“Resolution Pushed to the Length of Obstinacy”

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name.

"Our quest is practically finished."
"Our quest is practically finished."

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.


14 thoughts on ““Resolution Pushed to the Length of Obstinacy”

  1. I’m shocked that this was the very first Holmes story. I’ve always thought of it as the sort of story that draws its strength from the readers’ familiarity with Holmes, and their expectation that he would triumph over any opponent. It seems strange to introduce a character who would become synonymous with the concept of dominance through superior intellect with a story in which he’s outmatched by a minor character.

  2. I should probably have pointed out that the stories were preceded by two novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four), so readers were already familiar with Holmes, and for good measure Watson says early on in the story, “He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.”

    So, yes, it was a curious way to inaugurate the short story series – but it is not the christening of the character.

    Happy new year, Abigail! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Having not read many of the stories very recently, this one stays in my mind as one of my favourites. Partly this is because of the touch of snarky humour that you mention, partly because it’s one of the stories where Conan Doyle doesn’t play his usual trick of hiding essential information from the reader.

  4. OK, for some reason I had it in my head that the novels came after the stories (perhaps because 19th century publishing was so magazine-oriented). Now that I think about it, though, I do remember that Holmes and Watson’s first meeting happens in one of the novels – I just assumed that Doyle had come up with the formula first and then gone back to write the story of the duo’s meeting later.

    Three minutes left in the year – have a good 2009.

  5. Su – yeah, I know what you mean. It’s a bit like picking out the first track on an album as a favourite, but undoubtedly this story is a stand-out. Both Conan Doyle and the Baker Street Journal agree, you know. (Though Doyle thinks The Devil’s Foot is one of his best? Boggling!)

    Abigail – the novels were serialised in magazines, which is where they foxed you. ๐Ÿ™‚ And thanks!

  6. I watched “Scandal in Bohemia” a few days ago, the first episode in the Granada Television series, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with the splendid Jeremy Brett as Holmes, of course.

    I’d gotten very tired of Holmes, until an old boyfriend hipped me to the Jeremy Brett Holmes. Woo.

    I’m watching them all.

    Love, C.

  7. C, Brett injects Holmes with enough energy to cure anyone of Sherlock fatigue! Keep watching. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’d be interested in any differences between the stories as I continue to characterise them and the episodes you’re watching…

  8. I’ll be watching some tonight, since I’m sick and can’t go hear Big Sam’s Funky Nation — all my friends will be there (it’s the annual APAP meeting — Association of Performing Arts Presenters — in NYC, so there’s a passel of New Orleans groups up here right now, along with every other sort too).

    “The Crooked Man” and “The Speckled Band,” on Vol. 2 of Grenada Television’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

    Jeremy Brett perched with legs curled in a chair or on a table is such an arresting sight! It never registered in my consciousness from the page as it does seeing him behaving this way.

    Love, C.

  9. I read The Final Solution a few years ago (have you?), and it was fun. I think I could probably fill another year reading spin-offs – but, yes, it might well work nicely that way.

  10. This was the first one I read (I didn’t know there were longer stories which preceded it)… I read the ‘Adventures’ collection back in January, but then didn’t get on with reading the rest until late summer (at which point I devoured the complete works, in sequence).

    I’m a linguist by background, so the letter at the very beginning of this story impressed me. You may be interested in the blog post I wrote at the time:

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