A Scandal in Bohemia was the very first Sherlock Holmes short story, published in the July issue of The Strand Magazine in 1891 and collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes the following year. Holmes and Watson had made their first appearance in the longer stories A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and re-appeared in The Sign of Four (The Sign of the Four) in 1890. Neither of those two outings were particularly successful until the short stories took off in the Strand.
As a short story it is important because it presents a number of the tropes which become familiar to readers of the canon in subsequent stories – the initial consultation in Baker Street, the hospitality of Holmes’ housekeeper (though, presumably through error, she’s called Mrs Turner rather than Mrs Hudson in this story), the friendship of Holmes and Watson, the very characterful client – in this case the King of Bohemia, Holmes’ use of disguise, and the emotional coldness of the detective’s character.
It also features the character of the opera singer and courtesan Irene Adler who, although she only actually appears in this one tale and rates only brief mentions in several more, casts her shadow over the canon.
For, as the opening line of the story tells us “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” As Watson points out, there are no feelings of romantic or sexual love in that comment. Holmes is asexual in every sense of the word and I get a bit peeved when modern re-interpreters try to imply otherwise. And just as well – Holmes with romantic feelings simply wouldn’t be Holmes.
There are several other comments about Holmes’ character in the tale, which establish further the characters established in the two longer stories. Almost at the beginning we hear Holmes’ admonition to Watson “you see, but you do not observe” – a sentiment presented in various forms throughout the canon. “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data”. Another warning to Watson, who also presents Holmes as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen.”
Several candidates have been put forward as possible inspirations for the King of Bohemia, including the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII – who certainly led a Bohemian lifestyle – and the Crown Prince of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.
I rather tend to the thought that Doyle had the Prince of Wales in mind. It would certainly make more of the suggestion that Irene Adler, an opera singer born in New Jersey, is based on Edward’s mistress Lily Langtry, known familiarly as the Jersey Lily (as in Jersey in the British Channel Islands.)
The plot is basically very simple – you might care to read the story again before you read further here.
Irene Adler was the mistress of the King of Bohemia when he was still the crown prince. She has in her possession a compromising photograph and letters produced during their liaison. The King is now engaged to marry a princess from Scandinavia,who comes from a particularly puritanical family.
Believing that Irene is obsessed with him, he fears that Irene Adler might use the photograph and letters for her own ends, which could undermine the settled order of the European monarchies, he commissions Holmes to recover the items.
Interestingly, he is prepared to pay Holmes a considerable amount of money for his services and provides a handsome advance. A reminder that Sherlock views his role as a consulting detective as a profession. Elsewhere, in The Problem of Thor Bridge, Holmes categorically states that “my professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether”. Which isn’t quite what happens in A Scandal of Bohemia.
The joy of the piece, for me, is the portrayal of Irene Adler. We get our first intimations of her character from Holmes’ notebooks, which portrays her professional character, and then from the King who describes her as “an adventuress”. Given the King’s predilections in the same directions, there is considerable hypocrisy there, though it is of course the sentiments of the time.
As it turns out, Irene Adler has moral scruples that the King of Bohemia could probably never imagine. At the end of the story she acts with a morality and sense of fair play which makes her a much worthier person than the wretched and dissolute monarch.
Furthermore, she is a worthy opponent for Holmes, and shows him a respect equal to the regard the detective comes to have for her. She is never the villain of this piece – only its heroine.
I’ve always been impressed by the Granada television version of the tale, starring Jeremy Brett – the first in the series to be broadcast, though not actually the first one filmed. (They filmed The Solitary Cyclist first as as shakedown episode). David Burke was a very fine Watson and Gayle Hunnicutt a superb Irene Adler.