“A Scandal in Bohemia,” or “The Ambiguous Romantic Proclivities of Sherlock Holmes”

This week was technically supposed to be The Valley of Fear, which I’ve been really looking forward to. It’s the only one of the novels I haven’t read before, so I’m excited to give it a go. But, since my schedule got set back a few days last week, I didn’t get around to starting to read it until Friday, and then my Saturday was kind of eaten up by Shakespearean frolicking, as is appropriate on the Bard’s birthday/anniversary of his death. So, I ran out of time and had to bump Valley back a week, moving “A Scandal in Bohemia” into its place. I’m not sure it matters if they get read slightly out of order at this point, because I’ve already half given up on continuity ever actually being a thing. If Doyle didn’t have to care about it, I can ignore it once in awhile, too. Sounds fair to me.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” is the first Holmes short story Doyle wrote, having previously given us two novel-length adventures, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of The Four. It’s also the story where the incomparable Sherlock Holmes meets his match; brilliantly, that match just happens to be a woman. Irene Adler is probably the most-talked about woman – possibly the most talked about secondary character, outside the core supporting players and short of Moriarty, period, in fact. The most brilliant part of that is the fact she manages this while only appearing in one story. The same story where we meet this glorious and clever creature we learn that she is the late Irene Adler, which I suppose limits her future appearances a little. Although, I heard a theory somewhere that maybe the “late” part, attached as it is to her maiden name (she does get married in the course of the story, after all), could just refer to the fact she’s no longer going by that name; she was Irene Adler of late, henceforth she is Irene Norton. In the end, the rumors of her death do very little to lessen the character’s impact, either on the world or on Holmes himself.

She has lived on in two pastiche series of her own – Carole Nelson Douglas’ 8-book Irene Adler series and Amy Thomas’ The Detective and the Woman trilogy – and has her involvement with Holmes produce offspring in a pair John Lescroart and in Laurie R. King’s The Language of Bees. Even William S. Baring-Gould (he of the original complete annotated Holmes) suggested, in his fictional biography of the great detective, that Adler and Holmes had a son, who then grew up to be that other brilliant fictional detective, Nero Wolfe. All three current TV/film Holmes’ have had their dance with Irene. (I tend to think “Elementary” found the most interesting and innovative use of her, but I realize I may be in the minority there. I can’t help but love a twist I never see coming, and they definitely surprised me.) In fact, Irene has probably been adapted for film and television almost as frequently as the two men who infamously encounter her, and people have very definite opinions on the handling of each of them. Don’t believe me? Google “Rachel McAdams Irene Adler” sometime.

The fact that Irene is a woman leads to one of the many debates in Holmesian study and fandom: does Sherlock Holmes sleep with/is he in love with Irene Adler? If you get a group of Holmes fans together and lob that grenade into the center of them, you’ll likely discover a pretty quick and definitive divide. There will be those that consider Holmes’ admiration, detailed so thoroughly by Watson, as proof beyond question that he was in love with her. Didn’t he refer to her as “a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for”? He kept her picture, for goodness sake; that must be love! Then you’ll have those that cling to the “most perfect reasoning and observing machine” interpretation of Holmes who consider him entirely asexual and above the “softer passions.” And then, of course, you’ll have the “Holmes doesn’t love Irene! He’s in love with Watson!” camp, which put the emphasis on the romance portion of “bromance.” There are other points of view on the topic of the great detective’s romantic entanglements as well – Holmes and Lestrade’s love/hate relationship is proof of actual love, Holmes and Moriarty are hot for each other in the most twisted way possible, etc. – but an abundance of the question, for some, centers around the possibility or impossibility of Holmes hooking up with Irene.

People have been theorizing about Holmes’ sexuality probably since he sprung, fully formed, from Doyle’s head (they just didn’t have entire forums devoted to the topic where they could discuss it back then). The reason? Nobody actually knows where Holmes falls on the Kinsey scale. Doyle never assigns a preference to his character. Sure, we can assume, based on the time period, that he’s meant to be heterosexual, simply because that was the cultural default, but we don’t have any more proof of that than any other option. Holmes courts a young lady for the purpose of gaining access to her employer in “Charles Augustus Milverton,” but he also, according to Watson, is a consummate actor – “The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime,” – so that doesn’t necessarily prove anything, anymore than Holmes’ reaction to Watson being shot in “The Three Garridebs” definitively proves that he’s in love with Watson.

We know so little about him, for all Watson’s lists, that we have more than enough room to decide for ourselves who he really is. Yes, this goes slightly against one of Holmes’ own logical tenets – “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” – but since we’re never going to get firm data (not a pun) on the topic, I think we can all be forgiven for twisting facts to suit theories here.

A quick summary of “Scandal,” for anyone unfamiliar: Holmes and Watson (who is recently married and no longer living at 221B) are hired by the King of Bohemia to retrieve a photograph from a woman he’s had a relationship with. Might seem like a small problem, a woman having a picture of you, but she’s threatening to send it to his fiancee, the King of Scandinavia’s daughter, when he publicly announces their engagement. The wrath of a woman scorned and all that. He’s made several attempts to get it back, but they’ve all failed. Thus, he’s come to Holmes’ door to get the job done. Holmes immediately goes to work, doing a little reconnaissance and accidentally winding up the witness to Irene’s marriage to another man in the process. He and Watson then descend later that night to suss out the exact location of the actual photo via a nifty little ruse, but end up getting played a bit themselves. They return to Irene’s home, with the King, the next morning to retrieve it and find that she has fled, leaving a letter for Holmes and a photograph of herself for the King and her word that she will never use the incriminating photo against her old flame. Holmes then refuses material reward for his services and asks for just st the picture instead. Thus, “the woman” is born.

