"To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman." Admittedly, it is a striking phrase; and for those who admire the great detective but cannot help feeling wistful that he never fell in love, an uncommonly tempting one. Upon this somewhat fragile foundation a thousand dream-castles have been built linking Holmes and Irene Adler romantically — even the respected Sherlockian scholar William S. Baring-Gould could not resist. So it is not surprising that an imagined affair between the two should make its way into a great many critical essays and pastiches, as well.
Unfortunately, one man stands in the way of this conjectured bliss: Irene’s husband, Godfrey Norton. To those who wish to reunite Holmes with the woman he most admired, Mr. Norton is an irritating obstacle. As a result, a disturbing trend has emerged in pastiches featuring Holmes and Irene: when our hero and heroine meet at last, she generally gives some speech about what a cad Godfrey turned out to be and how she was forced to divorce him (or he callously divorced her). Alternatively, Mr. Norton was found to be in poor health, or met with some horrid accident, and died only a year or two after the marriage.
Poor Godfrey! What has he done to deserve the hatred of so many authors? Is it his fault that Irene preferred the known to the unknown, the robust and handsome lawyer to the hawkish and skeletal detective, a man who loved her unreservedly to a man who sneered at the thought of romance?
Let us put aside prejudice a moment, and consider only the details of Godfrey’s person and character revealed in the canon. He is dark, handsome (indeed “remarkably” so, according to Holmes), aquiline and mustachioed — a perfect example of a Victorian romantic hero. He is a well-established and respectable lawyer of the Inner Temple (we shall leave aside all the obvious jokes about lawyers; the canon does not encourage such prejudices). He appears impetuous and somewhat excitable, but he does not forget his manners: he pays his cabmen well, and thanks the shabbily disguised Holmes after the wedding. No one in the story speaks ill of him, and in Irene’s considered estimation, he is a “better man” than the King of Bohemia.
Consider how Godfrey acquitted himself in this tale: for love of Irene, he was willing to cast away his place in the Inner Temple, his respectable position in British society, and accompany her to the continent, never to return. What must that have cost him? Yet once he learned that Sherlock Holmes was working for the King of Bohemia, and that Irene was in danger of further persecution, he did not hesitate.
"We both thought,” says Irene in her letter (emphasis mine), “the best recourse was flight…” Godfrey was not some innocent, kept in the dark while Irene schemed to bring about the King’s downfall; he knew what was going on, and his sympathies were all with Irene. She had, in his estimation, indeed been “cruelly wronged”, and had every right to retain the incriminating picture for her own protection.
Yet Godfrey, though trained as a lawyer, is never permitted to defend Irene, or himself. The case is all for the prosecution. Nevertheless, Irene loves him, and is loved by him, and declares herself to be satisfied. Sherlock Holmes recognized, and respected, Irene’s intelligence: he did not seem inclined to dispute her judgment in the matter. Why, then, should we?
In order to dismiss G. Norton, Esq. as a cad, we must conclude that despite a lengthy acquaintance with the gentleman, Irene lacked the perception and foresight to see that he would be a poor husband. For some reason, her formidable powers of observation and reason failed her. Also, we must find some base and selfish motive for Godfrey to have given up his career and his place in British society to accompany Irene — a motive neither supplied or implied by anyone in SCAN, not even Holmes.
It is, of course, possible that Mr. Norton did meet with some tragic accident, or succumbed to some virulent disease, and left Irene a young and eligible widow. But surely it smacks of wishful thinking? Besides, Irene had already had one chance: she knew of Holmes, even met Holmes (albeit in disguise), but consciously chose to put her affections elsewhere.
Those who know Holmes best cannot help but acknowledge his flaws, and although their acquaintance was brief, Irene Adler surely noted some of them herself. He had, after all, behaved in a less than gentlemanly fashion toward her, deceiving and manipulating her into betraying the location of her only safeguard against the King of Bohemia. Irene’s courtesy and goodwill in her final letter to Holmes was surely more than he deserved under the circumstances, and evidence that she was, indeed, a woman of distinction. But that charmingly polite leave-taking is where her relationship with Holmes must, from any practical or logical point of view, end.
Is there any sensible reason why Irene Adler should have rejected Mr. Norton’s suit, so honestly and commendably offered, and thrown herself at the unlikely and unoffered prospect of a liaison with Sherlock Holmes? Surely not. Therefore, while our affection for Holmes may lead us to wish that he had found happiness with a woman worthy of his admiration, should we not honor Irene’s choice nonetheless, and allow her a happy marriage to a man worthy of her love?
— (c) Rebecca J. Anderson 1996
This article was reprinted with permission of the author, Rebecca J. Anderson, and previously appeared here:
You can find her Tumblr here: http://rj-anderson.tumblr.com/
I composed this essay in the full throes of Sherlockian geekdom, a phase of mine which lasted about five years in which I read and re-read the Canon, essays about the Canon, and every pastiche I could get my hands on, participated eagerly in HOUNDS-L and the Mary Russell spinoff RUSS-L, and wrote about six chapters of a novel about a college-aged Sherlock entitled The Case of the Winning Woman.
I’m not sure exactly when I stopped being obsessed with All Things Sherlock, but it was probably around the time I became obsessed with All Things Harry Potter instead. (My latent fondness for Sherlockiana still managed to outlive my interest in Potterdom, though, so there’s that.)