Irene Adler is a fictional character in the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She was featured in the short story "A Scandal in Bohemia", published in July 1891. She is one of the most notable female characters in the Sherlock Holmes series, despite appearing in only one story. In derivative works, she is frequently used as a romantic interest for Holmes, a departure from Doyle's novels, in which he harbors a platonic admiration for her wit and cunning.
|Sherlock Holmes character|
|First appearance||"A Scandal in Bohemia"|
|Created by||Sir Arthur Conan Doyle|
Fictional character biography
According to "A Scandal in Bohemia", Adler was born in New Jersey in 1858. She had a career in opera as a contralto, performing at La Scala in Milan, Italy, and a term as prima donna in the Imperial Opera of Warsaw, Poland, indicating that she was a talented singer. It was there that she became the lover of Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and King of Bohemia (then only the Crown Prince), who was staying in Warsaw for a period. The King describes her as "a well-known adventuress" (a term widely used at the time in ambiguous association with "courtesan" and also says that she had "the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men". She also claims to have been trained as an actress and "often" disguised herself as a man to "take advantage of the freedom which it gives". The King eventually returned to his court in Prague, while Adler, then in her late twenties, retired from the opera stage and moved to London.
In 1888, the 30-year-old King intends to marry Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meiningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia; the marriage would be threatened if his prior relationship with Adler were to come to light.
On 20 March, the King makes an incognito visit to Holmes in London. He asks the famous detective to secure possession of a previously taken photograph depicting Adler and the King together. The King hired burglars to attempt to retrieve it twice, had Adler herself waylaid, and her luggage stolen, to no avail. The King explains the situation to Holmes, telling him that Adler had promised to send a photograph proving their relationship to his fiance's family if he announced his betrothal. A disguised Holmes traces Adler's movements, learning of her private life and, notably, stands witness to her marriage to Godfrey Norton, an English lawyer. Holmes describes her as "a lovely woman, with a face a man might die for". Holmes disguises himself as an elderly cleric and sets up a faked incident to cause a diversion that is designed to gain him access to Adler's home and to trick her into revealing where the picture is hidden. Adler treats him kindly as the supposed victim of a crime outside her home. At the moment she gives away the location of the photograph, she realises she has been tricked. She tests her theory that it is indeed Holmes, of whom she had been warned, by disguising herself as a young man and wishing him good night as he and Watson return to 221B Baker Street.
Holmes visits Adler's home the next morning with Watson and the King to demand the return of the photograph. He finds Adler gone, along with her new husband and the original photo, which has been replaced with a photograph of her alone as well as a letter to Holmes. The letter explains how she had outwitted him, but also that she is happy with her new husband, who has more honourable feelings than her former lover. Adler adds that she will not compromise the King and has kept the photo only to protect herself against any further action the King might take. In the face of this and the King's statement that it was a "pity that she was not on my level", Holmes then decides that Adler was the wronged party rather than the King and asks, when offered a reward by the King, only for the photograph that Adler had left.
In the opening paragraph of the short story, Watson calls her "the late Irene Adler", suggesting she is deceased. It has been speculated, however, that the word "late" might actually mean "former". She married Godfrey Norton, making Adler her former name. (Doyle employs this same usage in "The Adventure of the Priory School" in reference to the Duke's former status as a cabinet minister.)
Adler's career as a theatrical performer who becomes the lover of a powerful aristocrat had several precedents. One is Lola Montez, a dancer who became the lover of Ludwig I of Bavaria and influenced national politics. Montez is suggested as a model for Adler by several writers.
Another possibility is the singer Lillie Langtry, the lover of Edward, the Prince of Wales. Julian Wolff, founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of academics specializing in Doyle's writing, points out that it was well known that Langtry was born in Jersey (she was called the "Jersey Lily") and Adler is born in New Jersey. Langtry had later had several other aristocratic lovers, and her relationships had been speculated upon in the public press in the years before Doyle's story was published. Another suggestion is the singer Ludmilla Stubel, the alleged lover and later wife of Archduke Johann Salvator of Austria.
It is often believed that in "The Five Orange Pips", although her name is not explicitly stated, Holmes refers to her in saying "I have been beaten four times – three times by men and once by a woman". However, that could not be the case, since the events of The Five Orange Pips occur in "the latter days of September" of "the year '87", while the story of A Scandal in Bohemia begins "on the 20th of March, 1888". Nonetheless, there is no other woman in any of the books who has beaten Holmes to the point of him mentioning her that much, at least not in a story prior to The Five Orange Pips in the chronology. Doyle has likely meant the woman mentioned by Holmes in this case to be Irene Adler, but ignored the error on the dates.
