a-scandal-in-bohemia

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“One night — it was on the twentieth of March, 1888 — I was returning from a journey to a patient (for I had now returned to civil practice), when my way led me through Baker Street.

As I passed the well-remembered door, which must always be associated in my mind with my wooing, and with the dark incidents of the Study in Scarlet, I was seized with a keen desire to see Holmes again, and to know how he was employing his extraordinary powers.”

– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia

So this line from A Scandal in Bohemia:

As I passed the well-remembered door, which must always be associated in my mind with my wooing, and with the dark incidents of the Study in Scarlet, I was seized with a keen desire to see Holmes again, and to know how he was employing his extraordinary powers.

His “wooing”? What does that mean? It’s not him wooing his wife, because that doesn’t make much sense in the scope of his memory of 221B. So is he the one that had been wooed here? If so, it’s obviously by Holmes. And that’s such an odd word to use. I know to woo can mean to curry general favor, but it’s almost always connotated romantically, or at the very least meant to sound like an enticement.

So, put another way, “When I passed the door and thought about Holmes wooing me and our first case together, I was seized with a keen desire to see him again.”

That’s adorable. And gay. So very gay. Honestly, how do people interpret lines like this WITHOUT a queer lens? Where do the words go? Even if there is another way to interpret that line, how does someone adequately argue AGAINST this interpretation?

For the week of March 27th - April 3rd, we’ll be tackling two short stories and one of them is a doozy!

The Adventure of the Reigate Squire  (#REIG ACD)

and

A Scandal in Bohemia  (#SCAN ACD)

Reigate Squire is roughly 7000 words, and Scandal comes in just shy of 9000, so I think we can handle it.  

Readers and “scholars” have been getting the relationship between Adler and Holmes consistently wrong for 130 years.  Let’s take the time to give it the reading it deserves.  Be silly, be serious…it’s all fine.  Holmes, Watson, and Adler deserve to have the record set to rights.

(If you have questions about the timeline we are following, check out the link in the header)

Feel free to read at your own pace this week, we will be tracking the tags for both stories and posting what we find as the week goes on.

4

So I’ve been without my computer for three days, and the genvana penbrush (a new year gift from @tamrius) and my beloved uptable have been keeping me company)) 

One of the many things that could have gone wrong(er) with this singularly badly thought through plan, or happy 163 birthday to one mr. Sherlock Scott Holmes, esq.!))

(ps.: if you’ve noticed a mistake in speechbubbles, PLEASE TELL ME.)

Okay but seriously, I’m surfing the tag for “A Scandal in Bohemia” because of the canon book club, and every once in a while there is just this personal message someone’s thrown out because they’ve just started Granada and they’re already in love, and it’s the best thing ever because we’ve all been there and this is one of the happiest, most wonderful fandoms I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. I’m going to reblog every one I find because good feelings are good and must be shared.

Moffat’s Irene Adler - A Sacrilege to canon or The Perfect Match?

To follow this discussion, it is good to know that I make a distinct difference in how I refer to the Sherlock Holmes character in 21th Century versus how I refer to the character in the 19th Century. The 21th Century character will be referred to as “Sherlock” and the 19th Century character as “Holmes”. The same is to be said for Irene Adler when not referring to her whole name.


When the second season of Sherlock aired in early 2012, the first episode was the memorable A Scandal in Belgravia. The episode received generally great criticism, by many thought of as the best episode of the series over all, including myself. On the other hand, there was a lot of criticism against writer Steven Moffat’s portrayal of one of the most famous characters from the original books and short stories, by far the most famous female character: Irene Adler. As I understand the discussion, the core in this criticism was that the portrayal was unfaithful against the source material, Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon. When studying the criticism, I have been able to find three subjects in the arguments that got my attention.

  1. Sherlock Holmes saves Irene Adler after he has outwitted her, making her a damsel in distress. In the original story, Irene Adler outwitted Holmes and escaped after leaving a single letter to him. She managed to get herself out of the pressing situation.
  2. The portrayal of Irene Adler’s personality was unfaithful to canon because she was not obsessed with deceiving Holmes in the original story. She just moved him out of her way and then continued with her life.
  3. The portrayal was a stereotypical way of writing female characters, a sexist way of portraying one of the few characters, male or female, which ever deceived Holmes.

In this article I will examine these three subjects in the criticism in comparison with the portrayal of Irene Adler in Conan Doyle’s canon. I will use my understanding of the historical context and gender theoretical concepts to explain my thesis. How legitimate is the criticism?

