Sherlock Holmes: “A Scandal in Bohemia”

I’m now embarking on what I hope is only a 37-day journey to read all of the Sherlock Holmes short stories (there are 37 stories). Then I will eventually read the four Sherlock Holmes novels. My dissertation director has said that Sherlock Holmes should be a part of my dissertation, and I agree, so I’m now looking for material around which to build my 5th and final chapter.

It looks like “A Scandal in Bohemia” was the first of these stories published, in 1891. In this story, Watson is recently married, but teams up with Sherlock anyway, reverting to his bachelor life, and even sleeping in his old lodgings with Sherlock, and referring to his old landlord as “our landlord.” The plot is an interesting one for my project. It involves the king of Bohemia, who comes to Sherlock in disguise to ask him to retrieve a compromising photograph of himself with a woman named Irene Adler, with whom he once had a brief fling. Now that he’s marrying a conservative Scandinavian princess, he can’t have pictures of himself posing with his former mistress surfacing (wow, politicians don’t change). It turns out that just as Sherlock finds Irene, she’s in the midst of running off to marry a lawyer named Godfrey Norton. He chases the couple, in disguise as a stablehand, and stumbles into the church just in time to act as a witness to the marriage. After more hijinks, Sherlock finds out where she keeps the photograph, reports back to the king, and the three men (Watson, Sherlock Holmes, and the king of Bohemia), show up at Irene’s house at 8 a.m., assuming that she won’t be awake yet, and that they can surreptitiously steal the photograph from the hiding-place that Sherlock has found. They’re in for a surprise, though, when they show up to her place, and find out from the housekeeper that she and her husband have already left for the Continent. When Sherlock checks the place where he knows she was hiding the photograph, he finds a photograph of her, alone, and a letter addressed to him. Despite his disguise, she figured out who he was and what he was doing. And she took the photograph and her new husband, and hightailed it out of England, for good. Her letter says that she’s keeping the photograph as security in case the king of Bohemia tries anything with her. However, she promises never to show it to anyone, as long as she is left in peace with her new husband, whom she loves, and who loves her. The king of Bohemia is satisfied with that, and Sherlock takes the photograph of Irene Adler as his only payment for his services.

I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities to comment on Sherlock Holmes’s methods of collection and deduction, and there are plenty of instances of those things in this story. But that’s not what interests me here. I see this story as a story of two warring plots: the newly-emerging detective plot vs. its literary predecessor, the sensation plot. These warring plots are figured in Sherlock Holmes (detective) vs. Irene Adler (sensational heroine). Now, on the plot level, Irene Adler wins the story. But on the narrative level, I think Sherlock Holmes wins–although that’s probably obvious, given that this is a Sherlock Holmes story.

Here’s how I see it: Irene Adler is a sensational heroine. She’s got a checkered past with the king of Bohemia, first of all. Of course, she’s beautiful. She’s an actress (sound familiar, Magdalen Vanstone?). When the king of Bohemia tries to plot against her to gain control of the photograph, she out-plots him. Meanwhile, she also has time to fall in love with a lawyer (hmmm…. Clara Talboys and Robert Audley), marry him in a huge rush (Magdalen and Noel Vanstone), and run off to the Continent with him in order to maintain control of a secret that she’s been storing behind a panel of her sitting-room wall. That plot screams sensation novel to me. Or, to put it more sensationally, that plot screams, “SENSATION NOVEL!!!” to me. And, as I said before, Irene wins the plot. As a character, she maintains control of her secret, besting even Sherlock Holmes’s formidable deductive intellect.

But as a narrative mode (sensation), Irene loses. I think this is clear if we ask a few questions, Sherlock-Holmes-style: Under what circumstances was this incriminating photograph taken? How did Irene’s relationship with the king of Bohemia begin and end? What are the details of his marriage to the princess of Scandinavia? What did the letters between Irene and the king say? How did Irene meet Godfrey Norton? How did Godfrey become a lawyer? What kind of lawyer is he? How did they fall in love? How did he propose to her? Why did they marry in such a hurry? All of the sensation novels I’ve read so far would have answered most of these questions, and probably others along the way. How marriages happen is a huge concern for sensation plots, since they involve issues of both legal and affective weight. But none of that matters in this short story.

Instead, most of this story is concerned with Sherlock explaining to Watson his theories of epistemology, or how he goes about exercising his skills of deductive reasoning. The plot, in essence, is concerned with explaining itself, laying bare its own devices. The affective weight of this story is distributed so differently than it would be in a sensation novel. Sherlock Holmes solves crime purely out of his interest in literally everything, in how things work, in how people behave under almost any circumstance. He has no affective involvement in any of the issues in which he immerses himself. He has no stake in the plot. He just likes figuring out puzzles. And he’s a drug addict, so there’s that… So, the detective plot–which may just be a sensation plot sterilized of any affective taint–wins in this narrative.

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