To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name.
A Scandal in Bohemia is the first of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in the Strand from 1891. Its title refers on the face of it to the particulars of the case: the King of Bohemia has fraternised with a woman from the lower classes, and requires a photograph of them together to be retrived from her possession prior to his marriage to the daughter of the King of Scandinavia. Holmes, established in this story as a regular sojourner to the courts of Europe, is selected as the only appropriate agent in such an endeavour.
But there is perhaps something else in the title: Holmes himself is described by Watson in the course of his case notes as a Bohemian, referring of course to his curious habits and unconventional lifestyle. And the woman with whom the King of Bohemia has fraternised, Irene Adler, is so singular a representative of her sex that she enchants even the cool, ineffable Mister Sherlock Holmes. Even Holmes’s Bohemia, then, is rocked a little by the scandal.
There’s a lovely moment when Holmes gives rise to these feelings by inverting the social hierarchy which dictates the plot: lamenting that so beautiful and intelligent a woman is not of his status, the King of Bohemia is a recipient of Holmes’s arch rejoinder, “From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty.” A friend recently suggested to me that Holmes’s principle genius is to know the rules of a regimented society: by so immersing himself in Victorian social law, he is able to predict, deduce and anticipate to super-human levels. Here, though, he proves himself not to be blind to the absurdities of those rules: he is able, better than the King of Bohemia, to see the worth of an individual as separate to their social status.
Holmes keeps two souvenirs of this remarkable woman: a photograph of her, and a sovereign she gave him whilst he was in disguise as a drifter; he promised to place the latter on his watch chain and this sentimentality has been seen by many readers as speaking of something like love. Despite Watson nixing this idea in the story’s very first paragraph, it’s been a source of endless fan fiction since. Adler plays a role in Guy Ritchie’s forthcoming Sherlock Holmes movie, though the King of Bavaria appears not to.
As Holmes might have predicted, Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein has been forgotten, but not so Irene Adler.