Irene Adler in Conan Doyle’s Canon

To understand the criticism and the way Irene Adler is portrayed in Sherlock, it is important to actually go back to the original portrayal of her: the one in Conan Doyle’s canon. Adler did her only appearance in the short story A Scandal in Bohemia, the first story from the The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to be published in “The Strand Magazine” in the year of 1891. Even though Adler just did one appearance in canon, no other female character ever reached her popularity and she has ever since been portrayed as a love interest to Holmes in many of the adaptions during the 20th Century. I think this has much to do with the way Conan Doyle chose to describe her in the first monologue in the short story, were he makes Watson describe her as the woman to Holmes:

“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, 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. They were admirable things for the observer – excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.” (A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891)

Even though there are many other female clients involved in the books, and even a few that is described as of interest to Holmes (for example my favourite: Violet Hunter in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches (1892)), they are never described as so special to Holmes as Adler is, to the point that she is the one. And sure, it is not difficult to see why. She has “…the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men.” as is explained by the client in the story, the King of Bohemia.

In the story Irene Adler is an American opera singer who has had an affair with the King, resulting in an incriminating photography of the two of them together that now is in her possession. As the King is about to get married to a woman of higher birth, Adler threatens to send the photography to the family of his bride. Holmes is put on the case which ends with him deceiving her into showing were the photograph is hidden by disguising himself as an injured vicar. In the end, Adler realises her mistake and pays Holmes an unaware visit, herself now disguised as a man. When Holmes, Watson and the King enter her home the next morning they are met by the news that she has escaped with her newly wed husband. She leaves a letter to Holmes, saying that she does not intend to send the photograph to the King’s fiancée if he does not threaten her himself. She also leaves a photograph of herself which Holmes claims as his reward for the case, a momentum of the woman that beat him at his own game.

Adler as an emphasised femininity in the 19th Century

To understand this portrayal of Irene Adler we actually need to look at the context in which the story was written. In my college essay in gender studies from 2015 I argued that the portrayal of Irene Adler was a portrayal of the femininity that appeared emphasised by the 19th Century. Empathised femininity means the form of femininity that is thought of as the most valuable in society. In this way, it is the female version of Raewyn Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity. Connell argues that femininity never can be hegemonic because it is always seen as less valuable than the hegemonic masculinity, there by the concept of emphasised femininity. (For a deeper understanding of Connell’s two concepts, see Connell, Raewyn (1987), Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics) In 19th Century England, the ideal of the middle class woman was the emphasised femininity and that is what Irene Adler embodies in numerous ways.

Let me present some examples. Through the whole story she is described as incredibly beautiful. She also appears to be kind hearted, the way she treats to Holmes, disguised as the injured vicar. On top of this, she also becomes married to a “gentleman” during the course of the story. She is essentially everything a middle class woman should be. In the essay I argued that this portrayal could be intended to actually weigh up for her intellectual abilities and the threat of a scandal that she places on the King. During the 19th Century, considerable intellectual abilities were a male coded practice. What is ought to remember is that this was a time were the gender differences between men and women were presented in a highly dualistic fashion. Women were thought of as naturally not as intellectual as men and would also stay in the private sphere while men were to be active in the public sphere of society. Women in the public sphere were in many cases perceived as immoral, even taken for being prostitutes. Because Irene Adler is just as clever as Holmes, she is intruding on male attributes, something that could have created controversy in the reality of the highly dualistic Victorian Britain. The way Adler is portrayed apart from her intellectual abilities is therefore basically the ideal of a lady in the 19th Century, in everything from her looks and her manner to her marriage, to avoid a scandal about her – both in the sense of the story and in reality.

Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes in the 21th Century

Based on this background, I will now try to explain why the criticism against A Scandal in Belgravia is legitimate and why I think it is not. For memory’s sake, these were that Sherlock Holmes saves Irene Adler after he has outwitted her, making her a damsel in distress, that Irene Adler was not obsessed with deceiving Holmes in the original story and that the portrayal was stereotypical and sexist way of writing female characters.

In the case of the first criticism, I do not actually agree with the arguments. My argument is based on not so much the narrative of the original story but on the script of the episode itself.  In the original short story, Irene Adler escapes with the help of her own wit while in A Scandal in Belgravia she needs to be saved by Sherlock by the end of the episode. The “damsel in distress” version can be one interpretation of that final scene but I think that is a simple one where the viewer hasn’t paid attention to the events earlier on in the episode. During the scene where Irene has broken into the apartment on Baker Street, she explains to Sherlock and John:

“I make my way in the world; I misbehave. I like to know people will be on my side exactly when I need them to be.” (A Scandal in Belgravia, 2012)

When Sherlock decides to save Irene in Karachi, he basically confirms this quote. In this way, who is it really who lost the game when he did what she said she use to make people do? I do know that this is not new information. Steven Moffat has himself proclaimed that this is what he wanted the script to be understood as. Of course it can be perceived as problematic that she ends up looking like a damsel in distress but I still claim that the viewer hasn’t been paying full attention in that case. And to be fair, Irene Adler ran away with her husband in canon. I don’t know if that is any “better” from a feminist point of view?

