I don’t get it. Both Irene Adlers were defeated because they fell for Sherlock Holmes, because of their sentimental feelings for him, but one is bashed and her writers are called names (Sherlock) and one is…
The thing that bugs me about the whole “Let’s make Irene a more prominent character” thing is how it overlooks, ignores, or outright rewrites the one thing that Irene did that nobody else ever manged:
Irene beat Sherlock.
Irene beat Sherlock. Yes, he caught her with her pants down (so to speak) exactly once. Then she caught on damn fast, followed him back, thumbed her nose at him, switched out the photographs and made tracks as fast as she possibly could (mostly because she needed to get the everloving fuck away from the King of Bohemia)
Every other portrayal of Irene I’ve seen other than the original, every single one, has Sherlock eventually beating Irene.
It goes even further than that: Sherlock was in the wrong for that entire case, and at some point he figured it out. In fact, if you look at Conan Doyle’s original stories, there’ve only been two or three stories where Sherlock either made the wrong assumption or was just plain wrong from the outset, and the two biggest errors Sherlock made involved women—specifically, him underestimating women. One was the case of the woman who hid her daughter because the child was mulatto (he assumed she had a lover she was hiding) and the other one was Irene Adler. Both cases would have ended disastrously for the women if they, or another party had made a different choice.
In The Adventure of the Yellow Face, the woman is afraid to reveal her that her previous husband was an African, and that her daughter is mixed race. Yeah, it’s racist, but this was the late eighteen hundreds, and people were still getting killed for mixed-race relations a hundred years later. She was worried for her own safety and the safety of her daughter, who she didn’t want to abandon. Her husband could have easily abandoned her, or worse, and would have still been regarded as a man of upstanding moral character for doing so. And Sherlock made that outcome that much more likely by bursting in on the cottage where the kid was, insulting the woman’s honor by insisting she was hiding a lover in that house, and forcing the woman to reveal her daughter’s existence and race before she was ready. By making those assumptions, Sherlock created circumstances where the woman and her daughter were in active, acute danger of physical harm and social and financial censure, and would be in said danger for the rest of their lives. Her husband, however, decided that he didn’t give a fuck about race and decided to work towards having a blended family. And again: Yes. It’s a very racist story. However, what makes it relevant to the Holmes/Adler dynamic is Holmes’ reaction. He tells Watson that if he’s ever overconfident, or is careless in handling a case, please remind him about this one.
Please remind him, in other words, that he almost got a woman and her daughter killed.
Which brings me to Irene Adler.
Sherlock should not have taken that case.
He hated abusers, he hated blackmailers, he hated anybody who dissed women. He might not have had a high opinion of them himself, but people who misused women got squashed over and over and over again. The facts of the case make it clear the King does not care about the photograph. Their affair was years ago, long before the King ever thought about getting married. This is still the eighteen hundreds. Royals have mistresses. Royals get to have mistresses, and again, he wasn’t married when he slept with Irene. The picture has power to create a small inconvenience and that’s all. And Irene just wants the picture so this guy will leave her alone. Irene has no power in this situation, and if the King really was worried about the photograph, he’d confess the situation to his in-laws and future bride and spend a few months making up. It’s not that there’s a photo out there, it’s that Irene is out there, and he can’t just let her go. So the King coached his story to make it look like Irene was the blackmailer—Holmes’s big hot button—and then paid him a massive amount of money not to look too closely at the case.
Sherlock Holmes should have figured out that the King was effectively stalking Irene Adler. He’s figured out much more with many fewer clues. This is probably the only case where Sherlock makes a massive error in judgement and sides with the aggressor, rather than the downtrodden. This is something far more significant, to Sherlock, than the mother and the little girl. With The Adventure of the Yellow Face, he was wrong. This time he is in the wrong. He’s sided with an abuser and is attempting to give him a sort of risk-free access to Irene. That picture is the only power she’s got over the King. Without it, he can contact her with impunity. Who would believe her, after all? There isn’t any proof there was ever even a relationship, other than that picture.
And what happens the one time Sherlock sides with the aggressor? Irene doesn’t just beat him, she shows him up. The three best words ever uttered in a Sherlock Holmes story: “Goodnight, Mr. Holmes.” It’s not about love or a simple game between two people. It’s a woman who has been, however lightly, re-victimized by a man she just wants to go away taking some of her own back and, in the process, showing up one of the greatest detectives in London.She pulls one over on the dude her former lover hired to stalk her, sets things up for the big reveal, and then takes off, keeping the photograph as insurance that the King cannot pursue her without creating a massive scandal.
THAT is why Irene is so significant to Holmes. She’s not a potential lover. She’s the case that he never should have taken, that he fucked up from the get go. She’s the case where he lost sight of his values in the face of an awful lot of money (The King offered him like 100,000 pounds in today’s money to get that picture back from Irene). She’s the case where, if she had been any less intelligent, any less resourceful, and any less prepared, he would have left a victim re-exposed to her abuser without any decent line of defense. Irene is the symbol of Sherlock’s blindspot. And that’s why he keeps her picture. He doesn’t need to be reminded of “the woman”. But he does need to be reminded every day that he can make a mistake, and when he does, the consequences will be terrible.
That’s why reducing Irene to a lover and potential antagonist is a problem for me. First, it’s trying to delete the fact that a mere woman beat the greatest detective that ever lived, which is probably something a lot of people (coughmisogynistscough) can’t stand. And second, it’s ignoring the whole “When Sherlock fucks up, he fucks up bad" aspect of her story.
Irene is not Sherlock’s lover.
Irene is Sherlock’s biggest mistake.
And Irene Adler beat Sherlock.