We had reached Baker Street and had stopped at the door. He was searching his pockets for the key when someone passing said:
"Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes."
There were several people on the pavement at the time, but the greeting appeared to come from a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.
"I've heard that voice before," said Holmes, staring down the dimly lit street. "Now, I wonder who the deuce that could have been." ….
[later Irene Adler sends Holmes a letter:]
MY DEAR MR. SHERLOCK HOLMES,
….I have been trained as an actress myself. Male costume is nothing new to me. I often take advantage of the freedom which it gives. I sent John, the coachman, to watch you, ran up stairs, got into my walking-clothes, as I call them, and came down just as you departed.
Well, I followed you to your door, and so made sure that I was really an object of interest to the celebrated Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Then I, rather imprudently, wished you good-night, and started for the Temple to see my husband…I remain, dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes,
Very truly yours,
IRENE NORTON, nee ADLER.
observations: I recently wrote a blog entry, which featured on the Guardian books blog, about women in trousers, and a reader called Machiajelly pointed me in the direction of this splendid glimpse of the woman, Irene Adler, ‘of dubious and questionable memory’.
There’s a Gladys Mitchell novel called Watson’s Choice in which a young woman is murdered after a Sherlock Holmes-themed costume party (really should do a blog entry on that) – Mitchell’s sleuth Mrs Bradley is discussing it with her young and feisty assistant Laura:
‘We are to go in fancy dress, it seems. Each one of us is to represent a personage in a Sherlock Holmes story.’
‘Really? Bags I Irene Adler! Didn’t she appear as “a slim youth in an ulster” towards the end of the affair?’
‘Irene Adler is already provided for. Sir Bohun has sent a list showing those parts which are already filled. There seems to be a nursery governess who will represent “The Woman”.’
‘Too bad! Still, never mind – although there is scarcely much choice of women’s parts in the Holmes stories. Apart from Irene Adler and possibly that nosey little governess in The Copper Beeches, there isn’t a Holmes female I’d be seen dead as, unless – Oh, yes, I know! I’ll go as that woman who had the black baby in the yellow mask. What was her name?’
Irene Adler is always seen as the only woman to have gained an emotional response from Holmes - although in fact he quite likes and admires the ‘nosey little governess’ Violet in The Copper Beeches (in general Doyle seems to have a fondness for the name Violet, as there are several characters called that in the stories).
But Laura is right: Irene Adler is by far the most memorable woman character in the canon – the one who comes alive and sticks in the memory. She is an opera singer as well as an actress: you could see her as Carmen or Tosca, knife at the ready.
The BBC TV updating of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock, did a remarkable job with their Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver as a dominatrix.
With thanks to Machiajelly. The picture is the Sidney Paget illustration for the story: L to R, Holmes, Watson, Adler. You can see a picture of Sidney Paget in this entry.