“A Scandal in Bohemia” is often cited as the one failure of Sherlock Holmes’ career. It also features the one woman he is said to have admired, Irene Adler. As Watson tells us: “In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex” (187). Yet this story above all others may present the strongest evidence that Holmes was not the conventional man of the Victorian era, one who believed women to be the weaker sex in all respects and best suited for marriage and motherhood in the domestic realm. In fact, Holmes appears to admire a very different kind of woman, the New Woman.
Sarah Grand, a writer and popular speaker, introduced the concept of the New Woman in 1894 in an essay in The North American Review. The New Woman was defined as intelligent, educated, emancipated, independent and self-supporting and cut across class divides to include factory and office workers. Almost the opposite of the idealized Victorian women, the essence of the concept was that women sought access to areas of public life, which had previously been denied them such as education and politics and wanted more freedoms of every kind from less-restricted fashions to athletic activity to sexual freedom. Dyhouse describes the new woman:
She was generally middle class and educated –almost invariably
at Girton or Newnham; she smoke, rode a bicycle, and eschewed
the frills and furbelows of conventional femininity in favour of
tweedy knickerbokers or ’rational dress.’ The New Woman was
often depicted perusing the pages of ‘advanced’ or ‘decadent’
literature – Ibsen or Zola… (189)
Irene Adler exhibits many of the characteristics of The New Woman. She is independent, having worked as an opera singer, keeps her own house where she lives alone, has no family unit around her, is a sexual being with relationships before marriage, but ultimately marries who she wants to and when she decides to. Of importance in the case that brings her to Sherlock Holmes’ attention, Adler refuses to be cast aside or harmed by a former lover, even a future King. Class-consciousness does not determine her actions. In solving the case involving Adler, Holmes includes a calculation of her characteristics such as intelligence and nerve with his usual deductive method to help him understand whom he is dealing with.
The Duke, a member of the Bohemian royal family and future heir, wishes Holmes to retrieve a photograph of him and Adler that Adler possesses and threatens to send to the family of his betrothed on the day his engagement is announced. His fiancée is a Scandinavian princess and her royal family would end the engagement immediately if the relationship were revealed.
Adler’s character as described by the Duke illustrates how unlike the idealized Victorian woman she was. While attractive to men, she displays characteristics usually viewed as male. The Duke tells Holmes that he is certain Adler will make good on her threat to expose their relationship because “she has a soul of steel. She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men” (193). In addition to male characteristics, Adler moves between male and female worlds in the story when, using her theatrical skill with costume and makeup, she disguises herself as a man to follow Holmes to discover who he is. She blurs class lines as well as she has moved with ease between royalty, the middle class and professional strata.
The use of photographs in the story also underlines the multiple aspects of Adler’s character or roles she is able to play competently. In addition, Ronald Thomas has pointed out that Adler successfully uses these images of herself as sources of power: one to threaten and protect; one to reward. Adler first uses the photograph of her and the Duke to threaten him in retaliation for his abandonment, then foils Holmes’ attempt to steal the picture back from her and finally retains it so as to prevent the Duke from taking any action against her in future. She offers the Duke a second photograph, one of her alone in evening dress, as a remembrance of their relationship. Holmes requests the second photograph in payment for the case and, as Watson tells us, treasures the picture.
Adler triumphs over her former lover, but perhaps more importantly over Sherlock Holmes. Unable to locate the photograph by any other means, Holmes starts a fire to force Adler to reveal the hiding place for the photograph he seeks for his client. He is successful in finding her hiding place, but Adler is too quick for him and has removed the photograph, leaving the second one in its place. Instead of earning his enmity for thwarting his efforts to trick her, Adler earns his eternal admiration. Adler defeats Holmes by using every skill and talent she possesses including her intelligence, her daring and her willingness to defy conventional ideas of how she should behave in order to protect herself and secure the life she wants, not the life other people might think she should have. Sherlock Holmes discovers a woman like no other he encounters in his cases, a new woman, and one he appears to appreciate.