Guest Post: The Many Faces of Irene

I am relatively new to the world of Sherlock Holmes and until I read “A Scandal in Bohemia”, I really didn't like the character of Irene Adler. After reading “A Scandal in Bohemia” I realize that my aversion to the character of Irene was simply because I had never before seen the original. 

I had always been bugged by the idea that Sherlock Holmes was “in love” with Irene but, in the original, they weren't in love at all. In fact, Irene Adler married another man! What’s amazing about Irene is not that Sherlock’s “attracted” to her but that she’s the only woman who outsmarted him! Sherlock didn't call her “The Woman” because she was the only woman for him, it was a name he called her out of a blended feeling of respect and contempt. In fact, in the opening lines of “A Scandal in Bohemia” Watson states:
    “In his [Sherlock’s] 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”

We can see from this statement that Sherlock calling Irene “THE Woman” is merely a way for him to show respect and possibly even something akin to admiration for her brilliant mind which rivaled that of his own. Holmes always had great respect for someone who could break the barriers of cleverness and enter the realm of brilliance (whether they were friend or foe).

Why did I mention contempt? We must look at Sherlock’s character. Sherlock has a need to prove himself; he likes a challenge, but he also likes to win. There are several instances where, when someone shows a better understanding of almost anything, Sherlock seems to be a bit offended by it and I believe it would be no different with Irene.

So why do many versions of Sherlock Holmes portray Irene Adler as Sherlock’s one true love? I believe the answer lies in the history of the Sherlock Holmes stories and their original theater adaptation. In 1898, William Gillette, an American playwright, was turning the Sherlock Holmes stories into a stage play (in which Gillette himself would star as Holmes). Gillette contacted Arthur Conan Doyle and asked if he could have Sherlock Holmes get married in the play. Doyle famously replied “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him!” Gillette did decide to have Holmes get married in the play and fashioned a wife (named Alice Faulkner) for Sherlock that he modeled after Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Bohemia”.

After seeing Irene Adler in both lights, first as Sherlock’s “One true love” and now as her original self, I must admit that I prefer the original Irene Adler to any of her “alter egos” such as Alice Faulkner (Sherlock Holmes, the play), The Woman (Sherlock, BBC), Adler/Moriarty (Elementary, CBS), etc.  

But that’s just my opinion, I would love to know what you think!


This was just the opinion of one fledgling Sherlockian. The only way to really settle the issues would be to ask the original author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Sadly, we cannot do that. But I would love to know what you think!

Of all of the incarnations of Irene Adler you’ve seen, which version of Irene do YOU prefer? Do you think Sherlock was in love with Irene or is that just an addition to the original story line made over time?

The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
An Entirely New Country – Alistair Duncan

Sherlock Holmes (play) - Wikipedia

Written by Elizabeth Gaskins


  1. Interesting post! I personally prefer BBC:Irene over all the other versions - even the original - but then it was the BBC version which made Sherlock Holmes even palatable for me. I had read a few stories translated into my native language before, but could never really get into the whole Holmes fad. After watching "Sherlock" I've read the canon in the original and am still flabbergasted why it has such a following, but I love to be able now to spot all the easter eggs.

    I'm totally confounded with regard to Irene and why she has become this poster girl for online feminism. The way I see her she was an adventurous gold digger in a way many actresses and opera or ballet divas of her time were, see Lola Montez et al.

    As I trust what the king of Bohemia reveals about her - and why would he lie? - she obviously intended to sabotage his marriage out of jealousy and that although it must have been clear to her from the start of their relationship that he would need to marry at some point for dynastical reasons and that it could never be her.

    In fact she could count herself lucky that she found a man willing to marry her at all even if he was not a nobleman but just a lawyer. Many of these famous ladies ended poor, sick and all alone.

    Only when she herself had found an opportunity for marriage she gave up on her intentions with regard to the king. I don't see anything noble or admireable there.

    To suggest that she had a mind equal to Sherlock's in brilliance seems far fetched to me. So, she was able to spot his disguise. Big deal. Her professional experience with disguises/costumes gave her a head start that others not of the same profession didn't have. And that was after the fact that her normally very quiet residential street was crowded that evening and the location of a veritable ruckus. Enough to make anyone suspicious.

    The she vanishes with her new husband and very kindly lets the king get on with his life and marriage plans.

