I’m interrupting my series of Bailey’s shortlist reviews to detour into something that I both love and hate in literature. I love properly evil characters; from Lady Macbeth to Septimus Snape, everyone knows that the characters who really stick with you are those who have you gasping at their Machiavellian audacity. I’m afraid though, that the Bailey’s shortlist has made me question this general rule for literary favourites. You see there are two major villains from ‘The Improbability of Love’ and ‘Portable Veblen’ that I just don’t want to allow into the pantheon.
‘The Improbability of Love‘ has an anti-heroine, Rebecca, who ends up being the most actively evil character in a book where most people wander around in a Jeeves and Wooster-style fug of amiable inconsequence. Yes, the novel features Nazis and murderers, but the only character to get punished, and the only character who ever really acts cruelly, is Rebecca. It is true that she always has the excuse of doing it for her children, but this almost makes things worse. If she is going to be hard-hearted, I do wish she’d do so with absorbing conviction. I may have let Rebecca pass, but then I read ‘The Portable Veblen‘ in which Cloris Hutmacher plays another rich, well dressed, elegant, blond villainess. Cloris is also defined by her relationship to her offspring (though it her case it’s done to illustrate what a terrible, terrible person she is). Cloris is also punished for her crimes, while the men who presumably actually run the dynastic, multimillion corporation which owns her get away scot free. Both women are set up, and punished, as forces of evil in their respective novels and this irritated me far more than it should. What can I do, I take fiction seriously and I really really wish books were not still populated with beautiful, rich, two-dimensional women being bad and then being punished. Actually, I don’t think I’d mind the punishment if only they could be bad in a way which transcended their gender, rather than just played to it. The only thing I can think of to cheer myself up and curtail the rant is to remember the truly great evil women in literature, because they could eat these two for breakfast and have taken over their fathers’ businesses by lunchtime without breaking a sweat.
La Marquise de Merteuil is the mastermind behind everything in ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses.’ She’s seductive, unscrupulous and utterly compelling. Valmont may think he’s her partner in crime, but she (and we) know he’s an amateur in comparison. As she says of their dangerous games against conventional morality ‘For you men defeats are simply so many victories the less. In this unequal struggle our fortune is not to lose and your misfortune is not to win. If I granted you as many talents as we have, still how much should be surpass you from the continual necessity we have of using them!’ I wouldn’t go so far as to say de Merteuil is a role model for women today (or ever), but it’s wonderful to read such an admission of double standards in such a canonical text.
Becky Sharp is, of course, the true heroine of ‘Vanity Fair.’ Intelligent, ruthless and charming, she seduces the reader as much as she does the rich characters who come under her sway. One of the best things about Becky is her genuine charm, she schemes with the best of them, but you do feel she deserves to get away with it. Who can resist the moment when she fails to receive an inheritance for which she’s been arduously labouring: ‘Rebecca found her husband, who had been off to Gray’s Inn, and learnt his fate. He came back furious. “By Jove, Becky,” says he, “she’s only given me twenty pound!” Though it told against themselves, the joke was too good, and Becky burst out laughing.‘ Like de Mertueil, Becky knows the decks are stacked against her, but she fights with everything she has to succeed against the odds – while the reader cheers her along every step of the way.
‘Lady Susan’ shows Austen’s unrepentant wit laid completely bare. There are none of the compromises of her published works, in which societal order is eventually maintained and intelligent young women must learn to conform to expectations. Instead, this novel shows quite how much can be achieved by selfish intelligence alone. Through letters, we get to read of the havoc the widowed Lady Susan wrecks on her late husband’s family circle. This book doesn’t explore evils within society, it revels in them. Not least, in revealing the unsentimental feelings women really hold toward the men who have such apparent power over them. Lady Susan’s letters show the consistently forceful personality behind all the manipulations, as she tells her confidential friend, ‘There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.‘ Little known, I claim her as one of the greatest villains in literature.
Moving into ancient history, Livia, as imagined by Robert Graves, is about as conniving and ruthless as you can get. While her husband, the emperor Augustus, is generally presented as a capable and leader, it’s clear who’s really in control. Of course, Livia doesn’t just hold the power, she also holds the poison, because there’s nothing more terrifying than a matriarch who will literally do anything to protect her own aims. One of the reasons I think Livia is so great is that, while she was compelled by society to be recognised only for her position as a wife and mother, she appears to be without any defining maternal instincts. Instead of being matriarchal, she is dynastic, working for her children because of their potential to serve her, rather than the other way around. If power is truly an aphrodisiac, Livia is arguably the most seductive women in a highly competitive list.
It will come as not surprise to regular readers here to find an Atwood somewhere in the list. One of my personal Atwood top-reads, ‘The Robber Bride’ has a wonderfully enigmatic, but unashamedly evil woman at its heart. Living out all kinds of fame-fatal stereotypes, the mysterious Zenia wanders through innocent lives, spreading death, destruction, heartbreak and mayhem. She is an equal opportunities villain, targeting victims irrespective of gender, wealth and ideology. The book is told through the eyes of three women linked by their traumatic encounters with her, but, like the other stand-out characters in this list, Zenobia has no time for female solidarity, she is a lone warrior (though we’re never sure of her cause) and she’s really, really good at what she does.
One of my top reads of 2016 was Herman Koch’s ‘The Dinner,’ and while I’ve written about the wonderfully vicious narrator, I don’t think I’ve spend enough time raving about his wife. She’s introduced positively, with Paul repeating his conviction that ‘Claire is smarter than me.’ As we get to know the pathologically violent Paul though, we start to wonder quite what he means by ‘smart.’ It takes a lot of suggestion, and a fair bit of bodily harm, before we realise what kind of man Paul is, and exactly what kind of woman would earn his devotion. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but when it comes to cold-hearted, pragmatic amorality, you get the impression that Claire and Livia might get on quite well. Or maybe they wouldn’t, neither seem terribly interested in friendship as a worthy outlet for their personal ambitions…
There we are, and it’s worked, because thinking about this accumulated fictional evil has really cheered me up! These women are written within a tradition of simplified gender stereotypes, but they truly subvert expectations by being just so much more appealing than their virtuous counterparts. They also show how power can be a woman’s game and that men aren’t the only ones who can play. Who have I missed off the list? I’m not interested in evil women who exist to lead men to their doom, but I do love the compelling complexity of a super-intelligent maverick turning the tables on society’s stated expectations, and I’m always looking out for more to add to the pantheon.
As a side note, the inspiration for the title for this post comes from this specific cover to Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden.’ You probably can’t see on the small image, but the italic writing next to the the picture of a scantily-dressed Cathy promotes ‘The book that created Cathy – the most evil woman in fiction’ I was hooked there and then. To be honest, I’m not really a fan of Cathy, because, unlike the other women in this list, the author doesn’t seem to be much taken with her himself. There’s no suggestion that she’s a woman in a man’s world who has to pit her wits against society in a desperately unequal battle. Instead, she’s the kind of evil woman who works in a whorehouse and somehow doesn’t recognise the humanity of the men who buy her services. I feel compelled to credit her in this post though, because I’m a sucker for a great book cover and I can’t ever hear the title ‘East of Eden’ without mentally adding ‘Cathy … the most evil woman in fiction.’ I wonder if the publishers were really thinking quite how tough her competition was?