Holmes' relationship to Adler
Adler earns Holmes' unbounded admiration. When the King of Bohemia says, "Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity she was not on my level?" Holmes drily replies that Adler is indeed on a much different level from 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 deliberately left behind when she and her new husband took flight with the embarrassing photograph of her with the King. Holmes had then asked for and received this photo from the King, as payment for his work on the case. In "The Five Orange Pips" he comments to a client that he has been defeated on a mere handful of occasions and only once by a woman.
In derivative works, she is frequently used as a romantic interest for Holmes, a departure from Doyle's novels where he only admired her for her wit and cunning. In his Sherlock Holmes Handbook, Christopher Redmond notes "the Canon provides little basis for either sentimental or prurient speculation about a Holmes-Adler connection."
In his fictional biographies Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street (1962) and Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street (1969), William S. Baring-Gould puts forth an argument that Adler and Holmes meet again after the latter's supposed death at Reichenbach Falls. They perform on stage together incognito, and become lovers. According to Baring-Gould, Holmes and Adler's union produces one son, Nero Wolfe, who would follow in his father's footsteps as a detective.
Irene Adler appears as an opera singer in the 1993 pastiche The Canary Trainer, where she encounters Holmes during his three-year 'death' while he is working as a violinist in the Paris Opera House, and asks him to help her protect her friend and unofficial protege, Christine Daaé, from the 'Opera Ghost'.
A series of mystery novels written by Carole Nelson Douglas features Irene Adler as the protagonist and sleuth, chronicling her life shortly before (in the novel Good Night, Mr. Holmes) and after her notable 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. 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 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 2009 novel The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King, it is stated that Irene Adler, who is deceased when the book begins, once had an affair with main character Sherlock Holmes and gave birth to a son, Damian Adler, an artist now known as The Addler.
In a recent collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches entitled Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Years, the story "A Bonnie Bag of Bones", and several stories that follow, reveal that Adler and Holmes are eventually reunited.
In the 1946 film Dressed to Kill, Adler is mentioned early in the film when Holmes and Watson discuss the events of "A Scandal in Bohemia".
She is portrayed by Rachel McAdams in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes. In that film, she is a femme fatale. A skilled professional thief, as well as a divorcée, Adler is no longer married to Godfrey Norton and needs Holmes' help for the case. In this aspect the film considerably departs from Doyle's original, where Holmes never meets Adler again after the one occasion where she outwits (and greatly impresses) him; the film conversely implies that the two of them meet many times and later have an intermittent, hotly consummated love affair. She and Holmes are depicted as having a deep and mutual infatuation, even while she is employed by Professor Moriarty.
McAdams reprised the role in the 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in which Moriarty, deeming her position compromised by her love for Holmes, poisons and (possibly) kills her. Moriarty taunts Holmes about murdering Adler, and Holmes swears revenge, leading to their climactic battle at Reichenbach Falls.
Irene Adler was portrayed by Inga Swenson in the Broadway musical, Baker Street which also starred Fritz Weaver as Sherlock Holmes. According to the liner notes of the original cast album, the story makes extensive use of the story "A Scandal in Bohemia". The play opened at the Broadway Theatre, New York City, on 16 February 1965 and ran for 313 performances. The show's book was by Jerome Coopersmith and the music and lyrics were by Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel; the production was directed by Harold Prince.
Television and radio
Irene Adler is featured in Soviet director Igor Maslennikov's made-for-TV 5-part film series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. She appears in the fourth part, based upon The Sign of the Four (main storyline) and A Scandal in Bohemia (flashback), in which Holmes and Watson, while waiting for the new information on his current case, remember their encounter with Irene Adler (played by Larisa Soloveva).
In the 1976 film Sherlock Holmes in New York, Adler (Charlotte Rampling) helps Holmes and Watson to solve a bank robbery organised by Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty, after he takes her son hostage to prevent Holmes from investigating the case. Holmes and Watson later rescue the boy, with a final conversation between Holmes and Adler at the conclusion of the case implying that Holmes is in fact the boy's father. This version of Irene Adler is not an opera singer, but an actress.
In the 1984 made-for-TV film The Masks of Death, a widowed Irene Adler, played by Anne Baxter, is a guest at Graf Udo Von Felseck (Anton Diffring)'s country house where Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (John Mills) are investigating the supposed disappearance of a visiting prince. Although Holmes initially considers her a suspect, she proves her innocence and becomes an ally.
