I was accidentally involved in one of those discussions this morning, where Holmes fans were ranting about Irene Adler, claiming she’s only mentioned in one story and overused in adaptations. Pity the poor fan who had dared to say she liked Irene and wanted to read more about her. To each their own, I say, and if people dislike The Woman, that’s their prerogative. But it got me thinking about exactly why I like her and why she’s half-protagonist of my three novels.
First off, because I’m pedantic that way, Irene is actually mentioned in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Blue Carbuncle,” “A Case of Identity,” and “His Last Bow.” Those alone give her as many stories as Mycroft Holmes, but there’s a fairly obvious (though continuity-problematic) slanted reference to her in “The Five Orange Pips” as well.
Also, I will make so bold as to say that if Irene is overused, it’s at least partly Doyle’s fault (gasp) for making her one of precious few women Holmes pays even the slightest bit of attention to and perhaps the only one he has much of any sort of emotional reaction toward (emotion in the general sense, not necessarily romantic). Now, that isn’t to say I appreciate all characterizations of Irene, but I personally find it hard to argue that someone specifically characterized as The Woman is unimportant, relatively rare though her canonical appearances may be.
That said, why do I, personally, like Irene Adler?
The voice of Irene that speaks in my novels came to me, as it were, from the aether. Recent research shows that the reason authors sometimes feel this way is that we’re able to partially mute the judgy parts of our brains and amplify the creative parts when we write, so that it seems, to our conscious minds, like words are being dictated to us from some great beyond, even though we’re actually making them up. Be that as it may, and horrific run-on sentences aside, Irene was just there one day, as I sat down to participate in National Novel Writing Month 2011.
In retrospect, I think she was a bit of a reaction against the stereotypical femme fatale role she often gets cast into in pastiches and adaptations. I had, at the time, just re-read the Holmes canon, and all the mentions of her were fresh in my mind. The person who spoke to me from the pages of Doyle was not an over-the-top villainess or an oversexed vixen. She was clever; she was cunning; and she wanted to live her life on her own terms. I loved her for it.
Maybe she reminded me of myself, a little bit. I’m no Mary Morstan from The Sign of Four, fantastic woman though she is. I’m not nearly that dutiful or beautiful, or, well, good. I’m also no Violet Hunter from “The Copper Beeches,” one of my favorite canon stories. She’s brave and plucky, but, well, she doesn’t seem to be having all that much fun, and I want to enjoy myself. I’m no gun-toting Milverton assassin, either. That’s a bit extreme, when all I really want is to don a disguise and go tease someone on their own doorstep… I think I’d have made a very bad Victorian, and Irene Adler is a very, very bad VIctorian indeed.
Irene Adler is flawed; there’s no getting around it, and it makes me appreciate her even more. Later in the canon, when Holmes is (rather unsuccessfully, if you ask me) narrating his own adventure “The Lion’s Mane,” he gives a somewhat (again, in my curmudgeonly opinion) twaddle-filled ode to a woman named Maud Bellamy that he calls a “complete woman” (whatever that means). Irene Adler is not a complete woman. She has broken places within her and a problematic past behind her. She’s no image of Victorian perfection, but she’s real. Not a perfect woman, but The Woman.
The reason I, in my books, foresee a future friendship and sometimes-partnership for Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler is that he’s no perfect, complete man, either. He can be selfish, cold, calculating, histrionic, insensitive, and difficult. He can also be tender, kind, thoughtful, loyal, and sacrificial. In other words, he, too, is real. That’s why I once wrote a chapter of fanfiction that ended with the line, “To Irene Adler, he is always The Man.” Two sides of a coin, with different personalities and goals, but equally flawed and equally brilliant in their own ways. That’s why, though Irene may only make her mark once in Holmes’s canon life, that mark is so indelible that I can’t resist following the ink stain of her vivid characterization through the canon and beyond, into my own universe.
Perhaps it’s Jack Kerouac who best expressed, in his classic work On the Road, what it is about Irene Adler that I can’t stop exploring:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”
Irene Adler is neither commonplace nor normal. In boy’s clothes or a wedding dress, she is madder than the maddest characters in all of literature. She does not walk in and out of the life of Sherlock Holmes, she burns, and when she’s gone, the landscape of his world is never the same–to the very last of his stories. She’s the roman candle whose explosion lights the night sky of my imaginary universe.
She’s The Woman. And that’s why I love her.
How to get my newest book:
(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.
How to get the previous two books in the series:
(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.
(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.