Henri’s Wicked Women on a Wednesday

Film and literature are full of villains and baddies, the perfect foil for the heroes and heroines, but what about the so-called “anti-hero”, fictional characters in the role of protagonist who aren’t necessarily heroic or even nice, the ones we love to hate? Because I write women’s fiction, here I’ll be talking about my 3 favourite wicked women (or 4).

Like butter wouldn't melt (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Like butter wouldn't melt (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlett O’Hara
The raven-haired, green-eyed, and manipulative beauty from Gone With the Wind is the kind of heroine who makes people’s fingers twitch because they long to give her a jolly good slap. The trouble with Scarlett is that she’ll slap you right back. “Sir, you are no gentleman”, she says to Rhett Butler, to which he counters, “And you, Miss, are no lady”, thus hitting the nail on the head. Not only is she a fighter, she fights dirty. She steals her sister’s fiancé, romances the broken and weak-willed Ashley behind her friend Melanie’s back, drives her second husband to an early grave, and continues to use slave labour after the emancipation, substituting black slaves for unpaid convicts.

Why do I like her? Exactly because she’s a fighter, and because she, in her youthfulness, believes it’s for love, but as the novel progresses, it’s becomes clear the fight is for her very essence. Scarlett is inextricably bound up with the family plantation, Tara. The men in her life – her father, Ahsley, Rhett – know this before she does, and many of her selfish, and occasionally cruel actions are centred around preserving Tara and her family’s heritage. For that she pays the ultimate price: losing the people who truly love her despite herself.

Marquise de Merteuil
You may wonder why I have chosen the scheming scandal-mongerer from Dangerous Liaisons (played brilliant by the actress Glenn Close in the 1988 film btw., with just a hint of bunny-boiler madness about her) as my next anti-heroine. What is there to like about her? Clever, indolent, and bored, she’s a far more dangerous creature than Scarlett, and together with the cynical and jaded Vicomte de Valmont she orchestrates not only the downfall of an innocent young girl, but also the seduction of the sweet and faithful Madame the Tourvel, for nothing more than a bet. The prize? The Marquise will give herself to the Vicomte if he succeeds.

This lady’s come-uppance comes in the form of being hoisted by her own petard. Valmont seduces the faithful wife, but when he rejects her, as part of the bet, he breaks her heart and his own too in the process. Wretched, he tries to collect his prize, but the Marquise refuses to honour the bet because she has fallen in love with the him and cannot give herself to him as he loves another. Later she suffers a nervous breakdown.

What I like about her character is that despite proclaiming herself a cynic when it comes to romantic love, her weakness is that she cannot guard herself against it. She has committed hubris, laughing at the gods of love only to be struck by Cupid’s arrow herself.

Cinderella’s ugly sisters
Although this pair of anti-heroines aren’t exactly protagonists, they’re certainly show-stealers because they’re so deliciously wicked, both in the original fairy tale, but also in the delightful Disney cartoon. The reader/audience cheer when they get their come-uppance. In the

The coveted slippers (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The coveted slippers (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Disney film they’re not as mean as in the book, and payback is a little less harsh, sanitised, perhaps, for the benefit of a very young audience (i.e. they don’t get to marry the prince), but in the story they willingly cripple themselves in order to fit into the fabled glass slipper. One cuts her toe off, the other her heel.

I also like them because a deeper interpretation of the story reveals that more is at play – only by being true to yourself (as Cinderella is), will you win the greatest prize of all. For others to love you as you are without the need to alter yourself, either physically or with regards to your personality. An important message to us all maybe – every day we’re bombarded with images of supposed perfection, in glossy magazines, on TV and billboards etc., and it takes a certain degree of self-assuredness to stem up against such onslaught.

Having said that, I’d give anything to own, let alone fit into the shoes in the picture on the left :-)

21 thoughts on “Henri’s Wicked Women on a Wednesday

  1. I love Becky Sharpe in ‘Vanity Fair’ – totally unscrupulous and manipulative minx in an era when these two characteristics were not on the female agenda.

  2. Lots to think about there thanks, Henri! What about Mrs Danvers in Rebecca? Horrid, but loyal and a nice contrast to the sometimes drippy Mrs de Winter :)

  3. I love your choices, Henri.

    One of my favourite films is The Wicked Lady staring Margaret Lockwood (and Faye Dunaway in the remake). The character of Barbara Skelton is absolutely fascinating. I also adored Beatrice Lacey in Philippa Gregory’s novel Wideacre Totally without morals but spellbinding all the same!

