There’s a subset among literary critics whose main purpose is to assign famous historical identities to fictional characters. According to some of this group, the would-be blackmailer Irene Adler from the Sherlock Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia” represents Lillie Langtry, sometime mistress of the notoriously debauched Prince of Wales (Wolff 286). Langtry was a Jersey merchant’s wife who gained fame from being painted by a series of Pre-Raphaelites in 1874, after which she became an actress and socialite (Mahon). Like Irene, Langtry was a stage performer with royal lovers, and both ladies come from places involving the word “Jersey”, but the surface similarities end there. Unlike Irene, who “lives quietly” and “seldom goes out”, Langtry was a media sensation and reveled in her infamy (Doyle 8). Furthermore, she never had a chance to try blackmail, because neither she nor her lovers made any attempt to keep their liaisons secret – Princess Alexandra knew about her, and the two managed to strike up an awkward kind of friendship (Mahon). Several of Bertie’s many mistresses turned to blackmail when their stints were up, but Langtry never did, despite her mounting debts after losing the prince’s patronage (Holland). Instead she banked on the public’s failproof fascination with sexual intrigue in another way: going into advertising.
Langtry became the first female celebrity endorser in 1880 when she struck a deal with the manufacturers of Pears Soap to use her likeness in their advertisements (Fletcher 14). The public’s fascination with Langtry’s exploits successfully carried to her purported beauty regimen, and Pears sales spiked. For the rest of the decade her classical face, both in photographed and engraved form, appeared in newspapers and magazines across England and the United States next to avowals that Pears maintained her famous prince-charming ivory complexion. The venture was so effective for both Pears and Langtry that she proceeded to lend her likeness to a long list of products, including Ogden’s Cigarettes, Edward’s Hair Tonic, Brown’s Iron Bitters, and a few more soaps (Howard). By the turn of the century, when she was in her sixties, she was still making regular appearances both on stage and on the page.
In the advertisements, Langtry barely resembles those first portraits that jumpstarted her fame in 1874. In Millais’ portrait she looks on with that Pre-Raphaelite deadpan and wears a sober black dress: long-sleeved, high-necked, and free of ornamentation except for some chiffon around the throat and wrists. It’s a look that even determinedly Quakerish Jane Eyre wouldn’t object to. In the advertisements she never wears the same thing twice – she appears in drag (as Rosalind), in deep Regency decolletage, as a gypsy or a peasant, and sometimes in nothing at all, using Pears soap in the prescribed manner. She presents the exotic actress and scintillating mistress her audiences expect.
There’s nothing remarkable about the Langtry advertisements at first glance. Advertising has probably involved pretty women as long as advertising has existed. Langtry stands out because of the level of control she had over the use of her likeness – you couldn’t have her unless you paid as much as she wanted. Just as she had as a courtesan, and just as she might have as a blackmailer, she manipulated the desire others attached to her body for her own gain. Her body was a commodity, but it was a commodity she controlled, and she exercised the right to monetize it as she chose. Perhaps in this unfeminine level of control she most closely resembles “the woman” with her “mind like the most resolute of men” (Doyle 6).
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Sherlock Holmes Adventure: A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Strand Magazine. 1 (2006). Stanford Continuing Studies.
Fletcher, Winston. Powers of Persuasion: The Inside Story of British Advertising. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2008.
Holland, Evangeline. “The Many Scandals of the Marlborough House Set.” Edwardian Promenade. 27 Aug 2007.
Howard, Tara. “The Lillie Langtry Picture Gallery.” Lillie Langtry Museum on the Internet. Langtry Manor Hotel, 2007.
Mahon, Elizabeth Kerri. “Royal Mistresses: Jersey Lily and the Prince.” Scandalous Women. 8 Apr. 2008.
Wolff, Julian. “The Adventuress of Sherlock Holmes: Some Observations Upon the Identification of Irene.” Sherlock Holmes by Gas-Lamp: Highlights from the First Four Decades of the Baker Street Journal. New York: Fordham UP, 1989. 286-288.
Note: Let me tell you the dejecting tale of how I chose this topic. I first thought I’d write about blackmail in Victorian England, so I took out a book on the history of blackmail and learned that the life of Edward VII was chockablock with it. I made a few Wikipedia searches and suddenly I was up to my philtrum reading about the fascinating women with whom Edward shared his bed and custom obese sex chair. I took out about two stone of their biographies from the library and was most interested in one in particular: an actress (check) from Jersey (check) known for being steely and resolute (check). After nearly a week of reading, I had found her: the real Irene Adler! … It only took one more Google search to learn that Julian Wolff, M.D. had beat me to the punch by about fifty years. Oh, well.