To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman.
That is the opening line that still gives me goosebumps of delight even after decades of devoted reading of the Holmes stories.
A Scandal in Bohemia is the first of the Holmes short stories and sets the structure and tone of many Homes stories to follow: Holmes and Watson are at 221B Baker Street when a new case presents itself. (There may be some spoilers from this point onwards.)
What may come as a surprise in this story – apart from the story line – is the construction of the story:
It is the first short story, so we have just gotten to know Holmes and Watson, yet, this story (despite being set in March 1888) is told from a point in time much, much later.
Watson tells us this story with a lot of hindsight. One of the additional bits of information we get from Watson is that the story was told three years after the death of Irene Adler.
I had not actually picked up on this on previous re-reads, but it does make sense that Watson would not have disclosed the story any earlier – not for the sake of keeping his promise of confidentiality to their client, but to allow Ms Adler to pursue her life without the public knowing knowing much about her past. While Watson and Holmes may have seen her brilliance and not judged her against the social mores of their late Victorian times, Watson readers may have disagreed.
Ironically, of course, ACD did exactly this: He wrote a story that had the most brilliant mind and most anti-social of characters, show admiration – maybe even what may pass for affection – for not only another person, but one that beats him at his own game.
And that this person was a woman, may not have been that important to Holmes, but it may have been to many of ACD’s readers.
There is another quick jibe at Victorian society in this short story where Ms Adler writes to Holmes that
“Male costume is nothing new to me. I often take advantage of the freedom which it gives.”
I have no idea what ACD’s own view was on women’s role in society, and he never has his characters elaborate on the standing of women other than when Holmes shows up the stupidity and arrogance of his client at the end of the story (another one of my favourite quotes!):
“What a woman–oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we had all three read this epistle. “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”
“From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly.
I would love to find out more about ACD’s views on this issue, so am looking forward to researching it a bit more.
So, anyway, we have ACD pointing at some issues with Victorian society, even to poke fun at the aristocratic beliefs that breeding cannot be substituted by other qualities.
We also have some fun banter between Holmes and Watson, Watson describing Holmes cocaine habit, we have high adventure with Holmes being Holmes or someone else, and we get more insight into Holmes’ method:
“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
(One day I will have this printed on a mug for the office!)
However, what I probably love best in this story are the very subtle ways in which Holmes shows his affection for his adversary in this story:
“I was half-dragged up to the altar, and before I knew where I was I found myself mumbling responses which were whispered in my ear, and vouching for things of which I knew nothing, and generally assisting in the secure tying up of Irene Adler, spinster, to Godfrey Norton, bachelor. It was all done in an instant, and there was the gentleman thanking me on the one side and the lady on the other, while the clergyman beamed on me in front. It was the most preposterous position in which I ever found myself in my life, and it was the thought of it that started me laughing just now. It seems that there had been some informality about their license, that the clergyman absolutely refused to marry them without a witness of some sort, and that my lucky appearance saved the bridegroom from having to sally out into the streets in search of a best man. The bride gave me a sovereign, and I mean to wear it on my watch-chain in memory of the occasion.”