Irene Adler: 1, Sherlock Holmes: 0.

So, what does “Scandal” tells us about Holmes and romance? Well, it definitely tells us that, whatever the motivation behind his thoughts on Ms. Adler, she left a very distinct impression upon him. The story starts with what I consider to be the best opening line in the entirety of the Holmes canon, and definitely one of the most iconic: “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.” I think it’s important to look at where the emphasis gets placed in that line. She is THE woman, singular amongst her gender. Not THE WOMAN, which might imply that she’s more singular in his heart or esteem.

In the same paragraph, Watson gives his audience that “perfect reasoning and observing machine” line and informs us that women/emotions are “Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of [Holmes’] own high-power lenses.” The thing to keep in mind here is, we’re always only ever getting Watson’s observations and opinions with regards to Holmes. True, Holmes gives Watson reason to think these things. In “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” he says “I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.” Watson never sees Holmes romantically with a woman. He objects to sentimentality at every turn. But what we say and what is actually true are sometimes different things. Watson can’t read Holmes’ mind (there’s an interesting concept for someone, who isn’t me, to play with sometime maybe), so he can only assume, based on the evidence he’s allowed to see, what Holmes thinks on the subject. And Watson’s maybe not the most observant of people, either, as Holmes himself tells us in “Scandal:”

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

(Not that adaptations should ever be taken as canon, but the stakeout scene in “The Abominable Bride,” I think, provides an interesting perspective on what Watson knows and what he assumes and how Holmes likely does keep somethings even from his Boswell. Only a man in possession of secrets of his own is ever so well-equipped for digging out those of others, after all.)

Evidence perhaps pointing to Holmes feeling something a bit more than mere admiration for Ms. Adler can be gleaned from the text as well. There’s the already quoted line about having a face men would die for; Watson (the married man), by the way, also comments on her noteworthy beauty, remarking about her superb figure and his guilt at seeing “the beautiful creature against whom I was conspiring.” The most damning evidence, though, comes in the form of Irene’s photograph. When offered any reward he’d like, including the possibility of one of the King of Bohemia’s flashy rings, Holmes turns it all down in favor of the photograph Irene left behind for the King. Seems an odd thing for a man to request the glamor shot of his client’s ex; seems odder for someone who just lost the roommate that was paying half of their rent to turn down actual payment. So, did Holmes have himself a little crush? Or did he just want a tangible memento of the person – the woman – who bested him, possibly as a reminder to never underestimate anyone again?

As for me? I could say I don’t have an opinion one way or the other, but it might sound slightly disingenuous, considering I’m working on a series where a gender-swapped Holmes is in love with her Watson. And yet, I wouldn’t exactly only classify myself as a Holmes and Watson ‘shipper – fandom terminology for one who considers two particular characters to be in a relationship. It would probably be more honest to say I’m flexible on the topic. I can see it either way (and that’s also a perfectly valid approach to the topic, by the way – Holmes’ preferences being flexible, that is). By my way of thinking, Doyle didn’t build that cage, so neither should I. I’ve made one for Charlotte, of course, but even it’s a bit roomier than a single interpretation. Because people are rarely ever entirely stagnant; we move about the spectrum of disinterest to desire depending on the day, or the person in front of us.

I can see it from the Guy Ritchie point of view where Irene and Holmes have past history that went awry but he’s still pining, much as he’d rather pretend he isn’t; the Moffat/Gatiss version, where Holmes is deeply intrigued, possibly attracted, and willing to rush in to save her neck because of his perceived infatuation, also seems similarly valid. But I can also see the pining for Watson in the Ritchie-verse, and the “I’ve always assumed love is a dangerous disadvantage. Thank you for the final proof,” of BBC’s Sherlock, as well as the “sex is just a way to keep the engine running” philosophy of Sherlock in “Elementary.” The Holmes in my head has room to be any of those things, or all of them, if he so chooses. He’s Sherlock bloody Holmes; he’s allowed to be a conundrum.

A few other unrelated items I noted while reading:

• It’s hard to argue that there’s no canon basis for Holmes as a drug addict (and I’ve heard people do it), when you have Watson talking about Holmes “alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition,” and “He was at work again. He had risen out of his drug-created dreams and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.”

• I was complaining last week about men never being scandalized by their indiscretions, and here Doyle has a foreign aristocrat asking for his help to avoid his own indiscretion getting out and being his ruin.

• Who is Mrs. Turner and what has she done with Mrs. Hudson?

• “I had been warned against you months ago. I had been told that if the King employed an agent it would certainly be you.” Anyone else want to know who warned Irene about Holmes?

• Case-dropping: the Trepoff murder in Odessa; the singular tragedy of the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee; the delicate mission to the reigning family of Holland; the Darlington substitution scandal; the Arnsworth castle business.

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