- This article is for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character. For other versions of the character see Versions of Irene Adler.
Irene Adler Norton is a character featured in the Sherlock Holmes story "A Scandal in Bohemia" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published in July 1891. She is one of the most notable female characters in the Sherlock Holmes stories, despite appearing in only one tale.
Irene Adler was born in New Jersey in 1858. She pursued a career in opera as a contralto, performing at La Scala in Milan, and for a term as prima donna at the Imperial Opera of Warsaw, indicating that she was an extraordinary singer. Adler retired in her late twenties and moved to London.
Dr Watson refers to her as "The Late Irene Adler" at the time of the story's publication. On the other hand, the word "late" can also mean "former". She married Godfrey Norton, making Adler her former name. This same usage is employed in "The Adventure of the Priory School" in reference to the Duke's former status as a cabinet minister.
Though Wilhelm lived in Prague, in 1883, while Crown Prince, he paid a lengthy visit to Warsaw, where he "made the acquaintance of the well-known adventuress, Irene Adler". The two became lovers; afterward, Adler had kept a photograph of the two of them. The king explains to Holmes that he intended to marry Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia; a marriage that would be threatened if his relationship with Adler came to light.
Using his considerable skill for disguise, Holmes traces Adler's movements and learns much of her private life. He then sets up a fake incident to cause a diversion that would let him discover where the picture was hidden. When he returns to take it, he finds Adler gone, along with her new husband and the photo, which has been replaced with a letter to Holmes, explaining how she has defeated him, but also that she is happy with her new husband and will not compromise her former lover, provided the king does not try anything against her in the future.
At a time when ladies were supposed to be ladies, Adler had "the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men", according to Wilhelm. She beat Holmes, and he admired her for it. His respect appears to have caused him to reassess his perspective on the opposite sex as a whole.
In A Scandal in Bohemia, King Wilhelm first described Irene Adler as having "the face of the most beautiful of women". When Holmes saw her in the flesh, even he acknowledged her as a true head-turning beauty, going as far as to comment on her being "a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for". Watson also observed that she was not only beautiful, but graceful and gentle in her movements.
In "The Five Orange Pips", Holmes mentions that he has been beaten four times, three times by men and once by a woman. Since "The Five Orange Pips" is set in September 1887, before "A Scandal in Bohemia", which is set in March 1888, the woman Holmes mentions who beat him cannot be Irene Adler if the chronology is correct. However, this may simply be a chronological error on Doyle's part, as "The Five Orange Pips" was published after "A Scandal in Bohemia". Doyle had made clear chronological mistakes in other Holmes stories, and no other woman is mentioned to ever be held in the same regard by Holmes or to have beaten Holmes. Also, in "A Case of Identity", John Watson mentions that Adler is the only person he has ever known to have beaten Holmes.
Adler's relationship with Holmes
Irene Adler earns Sherlock Holmes's unbounded admiration. When the King of Bohemia says, "Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?" Holmes replies scathingly that Miss Adler is indeed on a much different level than the King (by which he means higher, an implication lost on the King).
The beginning of "A Scandal in Bohemia" describes the high regard in which Holmes held Adler:
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.
This "memory" is kept alive by a photograph of Irene Adler, which had been left for the King when she and her new husband took flight with the photograph of Irene and the King. Holmes asked for and received this photo of Irene as his payment for his part in the case. This photograph is one of his most prized possessions. However, despite all this, Holmes did not feel anything more than respect and possibly admiration for her.
Dramatisations and dramatic readings of "A Scandal in Bohemia" often use the British English pronunciation of "Irene" with a long final "e" (eye-REE-nee). Granada Television's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (where she was played by Gayle Hunnicutt) used the French (and also German and Dutch) pronunciation (ee-RAY-nə). Her surname is the German word for "eagle".
"Adventuress" in the 19th century (and earlier) was a designation barely above "courtesan" or "lightskirt" in terms of social acceptability. It suggested strongly that she was out, by any means necessary, to ensnare a rich husband, or at least protector.
In his fictional biographies of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, William S. Baring-Gould puts forth an argument that Adler and Holmes reconnected after the latter's supposed death at Reichenbach Falls. They performed on stage together incognito, and became lovers. According to Baring-Gould, Holmes and Adler's union produced one son, Nero Wolfe, who would follow in his father's footsteps as a detective.
