Four Common Misconceptions about Irene Adler:
1) Sexuality was never a huge part of her character
This is demonstrably untrue. In the original story of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Irene Adler was a retired opera singer who, some years previously, had an affair with the future King of Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes’ client, seducing him even though they were of far different societal stations. The client describes her as an “adventuress,” which, in Victorian England, was basically a nice way of saying “gold digger.” While she is described as “liv[ing] quietly” now in London, she was likely involved in a few scandals in her youth.
Additionally, whenever she’s described, her looks are never omitted. She’s beautiful, which is part of what makes her so dangerous. After investigating her living arrangements, Sherlock Holmes says to Watson, “Oh, she has turned all the men’s heads down in that part. She is the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet.” Watson himself describes her as “superb” and “beautiful” and for this reason feels somewhat guilty about helping Sherlock to essentially commit preventative burglary. This is a woman who is well aware of her own natural graces and the effects that they have on others.
As an aside, there’s nothing wrong with a sex-positive character who knows how to use natural gifts to her advantage in a society where female social mobility was nearly nonexistent. Nothing about her is cheapened. In fact, in this respect, she provides a very interesting contrast to Sherlock Holmes himself, who is perhaps the least sexual character in all of literature.
[three more under the cut]
2) She is a nice person—in fact, a rather ordinary person
As should be self-evident, nice people don’t blackmail future kings with compromising photographs. That was the plot of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” While she has moments of kindness, Irene Adler as canon presents to us is an opportunist above all. Sherlock Holmes’ client says:
You do not know her, but she has a soul of steel. She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men.
So we have an incredibly focused, forward-thinking woman who knows exactly what she wants and stops at nothing to obtain it. I think the misconception that she’s nice comes about because people are taken in by her small acts of kindness in the story: her willingness to tenderly care for Sherlock when he shows up injured on her doorstep disguised as an old clergyman, for example.
The conclusion of “Scandal” in canon involves Irene saying that she won’t release the photograph, but will keep it as insurance for herself and her new husband. That wasn’t motivated by kindness—her goal has simply changed. She wishes to be left in peace. The photograph will help ensure that for her. If she were truly selfless, she would have given it back. She is an opportunist, not a saint.
3) She is a master thief
This one’s easy enough to debunk—it comes from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Irene Adler in canon was a free agent, unconnected to Moriarty or anyone else, who possessed a scandalous photograph of herself with an heir to a throne. She had other talents—notably disguising herself in male attire so convincingly that Sherlock can’t identify her—but is only guilty of blackmail and, despite having scandalous relations, doesn’t make a career out of outright crime.
4) She’s in a sexual relationship with Sherlock Holmes/she is Sherlock Holmes’ great love/she and Sherlock have an affair and babies
This one comes from so many sources—including actual Sherlockian scholars desperate to pair Sherlock up (I’m looking at you, Baring-Gould!)—that it’s understandable why so many people think it. But Irene is not Sherlock’s love, she is his match. She probably has no idea she’s even important to Sherlock at all.
In canon, Irene Adler marries a lawyer named Godfrey Norton (with a disguised Sherlock as a witness!), and by all accounts genuinely loves him very much. Irene Adler writes in her note to Sherlock, “As to the photograph, your client may rest in peace. I love and am loved by a better man than he.” She does leave Sherlock a photograph of herself, but it’s almost as a token of mockery at having failed, not of love.
In fact, Irene likely doesn’t know how deep of an impression she made. She and Sherlock only interact three times directly—once when she’s disguised, twice when he is. They never have frank conversation. It’s all a game of cat and mouse to her, so it’s pretty safe to say that she isn’t in love with Sherlock Holmes.
As for Sherlock Holmes? Well, we have Watson’s word that he didn’t love her, but who knows what he’s ever thinking? That’s rather the point, isn’t it? Even if he did feel some emotion akin to love for her (I’m sure Watson hoped so, he sort of always was pushing his flatmate to get a girl), he’d keep it under lock and key. That’s left wonderfully ambiguous. Besides, if he did love her, she’s out of the country and in love with another man, forever unattainable.
This post was written in response to a lot of preemptive ire directed at BBC Sherlock’s interpretation of Irene Adler as a dominatrix. Given the points above, particularly one and two, it doesn’t seem too far out to me. I would, however, encourage everyone to reserve judgment until the episode airs.
Thank you so much for reading!