  4. Mandy – I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one who thought the 2nd Mrs de Winter was a drip! Mrs Danvers was a much more complex character and totally stole the show, imho.

    Vicki – “The Wicked Lady” with Margaret Lockwood is one of my favourite films. Wore my videotape thin watching that!

    Sue – I always completely got Scarlett, and understood where she was coming from, but a lot of people hate her.

  5. Interesting/original blog topic, Henri. We all need someone we love to hate in a book, be it male or female, though I don’t really see Scarlett as an anti-heroine. Selfish for sure, but I suspect we all love her.

  6. I warmed to Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I also liked Smilla, from Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – not wicked, more outsiders. I guess I like the kinds of heroines who can stand up for themselves.

  7. Liv – I agree that Scarlett makes a fabulous protagonist. She’s complex, not because she’s a particular deep or clever person, but because her character arc spans such a huge spectrum, from relative innocent to hard-nosed business woman to abandoned wife, while retaining her optimism.

    Chris – Love your choices! To that may I add another Scandinavian crime heroine, Sarah Lund, from “The Killing”. I’m still convinced it’s my destiny to knit a sweater like hers :-D

  8. Thought-provoking post, Henri – I too love Scarlett O’Hara, which is probably why I was so upset that she didn’t get her HEA when she’d finally learned her lesson! And I’m with Chris, Lisbeth Salander is great.

  9. Great post, Henri! I love your choices – and I have to add an Austen favourite, Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park. Often seen as Elizabeth Bennet gone bad.

  10. I must admit I am always drawn to the bad girls in fiction. It’s hard to make a good girl interesting if you also have a fascinatingly bad one in the same story. A really interesting post, Henri – food for thought for us all.

  11. How about a few more from the fairy tales? Lots of wicked queens, as beautiful as they are evil – and I bet they had wardrobes to die for!!!

  12. Can I offer Aunt Augusta, Henri? One can well imagine a teenage Augusta (from Travels with my Aunt) throwing her bible out of a carriage window. Indeed, she was a wicked and scheming woman by any reasonable definition and she ends up running drugs from Paraguay at an advanced age. But somehow she becomes lovable as well as believable, her peccadilloes merely unfortunate accidents on life’s bumpy path. I imagine she would find Scarlett, tiresome and shallow, but would rejoice in the company of the unfortunate Marquise with whom she would drink copious amounts of gin while using flattery against the ugly sisters who would then carry both their bags.

  13. My first introduction to Scarlett O’Hara is when I was about ten years old and the American TV mini-series ‘Scarlett’ first aired. My mom was THRILLED and we watched it together, with her giving me the run down of the back story. I fell in love with Scarlett, both the woman and the production! The next week we rented Gone With the Wind and as an adult I’ve since read both books. For me ‘Scarlett’ will always be a legitimate and necessary sequel, in which there is a HEA! :)

    And to toot the horn of our very own Liz Harris, she has a fantastic anti-heroine secondary character in her upcoming e-release!

  14. Some fantastic choices there. I may have to expand my collection :-) And, Fennie, you’re so right about Aunt Augusta. It did make me laugh, the image of her and the Marquise downing gin! I like it.

    Yes, it was sad that Scarlett didn’t get her HEA, even after she’s learned her lesson, but the last line of the book “Tomorrow is another day” is extremely optimistic, and you just know she’ll find a way to get Rhett back. I quite like the Alexandra Ripley’s sequel – it’s a very possible interpretation of how she might go about it.

  15. Great post Henri – you’ve actually managed to get me thinking tonight which is quite an achievement :)

  16. Glad to hear it, Sarah! Sort of lost the ability to think clearly myself, after the post, probably because of the heat (not that I’m complaining, mind….), or maybe I just need a holiday :-)

  17. Perhaps we love these Bad Girls because with evil comes the chance of redemption. With the Good Girls – well, we already know they deserve their happy ending, maybe we are all slightly sadistic and like to see the Bad Girls earn theirs!

  18. I suppose it’s all about keeping the bad girls in the crucible for as long as possible, to keep people turning the pages. I definitely agree they have to work for their happy ending, and the reader too!

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