Sherlock Women and Feminism: Irene Adler


Irene Adler. The Woman. The only woman to ever beat Sherlock Holmes. It was with trepidation that many fans waited for A Scandal in Belgravia. Some were ecstatic when it came out; many others horribly disappointed. Before the episode aired, there were many people who were worried that Irene would be a love interest for Sherlock, whether it be because they are die-hard shippers who didn’t want a woman getting in the way of ~their ship~ or the idea that Irene and Holmes being in love is nothing new. The latter is based off of many, many years of fandom pairing Irene with Holmes, despite the fact the first paragraph in A Scandal in Bohemia states:

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.

As you can see, there wasn’t any love between Holmes and Irene. Admiration, respect, possible scorn, yes, but never love. Though Irene and Holmes met face to face several times, they never did so without the use of disguises. Holmes dressed up as a workman the first time and acted as an impromptu witness to Irene Adler’s marriage to Godfrey Norton. The second time, he was dressed as a clergyman in order to find where she hid the photograph of her and the King of Bohemia. The third, and last, time they met, she was dressed in men’s clothing and followed Holmes after he found where the photograph was located, and said ‘Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.’ Holmes could not pinpoint who she was, and therefore she managed to beat him at his own game.

Why then, do many scholars like to create a romance between the two? Even though there was no love between them, and even though she married the man she desired and went away with in order to escape harassment? William Baring-Gould, one of the leading scholars of Sherlock Holmes and editor of the Annotated Volumes of Sherlock Holmes, even continued the theory that Nero Wolfe (an American detective) was the child of Holmes and Irene conceived during the Hiatus. In more recent times, Irene Adler was the love interest to Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes. It’s also particular how many pastiches, adaptations, and stories like to play up the idea that Irene Adler was a thief and a femme fatale. She was an adventuress, yes, but only in the sense that she travelled abroad, acted outside of the familiar female norm, and was courted by men outside of her class. The entirety of her criminal exploits was rudimentary blackmail which she was using as a means to keep the King of Bohemia from invading her life even further. He had sent many teams to try and steal the photograph, ransacking her house and breaching her privacy. It’s no wonder she went to such extremes to keep something sentimental to her kept under lock and key.

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