Perhaps the most important post-Conan Doyle contribution to the Holmes/Adler canon is a series of mystery novels written by Carole Nelson Douglas featuring Irene Adler as the protagonist and sleuth, chronicling her life after her famous encounter with Sherlock Holmes and which feature Holmes as a supporting character. The series includes Godfrey Norton as Irene's supportive barrister husband; Penelope "Nell" Huxleigh, a vicar's daughter and former governess who is Irene's best friend and biographer; and Nell's love interest Quentin Stanhope as supporting characters as well. Historical characters such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Alva Vanderbilt and Consuelo Vanderbilt, and journalist Nellie Bly, among others, also make appearances. In the books, Douglas strongly implies that Irene's birth mother was Lola Montez and her father possibly Ludwig I of Bavaria. Douglas provides Irene with a back story as a pint-size child vaudeville performer who was trained as an opera singer before going to work as a Pinkerton detective.
In the 1976 film Sherlock Holmes in New York, Adler helps Holmes and Watson to solve a bank robbery organized by Moriarty. She has a child whose father is undisclosed, but who has Holmes-like intellectual powers.
She is portrayed by Rachel McAdams in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes in which it is assumed - contrary to Conan Doyle's statement in the original story - that she and Sherlock Holmes did become lovers. She is also seen in a brief cameo at the beginning of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows where James Moriarty dismisses her from her employment and seemingly murders her with tea infested with tuberculosis. Her "death" was never actually shown on screen. Some believe that she actually isn't dead and that it was just made to look like death.
Irene Adler also appears in the television series Sherlock, played by Lara Pulver. She appears in two episodes, as a major character in "A Scandal in Belgravia", and in Sherlock's Mind Palace sequence during John's wedding in "The Sign of Three". In this series, she is portrayed as a dominatrix who flirts with Sherlock in order to get information from him for Moriarty. She leads him to believe that it had all been for show and she had no feelings for him, but her phone was unlocked by the code 'I AM SHERLOCKED'. At the end of the episode John is told that she has been beheaded but chooses to tell Sherlock that she is in witness protection in the United States. We actually find out that Sherlock had saved her and staged her death. In this series, she is only referred to by Sherlock as "The Woman".
References in popular culture
- In "Angels of Music" by Kim Newman, published in Tales of the Shadowmen Vol. 2 (2006), Erik gathers his own Charlie's Angels - like team of female agents, the so-called Angels of Music, consisting of Christine Daae, Irene Adler and Trilby O'Ferrall.
- In Shadows over Baker Street, Irene Adler appears in the short story "Tiger! Tiger!" by Elizabeth Bear, which is set in India in 1882.
- Irene Adler appears in the short story "The Adventure of the Retiring Detective" by Michael Mallory, which is set in 1903, and is included in the collection The Adventures of the Second Mrs Watson.
- DC Comics featured Irene Adler as a character in a story arc of Eclipso. Here, she was possessed by one of Eclipso's black diamonds, killing both the King of Bohemia and her husband, before Dr Watson was himself possessed by Eclipso and stopped her from killing Holmes. She later threw herself through a skylight in order to save Holmes from the possessed Dr Watson, dying from the fall.
- In the television series Elementary, a character identified as Irene Adler appeared in four episodes of the first season. Her first appearance was in the episode "Risk Management". Adler was later revealed to be Jamie Moriarty, a female version of Sherlock's infamous nemesis. The role was specially written for actress Natalie Dormer. Adler/Moriarty tricked Holmes into falling in love with her, and it was her supposed death before the beginning of the series that got him addicted to drugs, though this was later proved to be fake, as she only wanted to study him and found out he wasn't a threat.
- In the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode "Who Shot Sherlock", one of the characters is Irene Adler. She is the alter ego of Kay Marquette who was part of a Holmes re-enactment group.
- In the House episode "Joy to the World", Dr Wilson relates a story about Dr House falling in love with a former patient named Irene Adler. However, Wilson made up the story, and was really just being sarcastic. Rebecca Adler was the patient featured in the show's pilot, an homage to "A Scandal in Bohemia" as Holmes first appearance.
- Irene Adler is mentioned twice in the Detective Conan anime series, once in "The Murder at Mycroft Manor", where a book about her 'mocking' portrayal was the motive for the murders, and once in the feature film The Phantom of Baker Street, where she is a player character inside the VR game's Victorian England level. She is shown as the main character Shinichi's mother Yukiko Kudo.
- In a series of novels by John Lescroart, it is stated that Adler and Holmes had a son, Auguste Lupa, and it is implied that he later changes his name to Nero Wolfe.