Friday, March 23, 2012

A Scandal In Bohemia & Irene Adler.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890.

“To Google she was always the Irene”…well, perhaps not always, but right now search Irene and Google Instant delivers Adler in pole position.

Some achievement for a minor character from a 121 years old short story who speaks to us through but seven prosaic sentences and a letter.





It is one of life’s little ironies that this new-found popularity (I should say trending) is largely attributable to recent, controversial portrayals of “the woman” by Rachel McAdams and Lara Pulver. 

Moreover, I predict the casting of Russian beauty, Lyanka Gryu, in the new 2012 Russian TV series will draw more moths still to the Adler flame. 

The net effect of these modern takes on the author’s original creation is an enduring interest in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his works. This is all to the good. Lucy Liu may soon have Nigel Bruce spinning in his grave but Doyle will be discussed, read, re-read and remembered when she assays her Watson.

I have no quarrel with such franchises. They are fresh, very entertaining and raise critical questions of abiding literary interest. While it is true they do not depict the Irene Adler of my imagination, our contemporary Adlers, nevertheless, generate from seeds Doyle cast on Victorian soil.

 I hope to illustrate, in the course of this group of posts, just how fine a ‘farmer’ we find in Doyle; how a few humble seeds can grow strong if scattered on fertile ground and how great writing can tolerate and engender the most extreme of reinventions.

 To do this I shall offer a critical assessment of A Scandal in Bohemia and the references to Irene Adler in later stories. Readers of my Blog are recommended to have the text at hand (this may be conveniently followed on line at: http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/a-scandal-in-bohemia/).
Cot's Portait of a Young Woman 1869.

I shall close with a glimpse of the Ideal Adler who performs only on the stage of my imagination.


A Scandal in Bohemia...a literary assessment.

1. PROLOGUE
(Genre, Title & Structure)

I begin where it always begins: with form.

A writer selects; good writers select judiciously. Doyle chose to create Irene Adler within the confines of a short story. He chose not to embody her in a full length novel or stage play. The short story form suited his purposes best. And one was enough.

As a poet is challenged and bound by the restrictions imposed by the sonnet form, so Doyle submits himself to the necessary economies of the prose short story. This is not designed to display craftsmanship but to deploy the most appropriate vehicle for his nascent imaginings and themes.

The short story is not a precis. The latter must always defer to its superior original, whereas a short story is enriched by the tension between so little expressed and much more unsaid. Thus are the reader's intellect and imagination exercised (one may observe this is precisely the challenge relished by Sherlock Holmes every time he addresses the facts of a case). The detective is a skilled master in short-story interpretation.

So, we must not bemoan the lack of flesh upon the bones of Ms. Irene Adler. But the temptation is pardonably irresistible to add expanse and colour where Doyle drew in miniature silhouette.
We do this  imaginatively as we read: film makers do it to populate and animate a screen.


Our short-story 'stage' is reminiscent of that experienced in Becket's Waiting for Godot where in the wings and beyond the limelight is a disquieting darkness. Or, as Theseus puts it, "in the night...How easy is a bush supposed a bear." (A Midsummer Night's Dream V,1). Doyle's 'night' is iconically the fog of Victorian London. Bizarre events with the most outre of results occur beneath the flickering gas lamp of each story in the canon; figures emerge, metamorphose, strut their moment (sometimes die) To Baker Street they throng from all walks and levels of society, jostLing for justice, inspiration, succour, revenge, for every motive under the sun. And, in Doyle's brief illuminations, Sherlock Holmes is the incandescent element.


Perhaps Holmes is not unlike Watson - he too is, "the one fixed point in a changing age".

"Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes"

Sidney Paget intuitively senses the short story's particular chiaroscuro. His most dramatic illustration for A Scandal in Bohemia typifies that appreciation.


In disguise, Irene Adler delivers her Parthian shaft... and walks on, never to return.


The rest, you may say, is history.


The immortal shade of this New Jersey-born diva now haunts Hollywood and paces the virtual streets of this World's Wide Web.



The title chosen for a story is our first encounter with it and the first stirring of authorial manipulation. Reasonably we anticipate a scandal...perhaps set far way in Bohemia. We have been mislead. The story unfolds entirely in London...and no breath of scandal breaks. However, I shall argue the title does have resonance in the scandalous behaviour of a King. 


Structurally, I concur with the three divisions (not Doyle's own) as indicated in the link text (see above), though I allow for distinct Prologues to the first two and  a brief Epilogue to the tale.


