adler is a compelling character in her own right. She is fearless, fiercely independent, and for a proper Victorian lady, unusually forthright about her ambitions – both professional and romantic. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes describes Adler as a spinster because she’s an unmarried woman of thirty, but she’s hardly been home embroidering cushions. She’s traveled the world. She’s enjoyed a wildly successful career as an opera singer, and carried on scandalous love affairs with prominent men. She hasn’t had babies. She hasn’t settled down into dull domestic bliss. She’s smart and ambitious and rejects the dull social demands of polite society, choosing not to trouble herself with the common concerns of ordinary women. Irene Adler makes her own rules, and unlike Conan Doyle’s other female characters, she doesn’t allow herself to be manipulated by repressive families or greedy men. (Adler is blackmailing the King of Bohemia, after all.) She matches Sherlock Holmes’ intellect and cunning, but also his stubborn independence.

Many women appear in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but of them, only Irene Adler is a developed character. Many have questioned Conan Doyle’s attitude toward women, but in context, he isn’t any more misogynous than any writer of his time. In fact, his villains were often nasty men bent on taking advantage of women. Conan Doyle was at least sympathetic to some of the grizzlier struggles women faced: assault, theft, and forced marriage. Conan Doyle is not sensationalistic about these abuses; he doesn’t linger over the damage, but quickly moves toward retribution. More than once, Sherlock Holmes releases men who have committed crimes in the service of oppressed women. (See “The Abbey Grange” and “The Devil’s Foot”, for example.)

Sherlock Holmes the character often scoffs at women’s intellectual abilities, not because he dislikes women exactly, but rather because they confound him. He mistrusts women based entirely on his affinity for precision and logic and his impatience with sentiment and emotion. In “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” Holmes tells Watson, “the motives of women are so inscrutable. … How can you build on such a quicksand? Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling-tong.”

Obviously, this view of women is unrealistic, and Conan Doyle knows it. He undermines Holmes’s prejudices almost immediately by pitting him against Irene Adler in the first short story. She may be beautiful and her actions mercurial, but she is also observant, clever, intuitive and calculating. She also has a sense of humor, and clearly enjoys rubbing Holmes’s nose in his arrogant ignorance. Ultimately, even Moriarty can’t elude Holmes, but Adler can, because she takes advantage of his sexism.

At least he has the good grace to be impressed. Watson explains that forever after Irene Adler is “The Woman” to Sherlock Holmes: a hard won title which ironically dooms her to be largely remembered not as a creative, exciting example of emancipated Victorian womanhood, but rather as the sole object of Holmes’ repressed sexuality.

Watson clarifies Holmes’s relationship with Adler in the very first paragraph of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Holmes admires her, we are told, but “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, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.”

Thus, Watson practically trips over himself to assure readers that despite Holmes’s appreciation of Adler, he does not love her. Nonetheless, in the 120 years since this story first appeared, countless pastiches and films have found ways to hook them up. This wishful thinking does a disservice to Holmes’s extraordinary, almost inhuman, detachment, but honestly, it does a disservice to Adler as well. Just as Holmes doesn’t love Adler, she doesn’t love him either.

Furthermore, not only does Irene not love Sherlock Holmes, she outright mocks him. She thumbs her nose at him right on his very doorstep. Her “Goodnight, Mister Sherlock Holmes” isn’t meant to seduce, it’s meant to humble.

She doesn’t pine for Holmes. She doesn’t offer to stick around and keep house for him. She doesn’t stay to spawn little mini-detectives with him. She packs her bags in the dead of night and skips town. Her parting gifts – a short, sarcastic letter and formal photograph – only serve to remind her gobsmacked pursuers that even though she admires Sherlock’s “formidable” talents, she is mistress of her own fate.

All this makes it difficult to swallow stories of Holmes and Adler in which they overcome their singular incompatibly and find romance. Honestly, would the vivacious, confident Adler put up with a cold, dispassionate Holmes just because she admires his great mind? Can we really imagine a love-struck Holmes becoming a father? How would that work, exactly? Would there be test tubes?

So my further question is, if Sherlock Holmes is enjoying a modern revival of interest and if Irene Adler is accompanying him back into the spotlight, will we see a modern version of Adler that adequately captures her spirit and independence without turning her into a shrew?

One Response to “A Defense of Irene Adler: Part One”

  1. Djinnjer March 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    Would there be test tubes?
    So. Many. Test tubes. Yes.

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