In the case of the other two criticisms I will argue more freely and more deeply. My argument for example is that Irene is using her femininity and sexuality to throw Sherlock off his game because she knows that it is the only thing she has against him because he is just as good at playing the game as she is. Some might say that this is not according to canon. That there Irene Adler truly outwits him without her sexuality. Even though that might be true to some point, it’s not completely true in my opinion. Irene Adler can be understood as that she actually does use, even if unintentional, her position as a woman to deceive Holmes in canon. You see, Holmes is a man of his time, meaning that he do underestimate Adler because of the fact that she is a woman, even though how clever she might be. It is interesting to speculate that maybe it wasn’t even unintentional? Because of Adler’s intellectual abilities it is most probable that she was very aware of this fact and used it to her advantage. As said before though, this is just a speculation.

Another point in the criticism was that Irene Adler in canon was not obsessed with playing Holmes. I do agree on that. Holmes and Adler weren’t the main players in canon. Holmes is coming in her way and she mauves him out of her way as painless as possible for all parts involved. That is true. So why does she play an intense game of wits with Sherlock in A Scandal in Belgravia? Is this actually very unfaithful to canon? No, I actually don’t think so either.

To understand this we need to let go of our focus on Irene Adler for a moment and look at her opponent: the one and only Sherlock Holmes.

Let’s look at it this way: Sherlock in the 21th Century is a man of his time, just like Holmes is a man of his, as I have already mentioned. Sherlock Holmes in the books embodies the spirit of the 19th Century and can even be understood as an example of hegemonic masculinity, if we want to take the analysis this far. He is his mind and he has no human weaknesses. On the other hand, he is also a gentleman which is displayed a number of times throughout the books and short stories. This is also clear when watching The Abominable Bride (2016)where the contrast between “Holmes” and “Sherlock” can be compared, almost literary side by side. The conclusion is not surprisingly that our 21th Century Sherlock can be a really mean asshole. Why he plays people the way he does is the same reason why he has chosen his profession – he does what he does because he enjoys it.

So here we have this hyperactive, quite uncaring person who has shown more than once that he doesn’t back down to play people if it favours his purpose. What kind of opponent will you create for him that can put him in his place? The answer: someone who will not back down from playing just as foul, that enjoys playing people just as much as he does. My argument is that if Moffat had written Irene Adler like she was portrayed in the books she would have appeared to be “wimpy” compared to Sherlock and then the portrayal would have gotten criticism for that. Sure, she is portrayed like a true “femme fatale” in every sense of the words and the portrayal can surely be criticised for being stereotypical of a female “villain”, quite like that of Catwoman in the comic books and movies about Batman. As Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia can be understood as the emphasised femininity to Holmes hegemonic masculinity, Irene Adler in A Scandal in Belgravia can be understood as the fair match to 21th Century Sherlock. Just as Holmes and Adler were quite alike in A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock and Irene are quite alike in A Scandal in Belgravia too.

After this analysis I want to point out that, yes, I am not blind. I see the problem with the portrayal of Irene Adler as a femme fatale. I see the problem with her basically falling for Sherlock and thereby losing because of her feelings, a stereotypical way of portraying a female character. Yes, I do see that some people are angry at her being saved in the end by Sherlock. But… It is important to look at the portrayal in the light of the original story and realise that is it really that far away from canon, that actually was some of the main criticism against the episode? Well, that is a question that can be discussed further, a discussion that I hope I have given a contribution to.


Pictures:

1) The Detective and the Woman. Editing of Victorian picture of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Lara Pulver, by gwendy85.tumblr.com. Final editing by the writer herself. Source: Google.

2) 21th Century illustration of Conan Doyle’s portrayal of Irene Adler. Artist unknown. Source: Google.

Memory

Such a treacherous thing is Memory.

It sweetens that which was good into a dull honey to be tasted only in the mind and no longer in the flesh…

It rejoices in breathing new life into pain so that its embers glow ever on, simmering underneath the coals of time…

It keeps the hope alive, and yet it can never grant the one thing it promises ….You.

_________

By SorrowsFlower