“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.”
A Scandal in Bohemia has one of the classic first lines in literature, right up there with “Call me Ishmael,” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Sherlock Holmes, a single man in possession of the wits to make his fortune, did not believe himself in want or need of a wife. But what were his feelings about the woman, Irene Adler?
According to Watson, Holmes felt no “emotion akin to love for her.” It might with justification be asserted that Watson is not always the best deducer of what Holmes is thinking or feeling, and Holmes is not that forthcoming with his feelings on all occasions. Perhaps it is good for business for him to be thought of as just an “observing and reasoning machine”; perhaps it is safer; there are, however, numerous moments in Watson’s chronicles that show Holmes’ emotions.
This is not, however, the same as saying Holmes was in love with Adler or even had a deep emotional investment in her. Putting aside such speculations, which have been well mined by many writers, as to Holmes’ having known Adler before or becoming involved with her later, let us examine the story at hand.
Although Holmes describes Irene Adler as having “a face that a man might die for,” it is open to debate whether he is that man. He certainly is untroubled by her marriage. The King of Bohemia cannot believe that she loves Godfrey Norton, but Holmes hopes she does because it will aid him in achieving his objective.
When he is wished a good-night by a familiar voice he has recently heard (although altered, probably deepened, as she is in the guise of a slim youth), Holmes cannot quite identify it. Is he off his game here? Or has he begun to feel himself on the wrong side of the case and decided to let the lady go? As an opera singer, Adler (now Norton) could be expected to have vocal control that might even fool Mr. Sherlock Holmes in a brief greeting without its reflecting badly on Holmes’ abilities or his intentions towards his client.
Holmes clearly enjoys working on this case. He enjoys disguising himself and misleading people. Even those who know him, like Dr. Watson and Athelney Jones, are often unable to recognise him, so Adler’s ability to penetrate his disguise, however belatedly, would be likely to impress him. Adler had been warned about Holmes, but, when her suspicions were awakened, she still had to change her outfit and arrive at 221B so close behind Holmes and Watson that they had not yet entered the building. (One suspects her of changing in the carriage on the way.) This quick-change ability is perhaps another by-product of her stage training, and yet another reason for Holmes to admire her once he receives the letter which gives him all this information.
For, offhand remarks regarding her looks aside, Holmes’ true admiration for Irene Norton, née Adler begins when, after arriving at her house and finding her flown with the photograph, he reads the letter. It is at this point that Holmes discovers many things to admire about Mrs. Norton.
She saw through his disguise.
She disguised herself with impressive speed.
Her disguise fooled him.
Finally, she has shown mercy to the King who, at least according to her letter (and her point of view), doesn’t deserve it.
Whether it was a moment of regret that he could not get to know such an admirable woman better or merely the desire for a memento of the adventure—and one which (an added bonus) might bother the King—that led Holmes to ask him for Irene’s photograph, Dr. Watson would never be able to tell us. Only Holmes knows. But I imagine him, after reading Watson’s account of the case, lecturing the good doctor for putting too much romance into it. Watson then, of course, objects that he clearly stated Holmes did not feel “any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler,” that “[a]ll emotions. . . were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind,” that “as a lover, he would have placed himself in a false position.”
“But you have laid so much emphasis on this,” Holmes retorts, “as to cause the reader to wonder if you are, like the lady in The Murder of Gonzago, protesting too much. I fear these rumours will dog my steps for quite some time.”