The Introduction of Witty Women

After reading Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, what immediately stood out to me was the brave and conning figure of Irene Adler, an American opera singer who had a previous liaison with the Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and who still obtains letters and a distinct photograph of herself with the Duke during their short-lived relationship.

The Grand Duke is seeking to repossess this photograph before his engagement to a Scandinavian princess, for fear of her and her family catching wind of his previous romance with Adler, and consequentially ending the engagement. However, Adler poses as a true “New Woman” in the story who does not budge at a man’s call and leads an independent lifestyle that is not dictated by men, or her relationship with a man.

Irene Adler’s character embodies the idea of the “New Woman” presented in Ledger and Luckhurst’s “Fin De Siècle”, portraying the newfound independence of women in society, in opposition to the previously male-dominated world. Ledger and Luckhurst uncover this contemporary idea that came about during the turn of the century, stating, “the New Woman in the 1890s have emerged as a vital adjunct to concurrent suffrage campaigns […] marking an image of sexual freedom and assertions of female independence” (xvii). Adler exemplifies a New Woman in the opening of the 20th century, with not only a successful job that provides her own income, but enough independence to engage in trickery and deceit with a professional detective and an heir to a throne.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes describes Adler as a woman who “lives quietly, sings at concerts […] seldom goes out at other times” (Doyle, 10), detailing her profession and the busy nature of it. We find out later in the novel that she is not just a pretty face with a good voice and a successful profession. She leaves a note that tricks Sherlock, stating in the note “I followed you to the door, and so made sure that I was really an object of interest […] to Sherlock Holmes” (Doyle, 18). Irene Adler was witty enough to trick a professional detective at his own game, revealing how unafraid she is of men, failing to give into the old, submissive traits that were natural for women to possess prior to the Fin De Siècle.

Ledger and Luckhurst describe the New Woman movement as the “origins of modern feminism” (xvii) that catapulted women into the forefront of the Fin De Siècle. Doyle’s creation of Adler’s character plays into this newfound freedom, especially in a satirical way as she tricks, threatens and plays with the mind of the same men who seemed to control society in previous years.

Irene Adler takes control of her life in light of this historic social movement, creating a living for herself that is not dependent on marriage – essentially, a man to care for her – and instead carries a life full of prosperity and sexual freedom. Doyle documents this freedom of sexuality when describing her brief love affair with the Grand Duke, and then her disappearance from his life.

In the past, women were bound to one man, through the traditional concept of marriage, and relied on them for economic and social purposes. When Doyle writes this story, during the height of the changing times of the new century, women experience a significant amount of freedom in directing their lives as they please, without the hindrance of a man to hold women back.


One thought on “The Introduction of Witty Women”

  1. This reading of Irene Adler as the “New Woman” definitely ties in with her acting, her New Jersey provenance, and her affair with the King of Bohemia. (Side note: isn’t it interesting that the king is the ruler of BOHEMIA, otherwise known as the place where scandal and artists and all sorts of things against the grain of Britain run rife?) But it also seems to me vitally important that Conan Doyle doesn’t maintain her status as a New Woman. Rather than maintaining her sexual and legal freedom, Irene Adler marries Geoffrey Norton, restoring the status quo. Is that because New Women are too dangerous to be let out?

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