Prologue (1891 - the year of publication)
Day One ( Tuesday 20 March, 1888)
Prologue (1891)
Day Two (Wednesday, 21 March, 1888)
Day Three (Thursday 22 March, 1888)
Epiiogue  (1891)

Reminiscence bestows distance upon the events recalled. Doyle animates the story by employing Watson as narrator. Watson. in turn, delights in recreating conversations couched in direct speech. Narrative variety is further enhanced by the Prologues and Epilogues along with the use (during the narrative of Day Two) of Holmes as associate narrator. Bohemia too, in effect, performs the office of narrator during his initial visit to Baker Street, although the picture he paints of Irene Adler, of himself and of their interactions cannot be trusted as objective fact.


The Prologue to Day One comprises the opening two paragraphs, the latter acting in the way of a musical segue to a time three years earlier.


THE woman, heads and concludes the former, which is in great part concerned with Holmes's suppression of emotion in the interests of his profession.The imbalance mirrors his attitude to women. The 'late' Irene Adler is granted little space here and her fate will be to die within three years of her marriage. A fair-minded Watson considers her "of dubious and questionable memory" but concedes that Holmes honours the memory of a lady unique in his experience. She will, let it be noted, inhabit the story's final sentences too.

Holmes was "beaten by a woman's wit" but that is perhaps not the only reason for his respect: his 'Bohemian soul' seems more able to appreciate Irene Adler's motivation and plight than Dr. Watson, absorbed as he was by 1888 in  "My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests" of marital life. There is, after all, much to be admired already in the facts of her origins and meteoric rise. No wonder Holmes Hums as he reads out the Index entry.

Arms of New Jersey 1852.

 She has ventured a long way from New Jersey'. With her native Indian Blessing...and those gifts of the gods, head-turning beauty and the voice of an angel, she found liberty and prosperity (of a kind) in faraway Milan and Warsaw. Now 30 and living in London, she is retired from the grand stage, unmarried (hence unsupported) and childless. Readers of Defoe will remember the not dissimilar 'adventures' of Moll Flanders and her honest attempts to secure...security.


 A serpentine way indeed from Warsaw to Briony Lodge, whose first name denotes suburban bliss, but whose second feels altogether more temporary. She values privacy highly: Godfrey is her sole male visitor. Here is a woman with all her defences up, yearning for all the new Mrs. Watson enjoys. She must perforce be man and woman using all her wit and talents to survive.


The Crown-Prince of Bohemia has moved on too. At 25 the two of them played as if there were no tomorrow. At 30 as King he now seeks to marry within his class without scandal. Initially, like Moll, Adler plays the only card she holds. The marriage to Godfrey Norton, lawyer at the Inner Temple, renders her threat to compromise Bohemia no longer necessary, as Holmes fully realises.

Watson's marriage plays a part in one of several elegant symmetries shaping the story. We may compare it with Bohemia's and that of the Norton's; we readily observe the contrast with Holmes's way of life...and with the histories of "an adventuress" and a panicking, compromised King.


Notwithstanding the convenient divisions noted above, the narrative just as clearly forms a  diptych, whose 'hinge' moment is dramatised as "Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes". Prior to this the story was about saving the reputation of Bohemia; now, through her own exertions, on her own terms, Irene Adler secures a respectable future. in addition, if reputation is a key thematic preoccupation of A Scandal in Bohemia there is another, just as critical, at stake: that of the World's only consulting detective. Holmes is committed irrevocably to living by his wits. No wonder the spectre of Adler haunts him always.

There is elegance too in the way the story folds back into the past and forth to that which transpires from the events of a few days one March. Even as we read the Prologue, Romeo and Juliet-like we know Irene Adler is dead by '91. That awareness colours and qualifies the contents of her triumphal letter, itself as dramatic a gesture as the seasoned actress in male disguise...and just as superfluous. She might just have left the photographs and papers, or burned them in Briony Lodge. But to do so would have rendered her completely vulnerable AND denied the irresistible twin opportunity to revel in separating from a King on her terms and surprising the clever agent she realised had only been out-manoeuvred for the moment. 


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Who was that masked man?
As for her past...as with everyone ,her reputation proves more important and accessible than the truth. The bare facts noted in Holmes's index are only fleshed out through the biased account given by Bohemia. Holmes, Watson and the reader have only his word that the past was as he lays out. And scepticism increases the more we get to know the man behind this crudest of disguises.

Thus is she designed in the end to elude us. Like Ruby Tuesday, she would never say where she came from. Like her kindred spirit, the artist, Tamara de Lempicka, she constantly re-invented herself. This is the way of a woman surviving in a man's world. She will have played with fire many times and my next post will focus on Irene Adler's dangerous entanglement with royalty as i move to examine Day One of A Scandal in Bohemia.

UPDATE! in connection with Irene Adler, please take a look at Luke Kuhns's excellent Blog post: HERE

AND you can go straight to my 2nd post on Adler HERE