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.
—“A Scandal in Bohemia”
—“A Scandal in Bohemia”
One cannot hope to learn much about love from the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. That is, at least, how it appears to John Watson. In fact, the Holmes canon serves as both a reflection of the cultural zeitgeist of the fin de siècle in art, poetry and prose, and its moralizing retort, hearkening back to a simpler time when bodies and minds were more buttoned-up than bared for all to see. “A Scandal in Bohemia” plays both roles so well that a reader would be hard-pressed to find a better example of classical Victorian restraint running headlong with the changing social and sexual mores on the Continent. Two of Conan Doyle’s more famous acquaintances would be the only likely contenders in English. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray had appeared the year before in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, only a few months after The Sign of Four had finished its serialization. It would be another six years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula left subtlety and sexual subtext behind in its tale of love and the supernatural. Thus, in 1891 (recalling, per Watson, the spring of 1888) one story remains, the story of one woman—the woman—who bested Sherlock Holmes and won his admiration, and perhaps his heart.
The character of Irene Adler has been explored down to the minutest detail by Holmes scholars, and many speculate as to Conan Doyle’s own estimation of her importance. As the first of the shorter fictions to be published in the monthly magazine, The Strand, its prominence in the canon cannot be understated, but often examinations of Adler and her relationship to Holmes are done external to the storyline of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the only story in which she actually appears. However, Adler is mentioned in three other stories, and it is suspected that Conan Doyle may have mistakenly mentioned Holmes being recently tricked by “a woman” (presumably Adler) in “The Five Orange Pips,” even though it takes place chronologically before “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The fact that Adler is recurrent at all seems to imply some import. But Conan Doyle, through Watson, never acknowledges anything more on the part of Holmes than a brief lapse into emotion, acknowledging that he’d been beaten by a woman who displayed a canniness not only equal, but superior, to his own. In the end, Watson is adamant that it is respect, or perhaps the sting of failure, but it is not love.
Even with Watson’s words to the contrary, one hundred years of serious Holmes scholarship still contends with Irene Adler. For many readers, expert or novice, cultivating a sense of Holmes’ humanity is important, or, in the perceived absence of that humanity, a glimpse at some motivations—like love or loss—burning at the heart of the cold, logician exterior. Derivative works on bestseller’s lists around the world, on the West End stage, and Hollywood movie and television screens, remain committed to this and to keeping the idea of a romance between Adler and Holmes alive in the collective imagination. In these ways, it seems like love for Holmes, even at its remotest possibility, endures forever.