Irene Adler is a fictional 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 series, despite appearing in only one story, and is frequently used as a romantic interest for Holmes in derivative works. Fictional character biography [...]
Irene Adler is a fictional 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 series, despite appearing in only one story, and is frequently used as a romantic interest for Holmes in derivative works.
Fictional character biography
According to “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler was born in New Jersey in 1858. She followed a career in opera as a contralto, performing in La Scala, Milan, Italy, and a term as prima donna in the Imperial Opera of Warsaw, Poland, indicating that she was an extraordinary singer (in reality, there was no Imperial Opera in Warsaw). While in Warsaw she was described as “a well-known adventuress” (a term widely used at the time in ambiguous association with “courtesan”). It was there that she became the lover of Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and King of Bohemia, who was staying in Warsaw for a period. According to the king, she had “the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men”. The king eventually returned to his court in Prague. Adler, then in her late twenties, retired and moved to London.
On 20 March 1888 the king made an incognito visit to Holmes in London. He asked the famous detective to secure a photograph from Adler showing the king with her. The 30-year-old King explained to Holmes that he intended to marry Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia; the marriage would be threatened if his prior relationship with Adler should come to light.
Using his considerable skill for disguise, Holmes traced her movements and learned much of her private life, notably that she is about to be married. He then set up a faked incident to cause a diversion that would let him discover where the picture was hidden. Adler detected Holmes through his disguise, but, before this, she treated him, as the supposed victim of a crime outside her home, with spontaneous care and solicitude.
When he came back to snatch the photo, he found Adler gone, along with her new husband and the goods, which had been replaced with a letter to Holmes, explaining how she had outwitted him, but also that she was happy with her new husband, who had more honorable feeling than her former lover. She added that she would not compromise the king, provided he did not try anything against her in the future.
Irene Adler is also mentioned in the following stories:
- “A Case of Identity”
- “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”
- “The Five Orange Pips” (probably; see below)
- “His Last Bow”
In “The Five Orange Pips”, Holmes mentions that he has been beaten four times, thrice by a man 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, Holmes could not be referring to the specific appearance of Irene Adler during “A Scandal in Bohemia” if the chronology is correct. 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”, Watson mentions that Adler is the only person he has ever known to have beaten Holmes.
Holmes’s relationship to Adler
Adler earns Holmes’s 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 replies scathingly that Miss Adler is indeed on a much different level from 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:
Here is the list of the four novels of the canon:
- A Study in Scarlet (published 1887)
- The Sign of the Four (published 1890)
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
- The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915)
The 56 short stories are collected in five books:
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 condemning photograph of her and the King. Holmes had asked for and received this photo as his payment for his part in the case.