I’ve been wanting to Rant about Irene Adler for a while. Inevitably, someone much more prominent has beat me to it; Esther Inglis-Arkell has an interesting article in io9 called “Why Can’t Any Recent Sherlock Holmes Adaptation Get Irene Adler Right?”. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed here. As Ms. Inglis-Arkell points out, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler is actually less old-fashioned than the versions of the character that have appeared in the film Sherlock Holmes and the BBC series Sherlock. Unlike the later versions, the original Irene is not a pawn of Moriarty, and she is actually quite honourable. In Inglis-Arkell’s words, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a “clever, unconventional, take-charge, and seductive woman is, unreservedly, a good thing.”
We simply don’t deal well with her any more, and not just in the two examples cited in the article. I would like to take a look at the other side of the coin: the Irene Adlers who appear–or, significantly, who don’t appear–in two American takes on the Holmes material, House, M.D. and Elementary.
There are two characters in House, M.D. who can be seen as versions of Irene Adler. One, Rebecca Adler, appears in the pilot episode. She is the patient of the week; the only truly remarkable thing about her is that she refuses treatment until House can demonstrate that his diagnosis is correct. They have a conversation in which she quizzes him about himself and his hang-ups; perhaps her insight into his personality is a tribute to the original Irene and the reversal of power in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” However, once she is cured, she vanishes from the show. Even this brief appearance may constitute the most accurate recent Adler. Yet the show involves an actual “Irene Adler” as well. In Season 5, Episode 11, Wilson (apparently) lies to House’s team, telling them that House used to date a woman named Irene Adler. As far as we ever know, this really is a lie. Irene thus appears in the show as a figment: a lost love who never existed in the first place.
“A Scandal in Bohemia” is in no way a love story; Holmes is fascinated by Irene because she has beaten him, but there is no hint in any of the stories that Holmes is capable of falling in love. In that same story, in fact, Watson writes:
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. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
It’s nice that Irene turns out, in House, to be a lie rather than an actual lover, but that still removes a certain reality from her; she can be either a love interest or no one at all. If Rebecca Adler had been allowed to stand, she might have been a decent, if uninspired, substitute, but Irene-as-figment takes over. Irene is allowed no independent existence outside House. Even Rebecca is saved by him.
In Elementary, it all gets ever so much worse. (Spoilers follow, incidentally; if you don’t want to find out what happened in last week’s episode of Elementary, stop reading now.) It is possible there will eventually be some sort of massive plot twist involving the revelation that Irene is still alive. For the moment, however, she is 1) Sherlock’s former true love, who 2) was murdered by a man who 3) turns out to have been Moriarty. If Irene is still alive, she is doubtless in cahoots with Moriarty, which would put her in the same category as the Irenes of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock. If she truly is dead, she has been reduced to the role of the dead girlfriend/fiancee/wife/lover (or, in some stories, daughter/sister/mother) whose murder motivates the hero. She commits the further offence of making it necessary for Sherlock Holmes, a character who is notoriously single and singular, to have a love interest. In the context of this particular show, this then creates the potential for unresolved sexual tension between Sherlock and his female Watson.
Why not give Irene Adler her due? Have we really reached a point at which the two options are “sexy, untrustworthy vixen who serves as the catspaw of a male mastermind” and “dead girlfriend”? Despite her brief role in the Holmes canon, Irene Adler has pretty clearly made an impression, rather like Moriarty, whose role is equally brief. Moriarty is, famously, Holmes’s intellectual equal. Irene Adler beats Holmes. Yet in the adaptations (even, in a way, in House, in which a character named Moriarty shoots House and then effectively invades his mind as he lies on the verge of death), Moriarty becomes almost unimaginably powerful, while Irene is demonstrated to be inferior to both Holmes and Moriarty. It sometimes seems a concerted effort to deprive her of her original power.
I would like to see an Irene who truly stood as a modernised version of the character in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” not as either a “strong” woman who was really just a minion and who relied entirely on her sexuality or a mere name tossed around to motivate the male protagonist. She needs her chance to beat Holmes all over again, and not just in name.