So I have lots of reasons to want to revisit this story. But it doesn't actually need any of that, because like I said it's a very accessible and very enjoyable story on its own, though in some ways it hardly feels like the crime-solving genre we expect of Sherlock Holmes. There are some really strong, interesting characters outside Holmes and Watson, which is what really caught my attention. Doyle is doubtlessly sexist by modern standards, but I think there's some really interesting work being done about what it meant to be an "independent" woman in that world.
(Spoilers for "Bohemia" to follow.)
If you only know Holmes through the BBC show, it starts off as kinda-sorta similar, but then changes quite a bit. Irene is still a woman with a sketchy past (this time a retired opera singer and adventuress, a Contralto with a bit of a penchant for going out in men's clothing), and she has a photo that puts a mysterious royal in a it of a tight spot, keeping him from moving ahead with his plans. But while the BBC's Irene could be charitably described as amoral at best, it turns out that the canon Irene has nothing really to be ashamed of in the morality department. She kept a photo that wasn't misleading and probably was hers by rights, and she only used it as a way to safeguard herself against a powerful man who seems ... overly invested in her, let's just say. If anything, the blackmailer's persona seems to be a bit of a mask, to get the king to stay well away.
Actually, masks and disguises are all over this story, and that's a lot of what I found so interesting. Take the King of Bohemia. Doyle gives us quite a description when he first turns up in the story:
A man entered who could hardly have been less than six feet six inches in height, with the chest and limbs of a Hercules. His dress was rich with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as akin to bad taste. Heavy bands of Astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with flame-coloured silk, and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended half way up his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence which was suggested by his whole appearance. He carried a broad-brimmed hat in his hand, while he wore across the upper part of his face, extending down past the cheek-bones, a black vizard mask, which he had apparently adjusted that very moment, for his hand was still raised to it as he entered. From the lower part of the face he appeared to be a man of strong character, with a thick, hanging lip, and a long, straight chin suggestive of resolution pushed to the length of obstinacy.
The level of detai here is a bit --let's just say-- excessive here, isn't it? It feels like the steroetypical Mary Sue OFC, where the story begins with a three-paragraph descriptionof her outfit and appearance with no sense of why they're important. Not saying all OFCs suffer from this flaw, of course, or even that this kind of intro can't be done well. But the way it's written here in this paragraph just feels clunky to me. Not because Doyle is a bad writer! Rather, this is a ad disguise precisely because the king doesn't really want to be disguised. I think he absolutely wants to keep Holmes and Watson from working out who he really is, but not at the cost of losing his intimidation quality. He may not want to be the king, but he does want to be a powerful lord who carries the king's authority, he wants to hold on to all the perks of who he actually is. And so Holmes sees right through it, because the "disguise" is entirely too suggestive.
Holmes pulls off his disguise much better, two of them in fact, and I think it's because he really wants to pass as someone other than he really is. At least for an hour, he wants to be the kindly cleric and the out-of-work ostler, which is different enough from who he truly is that he gets away with it. Almost. In the end, he can't quite stop being clever, which gives him away a bit, but I'm not sure how exactly he was to avoid that without really becoming someone else. Permanently, I mean. Those disguises are actually a lot of fun. (Never more so than in the Granada episode, especially with the ostler's disguise!) At some level, though, they're just voluntary. They're Holmes putting on a new face because there's some advantage to it, but it's a small advantage, a temporary one and not because his true self hems him in too much.
Then there's Irene Adler. We only get a brief glimpse of her disguise at the very end of the second section, of "a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by," and then in Irene's letter in the final section, "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." Irene's costume isn't about being treated as "one of the boys" or passing easily as an insider, it's about being able to go into public space at all. She dresses as a man because otherwise there are some places she couldn't go at all. This is scandalous, in a way Holmes going out as an ostler just isn't.
And that strikes me as a really good metaphor for what's going on in this story, because the only reason I think Irene seems like a villain at first is that the King got to Sherlock first. If Irene had come to him and said this powerful man was trying to intimidate her and she feared for her safety, I think morally the story would make at least as much sense as the one we ended up with. We're expected to sympathize with the client, think they've been wronged and hope they get some sort of justice, and that would line up with reality much more than it does when the king's that client. Of course Adler is the type to get her justice herself, not go to any man for protection, and in a lot of ways this is the only car she has to play. So it's unseemly and shocking, much as a woman going out dressed like a man would be; but it's also the only way she has to get her freedom.
There's something vaguely empowering (considering the context) in Doyle/Holmes recognizing she wasn't below the king because she worked outside that "womanly" box. It wasn't any more scandalous for Irene to protect herself than it would e for a man t do so through the avenues open to him (which is really much more than Irene had!), and her having a slightly risque past didn't take away her value. Of course there's a lot of talk ere about all women being one way, and Irene being the one exemplar of her gender who was worth Holmes's admiration. And that's definitely problematic, as they'd say over at Tumblr, no question about it, but there's something glorious about saying "This is not the true scandal coming out of Bohemia."
Feh. I feel kind of like by analyzing this story I'm breaking its true awesomeness, which kind of just has to "be" at some level. There' so much fun, from Watson's incompetent servant-girl to the king just bursting in on them as they eat their toast. Still, this seemed worth talking about a bit.
ETA: And as if the story itself wasn't fun enough, there's the Granada episode. Holmes "cleaning" up the flat, really just throwing napkins over teacups and dumping stacks o papers on the floor behind where he's going to stand dramatically. And the king's outfit! As someone who wrote a story casting Mycroft in the king's role, I'm laughing entirely too hard imagining Mark Gatiss in that get-up.