In the 1991 television film Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, Irene Adler (Morgan Fairchild) reunites with an aging Holmes (Christopher Lee) when a murder happens during her performance in Vienna. Holmes and Adler, whose flirtatious relationship with Sherlock is similar to Sherlock Holmes in New York‘s portrayal, briefly refer to past confrontations, including a rather confusing case where Adler had posed as a young boy to retrieve something hidden in Holmes's safe. Adler also explains that she was married for several years (Holmes having last seen her at the wedding previous to the film), only for her husband to die of illness two years before the film's events.
In "The 10 Li'l Grifters Job", the season 4 episode 2 of Leverage, the character Sophie portrays Irene Adler at the Murder Mystery Masquerade.
In 2007's BBC Television production Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, Irene Adler (portrayed by Anna Chancellor) is the main villain of the piece and one of Sherlock Holmes' archenemies instead of a potential love interest.
In "A Scandal in Belgravia", the first episode of the 2012 second series of the BBC Sherlock, Irene was portrayed by Lara Pulver opposite Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes. She is initially sought to recover incriminating photos she possesses of a liaison between her and a female member of the Royal Family, along with various other incriminating documents kept in a password-protected phone. In many ways this version of Irene Adler is the polar opposite of Doyle's original tale: In this version, she is not American, but English; while the original was a victim of prosecution falsely accused of being a courtesan, this one is a culprit and a known dominatrix who serves high-end clientele; unlike the original, she is intensely attracted to Sherlock; most importantly, unlike the original, she consistently fails to best Sherlock and eventually ends up in his mercy. At the episode's conclusion, she is presumed killed by those she failed to provide with the information, but is secretly saved by Sherlock. She makes a cameo appearance as a figment of Sherlock's imagination in the episode "The Sign of Three", and sends Sherlock a card when he was shot in "His Last Vow" (seen only in the deleted scenes). In "The Lying Detective", Holmes receives a text that, from the text alert, John identifies as having come from Irene. Sherlock admits that Irene is alive, but states that he doesn't text back. John suggests that he do so, but Sherlock doesn’t respond.
In the CBS series, Elementary, Adler is initially an unseen character in the first season, mentioned first in "Flight Risk" as a former love interest of Holmes. It is later explained that she apparently died at the hands of a serial killer Holmes was investigating known as "M", an event that fueled Sherlock's descent into heroin addiction. In "M", Sherlock confronts M, revealed to be Sebastian Moran, and is told that Irene was not killed by Moran, but by his employer: Moriarty. In "Risk Management", it is explained that Irene was an American art restorer living in London. Holmes discovers Irene is alive, having been kept as Moriarty's prisoner in a dilapidated house. After rescuing Irene, Holmes is confronted with a final plot twist in "The Woman" and "Heroine": Irene Adler is his nemesis, Jamie Moriarty (gender-swapped from her literary counterpart). Moriarty created the Irene identity to seduce Holmes, and subsequently faked her own death to distract him from possibly uncovering her criminal activities. Natalie Dormer played Adler/Moriarty in the final three episodes of the season.
In the 2013 Russian drama Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler takes a major role in the series and is portrayed by Lyanka Gryu.
In the 2014 Japanese puppetry television show, Sherlock Holmes, broadcast on NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai, Japan Broadcasting Corporation), Irene Adler is a school nurse of a fictional boarding school Beeton School. At first she has an affair with Headmaster Ormstein but takes up with another man Godfrey Norton who teaches art and sees through the plot of Holmes and Watson in "The Adventure of the Headmaster with Trouble" based on "A Scandal in Bohemia". She is voiced by Rie Miyazawa.
In the season five episode of The Flash entitled "Goldfaced", detective Sherloque Wells meets Renee Adler (portrayed by Kimberly Williams-Paisley), the Earth-1 doppelgänger of his five ex-wives. She is later shown to be a metahuman with possible telekinetic powers; upon seeing this, Sherloque vows to protect her from metahuman-serial killer Cicada. During the episode, Sherloque also has an encounter with four of his ex-wives, all of whom are variants of Adler. Now that they know which Earth he is on, they demand their back alimony payments be met within a month, or they will have a multiverse-traveling bounty hunter come and collect the payments for them.
- If we assume this woman is Adler, this contradicts the timeline of the stories. A Scandal in Bohemia takes place "on the twentieth of March, 1888"; The Five Orange Pips takes place before this in "the year '87". The Sherlock Holmes stories are full of such contradictions regarding dates: for example "The Five Orange Pips" mentions the events of The Sign of the Four despite the latter taking place in 1888.
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