Sunday, January 19, 2014

An Open Letter to Mrs. Godfrey Norton (Née Adler)

Dear Mrs. Norton,

I'm the first person to admit that I don't always understand the appeal of some things. I've never been particularly fashionable or cutting-edge, and so I often find myself on the outskirts of what is popular. Parkour, for example, is something I don't particularly understand. Wearing tights as pants is another. Pretty much anything involving John Mayer. And you, Mrs. Norton. I just have never been able to bend my brain around your incomprehensible, interminable appeal. Perhaps I'm uncharitable – there are certainly enough people who have called me such for this opinion – but I tremendously dislike you. In fact, despite the numerous warnings I have received over the course of my life about the strength of this word, I would go so far as to say that I hate you.


I hate you whether you exist in black and white, in the printed word, or as a disembodied voice on the radio. And I certainly hate you when you are live and in full color on my television or cinema screen. I hate you whether you are played by Charlotte Rampling or Rachel McAdams. I even hate you when you are played by Gayle Hunnicutt opposite the incomparable Jeremy Brett (which is really saying something, because even though I consider all of Mr. Brett's performances sacrosanct, your episode remains the least viewed one from my copy of the Granada Television collection). I hate you whether you are an opera singer, an adventuress, a single mother to a young boy who loves music and puzzles, or even just an unapologetic thief. And I especially hate you in one of your most recent incarnations as a dominatrix (your hairstyle, to be frank, was utterly confounding). I hate you whether you are a redhead, a brunette, or a blonde. In fact, one of the things that I liked best about the recent television series, Elementary, is that I was promised that you were dead. Even better, I was promised you had been brutally murdered off-screen, before the series even began. The mere idea of it was delicious. I was thrilled. I was ecstatic. I promise you that I was beside myself with joy. And while it appears that the rumors of your death have been greatly (and cruelly) exaggerated, I assure you that CBS Television still owes me a rotting corpse. Yours, preferably, but I’m not picky. I will wait. 

Natalie Dormer as Irene Adler in CBS Television's Elementary.
They promised me that you were dead.

But mostly I hate you because you simply will not go away. Must you stick your perfectly powdered nose into every plot that calls for a XX chromosome? The mere mention of your name is often enough to make me put down whatever pastiche I may be reading – no matter how much I paid for it or how difficult it was to obtain – and use the pages of the book as a liner for my cat’s litter-pan. And my goodness, you do turn up so very often, don't you? A popular website, which catalogues historical and fictional characters appearing in Sherlockian pastiches, lists dozens, if not hundreds, of references to your person in non-canonical fiction. It’s really too many. Having only appeared in one original story, you are just as prolific – but not nearly as interesting as – the late, lamented Professor Moriarty. Does the plot call for a uniquely feminine touch? There you are. Has a member of royalty found himself in some sort of moral morass? Up pops your name. Has Sherlock Holmes, heaven forbid, found himself in some sort of romantic imbroglio? You’re involved, Mrs. Norton. And, even more offensive, does the Great Detective need to be brought down a peg? Of course you show up. 

And your hat is stupid.

But to be honest, you get more credit than you really deserve, don’t you think? While Sherlock Holmes once claimed, “I have been beaten four times – three times by men, and once by a woman,” (FIVE) I think he was being a little generous. Let’s assume, first of all, that Holmes is referring to you in that passage, even though he doesn’t mention you by name, does he? A well-timed escape is not the same as beating someone. That would be like saying that the Worthingdon bank gang (RESI) beat Sherlock Holmes because they managed to drown before their capture. Or the murderers of John Openshaw (FIVE) beat Sherlock Holmes for the same reason, ironically. It would be like saying that Sherlock Holmes was bested in “The Lion’s Mane,” because the murderer turned out to be a jellyfish and not a human being as originally assumed. Could you imagine the Great Detective saying, “I have been beaten five times – three times by men, and once by a woman… and once by an invertebrate creature”? 

Yup, I don't know what to say either, madam.

Sherlock Holmes caught you out, madam. He devised a trap, and you fell into it precisely as he imagined: 
"The smoke and shouting were enough to shake nerves of steel. She responded beautifully. The photograph is in a recess behind a sliding panel just above the right bell-pull. She was there in an instant, and I caught a glimpse of it as she half-drew it out. When I cried out that it was a false alarm, she replaced it, glanced at the rocket, rushed from the room, and I have not seen her since." (SCAN)
You did exactly what he thought you were going to do. Far from being clever, you were predictable, madam. When Sherlock Holmes tells the iniquitous King of Bohemia, “From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” I feel it was intended more as a slight at the king, than any compliment of you. And while I’m at it, donning a disguise for an evening stroll and a verbal jab doesn’t confirm any supposed cleverness either. If anything, it makes you appear childish, unable to admit you had been run to ground. “Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes,” indeed. It was almost like a rude gesture, don’t you think? And I should mention that even then you didn’t even have the man completely baffled. “I’ve heard that voice before,” Holmes said.  

Don't look so smug. You haven't earned it.

I have also heard your voice before, Mrs. Norton, and it seems I am condemned to hear it over and over again. I find myself lamenting, as Dr. Watson did in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” that Sherlock Holmes expressed no interest in Miss Violet Hunter and her luxuriant, chestnut hair once she ceased to be the focus of a case. Not because I feel that the Great Detective is in any particular need of a female companion, but because it means I would be rid of you. I find myself constantly on the alert for your presence, looking for mentions of your name, just as one would scan a dark alleyway for danger. I fear you will always be there, on the outskirts, claiming a cleverness that isn’t deserved and isn’t yours, but believe me, madam, you don’t have me fooled. I’m on to you.

Yours very truly (and honestly),
Jaime Mahoney


The above tongue-in-cheek piece first appeared  ironically  the 11th (2013) edition of Irene's Cabinet, a Sherlockian publication by Watson's Tin Box.

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  1. If Arthur Conan Doyle had just had some other interestingl women in the stories, Irene wouldn't come up so much. He might at least have given Mrs. Hudson a few lines here and there (although he did allow her to move the mannequin which was something). Mary Morstan has maybe a bit of life to her but not much (a client and then a sweet wife). Anyone who just creates one interesting woman character will have to expect that one woman to be mentioned for 125 years many times when the other male characters of the story come up. Like a major villain (I, for one, could say almost all you said about Irene about Moriarty) but there he is everywhere!

  2. Wonderful! I've never understood why she was elevated to the rank of a feminist icon, tbh.

  3. Brilliant. I love it.... so so much

  4. Thank goodness. I never understood the Sherlockians love for Miss Adler, especially as Violet Hunter seems to be far and away the strongest woman in the canon, and one whose charms didn't escape the notice of our Great Detective.

    Miss Adler gave away the position of the picture, was more passive than Mary Sutherland and otherwise did little of note. Are we to believe she rises above the other females of Doyle's work simply because she followed him home and wished him a goodnight? If she was that spectacular she wouldn't have given her game away by saying anything.

    As Holmes himself says in the finest story in the whole Canon, the Valley of Fear, "The blunt accusation, the brutal tap upon the shoulder--what can one make of such a denouement?". What is a goodnight if not a blunt object?