The Sunday Salon: The Ghost of Irene Adler

(I ended up having plenty of feelings about Holmes’ feelings, it seems. Spoilers for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows abound below.)

Pairing off Holmes and Watson is nothing new—Rex Stout’s 1941 speech “Watson Was a Woman” is the first recorded instance of someone picking up on that subtext. The only thing keeping other characters from assuming the two are a couple is the time period; Sherlock, the BBC series that places the stories in the modern day, even has a scene where the two have to tentatively tell each other that they’re not interested. (Interestingly, Sherlock’s, well, Sherlock is, according to the production, explicitly queer, in that he is asexual.) Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, during the promotional tour for Sherlock Holmes, had plenty of fun playing up the homoeroticism. I even remember one fan posting about how she was frustrated they could play that up but a similar film with actual queer male leads would never fly. It was quite brilliant; I’m very sad I’ve lost the link. But when all was said and done in 2009, their situation remained the usual playground for fannish fantasies that the stories themselves did—well within the boundaries of normal friendship (if one friend is nuttier than a fruit cake with corresponding boundary issues) with a hint or two we could run wild with.

But the sequel does something very different; it deliberately introduces the idea that Holmes is in love with Watson and Watson does not reciprocate as a fundamental conflict between the two characters. I’m trying to be careful about this because this blog is not the avenue to squee over certain pairings—well, except on Valentine’s Day, of course. Rather, I’m more interested in how Ritchie queered the narrative in an important way that’s acceptable to a mainstream audience and the pros and cons of that approach, especially in the context of my Twitter conversations with Katie at The Unravelling Threads about the threat of a single queer story (which I’ll get to another time).

In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Holmes seems acutely aware of his feelings for Watson and trying to express it. Forgetting Watson’s stag party is one thing; having an awkward conversation about how Holmes will die alone if Watson gets married and starts a family is quite another. That particular conversation plays into another, during the uproarious train sequence—in the first, Watson makes a point of referring to his impending marriage as a “relationship”, and gets uncomfortable when Holmes, in the later conversation, refers to their friendship as a “relationship”. (Holmes quickly amends it to “partnership”.) During a fight scene, he tentatively asks Watson if he would be happier here or happier on his honeymoon; Watson is mildly offended by the idea that he wouldn’t rather be with Mary in relative safety at the moment. These are moments that, I feel, go beyond the winking nods we saw in the first film, although there’s plenty of those winking nods here.

But I think what’s most telling is the change in Holmes’ relationship with Mary. In the first film, Holmes really doesn’t like her, but in this film, he does—while he takes a crack at her knitting skills, he still winks at her fondly during the wedding ceremony, makes sure she’s in safe hands, and trusts her to execute a rather large part of his scheme back in England. He recognizes her as smart, capable, and deserving of Watson. Why is this important? In an essay entitled “The Ghost of Irene Adler” (how incredibly apt!), Michael Chabon explores how friendship between two men can be threatened by a woman:

That’s what gives the process of losing a friendship over a woman such a lasting sense of distress and confusion: The loss obliges you to confront the fundamental mystery of another man, one whom you believed you knew as well as you knew yourself. But there is something in the guy, something crucial and irreducible, that you do not understand at all, and She is the proof. You have no access to that innermost kernel of him, and you never did. And in turn, this leads you to question everything you ever thought you knew, not only about him but about the man you thought you knew as well as you knew your best friend—yourself. (109)

If Mary is no longer the proof that threatens their relationship, then Holmes’ locus of jealousy has moved from her to Watson himself. Holmes no longer hates Mary for stealing away his best friend; he’s conflicted over the fact that Watson would choose domesticity over adventure—quite simply, her over him. This is why Holmes is so awkward about their relationship now. (I also want to point out that their friendship is quite beyond the pale at this point; Watson has plenty of normal male friends that Holmes forgot to invite to his stag party.) The first film contrasted the two relationships; in this film, Holmes explicitly places the two relationships on the same level and asks the audience to do the same while respecting Mary. (You’d think this would be easier, but then you would have never have been in fandom.) And this is a conflict that’s never quite resolved. Even at the end of the film, when the Watsons finally go on their honeymoon, Mary remarks that Holmes would have wanted to come with them. (Mary, bless her, has had Holmes’ number since the first film—in fact, she’s the first to compare the two relationships rather than pit them against each other.) And that’s the difference between “I can see that” to “I think I’m supposed to be seeing that”.

On one hand, I’m quite impressed with Ritchie for queering the narrative in this mainstream, established space between subtext and text—you can ignore it (as I’m sure the gentlemen behind me at my screening did), but it’s still there. The image of Holmes and Watson dancing together isn’t played for homophobic laughs and presents a decidedly queer image; they are, of course, the only male couple on the floor. Holmes’ awkward attempts to talk to Watson about their relationship echo actual queer experience rather than the winking nods of the first film. But on the other hand, Ritchie gets to have to both ways—Irene and Holmes have an established sexual and romantic relationship, and Watson and Mary are clearly in love. The big question is, is it fair for Ritchie to stretch the definition of subtext by utilizing this queer conflict while still maintaining plausible heterosexual deniability in this day and age? Should we be disappointed that Ritchie can’t call a spade a spade or thankful that a successful action franchise includes it? I’m still parsing it out myself, but I think it’s an important question to ask.

I’m still in Ireland! Details to follow when I return.

The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of all this?

  • Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs. New York: Harper, 2009. Print.

One thought on “The Sunday Salon: The Ghost of Irene Adler

  1. Pingback: Review: The Return of Sherlock Holmes « The Literary Omnivore

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