“What a woman – oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we had all three read this epistle. “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”
“From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly. (193-194)
The king recognizes that Irene Adler has the fortitude to be a great monarch, and laments her poor family connections bar her from the station. In doing so he implicitly acknowledges it is accidents of history, not rules of meritocratic selection, which empower monarchs. Holmes’ powers of observation allow him to spot this moral defect, and the king’s assumption of universal agreement with it. The detective's ironic quip scores a blow on behalf of Irene Adler, but it also lifts the world view which supports it above the monarch's. Holmes’ status as a partial metonymy for reason, as well as his association with the working gentry, suggests the scientifically informed, post-Enlightenment era gives the middle class freer license in their dealings with aristocracy than it enjoyed in previous centuries -- on the strength of science and reason.
“It was close upon four before the door opened, and a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes, walked into the room. Accustomed as I was to my friend’s amazing powers in the use of disguises, I had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he.” (184)
While solving his mysteries, Sherlock Holmes often uses multiple disguises in order to obtain more information. This particular mystery is different from many of the others as Holmes spends the large majority of the story in some disguise. Much of the story is told to the reader, through Watson, while Holmes is dressed “normally,” but the action takes place while he is disguised as another person.
The morning after accepting this case, Holmes began is detective work after donning the disguise of an unemployed groom in the hopes he would blend in with the local people and gather information about Irene Adler, the woman at the center of the investigation. He came into contact with her after being asked to bear witness to her marriage to Godfrey Norton. Later, Holmes put on “his broad black hat, his baggy trousers, his white tie, his sympathetic smile…in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Nonconformist clergyman” (188). While disguised as a clergyman, Holmes gains access to Adler’s home and discovers where she hides the compromising photograph. Even though Holmes’ only interactions with Adler have been while he was disguised as another individual, she does recognize him. She follows him home to make sure her assumptions are correct and says, “Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes” while passing him on the street (192). At this point, he is still in his clergyman disguise, but Adler is able to see through the disguise.
Holmes’ multiple disguises often help him solve mysteries, but not in this particular story. Interestingly, a case in which Holmes spends most of the time in disguise is the one he does not solve. Part of this can be attributed to his overconfidence in his disguises as they clearly did not work as well as he believed-Adler still knew who he was. While in costume, he allowed his actions to be suspicious, something Adler points out in her letter to him, explaining that is how she realized who he really was. Holmes seems to believe that changing his appearance alone is clever enough to fool a woman. Adler, an actress herself, knows how well physical disguises work because she often uses them herself (193). Underestimating Adler simply because she is a woman is the reason Holmes does not solve this mystery (see Pascale Krumm’s article).(2) Holmes put too much faith in his physical disguise alone, disregarding the fact that the individual he was using them against was an accomplished actress as well and would likely see through any disguise if he slipped up in any way. One of Holmes’ most powerful tools contributed to his failure to solve this case.
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