    All in all I'm less than impressed with her.

    1. It's a fair argument and one that I largely agree with. I tend to view the Canon's Violets as more worthy female role models. Violet Smith for her bravery in The Solitary Cyclist and Violet Hunter for much the same in The Copper Beeches. Violet De Merville in The Illustrious Client was more stubborn than brave but was still a formidable character and none of these Violets set out to cause harm or disgrace to anyone else.

    2. Of course we must not forget Violet Westbury who demonstrates considerable courage and mastery of her emotions when her fiance is killed in The Bruce-Partington Plans.

  2. Doyle does something very interesting with Irene Adler; he gives her a 180 degree make-over in the eyes of the reader. She is introduced as having questionable virtue--she is called an adventuress (that is she has sex outside the sanctity of marriage), she is a professional in the arts at age 30 (a time when most women would have succumbed to societal pressure to be married with children she is unmarried and working in a field which, in the public's eyes, had little probity), she is blackmailing a member of royalty (a particularly nasty crime against a member of the "noble" class)--she is in short a criminal who is a threat to the very fabric of Victorian society and mores.

    By the end of the adventure, Irene is the most moral major character in the story. The reader comes to see the King of Bohemia as a buffoon, a self-entitled Lothario willing to employ others to commit criminal acts to get what he wants ("Five attempts have been made. Twice burglars in my pay ransacked her house. Once we diverted her luggage when she travelled. Twice she has been waylaid.") In fact, Irene may have had the photo of her and the King as a keepsake, the King realized it could be compromising then tried to steal it from her. She may have then used the blackmail threat as self-defense to protect her from robbery or worse. While Irene marries for love, the King marries for political expediency. Even Holmes and Watson allow themselves to be pimped out to the King, breaking the law in what Holmes later realizes is a doubtful cause.

    Doyle rehabilitates Irene in the eyes of the reader and Victorian society (that explains Watson's phrase "the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory": that adventuress is dead, replaced by a virtuous woman, married for love). We see that Irene is "on a very different level to" the King of Bohemia and perhaps to Holmes himself.

    Doyle did write some strong female characters in the Canon but there is a reason why Irene Adler is called The Woman.

    1. Doyle may have tried to do what you suggested, but he has not succeeded where I'm concerned. For the time she lived in she had questionable virtues, no doubt about it. We cannot judge her by our own modern standards. And she could not so easily "succumb to societal pressure" and just marry and have children, because the number of men willing to marry a woman like her would have been negligently small. She was not just a "professional woman". she was in the eyes of her contemporaries a fallen woman.

      And how do we know that she marries for love and not because it was her only way out of a lifestyle that would most likely have led to an end in poverty and perhaps sickness?

      That the king is a buffoon does nothing to diminish his justified claims of being able to go on with his life unhindered by former lovers. As he is himself convinced of Irene's integrity insofar that he trusts her word when in the end she says she won't use the photo, I don't think he would have had reason to try and get it back hadn't she told him of her plans to sabotage his marriage. I think we can safely assume that her threat came first and his counter measures were a consequence of that.

      In the end Holmes is so taken with her being able to "outwit" him that her former behaviour seems justifiable. I don't see her as a virtuous woman marrying for love. Both the king and she do what they have to and marry conveniently: one to ensure the royal heritage, the other to ensure a life secure within the boundaries of society.

  3. Btw, it just occurred to me that once she *was* married it would have been entirely unwise to still go on with her sabotage plans. The only chance she had to start a new life within the society was to go somewhere where she was not known as the famous/infamous Irene Adler, but where she would just be Irene Norton, respectable wife of Geoffrey Norton, Esq. Which is why she and Geoffrey leave at the end of the story for parts unknown.

    Had she still followed through with her plans regarding the king the ensuing scandal could have swallowed her up as well thus endangering not only the king, but her and her new husband too. I don't think Geoffrey would have been amused.

  4. You've all made very good points. I find that I certainly don't look to Irene as a role model for anyone. & we must absolutely look at the time period. She would be considered a "fallen woman" however, I am glad that Doyle gave her the 180 redemption that mr. O'Leary mentions. Doyle allowed her to give up the picture get married & move on and the Jane-Austen-Romantic loves that :)

  5. The only thing I would disagree about is your comment about Holmes having contempt for Irene. My opinion.
    Good piece and discussion. Thanks.