The literary 'mean girls' we're not supposed to like but do...

After last week's blog post on 'black-hearted heroes and why women fall for them', I thought I'd take a look at the women we're not supposed to like. I was thinking also of Claire Messud's recent interview with Publisher's Weekly: She was asked about the 'unlikeability' of the main character of her most recent book, The Woman Upstairs, and pretty much exploded over the idea that we should be 'friends' with the women characters we read.

Which made me wonder about those women we're meant to dislike but perhaps, deep down, have sneaking admiration for. we wouldn't want to be their friends necessarily, but we admire their verve, their daring. Perhaps we feel sympathy for their frustration that makes them act badly. First up was that Machiavellian manipulator Choderlos de Laclos' Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Glenn Close did a good job of her in the film - she came across as pretty irrevocably evil. But it also kept some insights into her state of mind: a frustrated, clever woman, ignored by her husband and unable to have a career, channel her intelligence into something meaningful, who in another time might have been a force for something better.

Number two is Sandy from Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Yes, she does betray her teacher but only because she sees right through her. Her speech on the death of Mary Morrison is superb, and whilst she might also be petty, spiteful and full of bile, she's smart and she hates lies. For the same reason, I quite like Mary Crawfurd from Austen's Mansfield Park. Mary's exposed as lacking the morality that anchors Fanny - she's like an amoral Elizabeth Bennet, what Elizabeth might have become in another universe. But she has great life about her, she wants to have power. She's another woman held back by not being able to invest her energies in a career.

The lack of a career is maybe why most of these 'mean girls' hail from an earlier time, a century when women were still struggling for the vote, the right to have a job, the right to own their own home. Did the social and political conditions make them the creatures they became? I wouldn't want to be friends with Max de winter's first wife, Rebecca, but she's quite a life force, especially compared with the nervousness and insecurity of 'The Girl' of du Maurier's eponymous novel. Rebecca, forever having dalliances and wicked parties, might just have been happier with a bit of focus!

And don't get me started on Miss Havisham. Oh, the wicked old besom who ruins Estella and Pip's love in Great Expectations just because she was jilted at the altar! It's hard to like her - like all the women in this post, she's dangerous and out to ruin other women's lives if she possibly can. But that danger comes from a more troubled place that perhaps deserves our sympathy. Besides, there's something slightly delicious about watching the ever upright and saintly Pip being manipulated.

Being pitched opposite a too-good-to-be-true figure helps these mean girls - we 're less likely to loathe them unequivocably if the hero/heroine is just too perfect. We like a bit of a flaw in our characters; we like a bit of badness to offset the good. Ford Madox Ford understood this best, I think, when he cast the cheating Sylvia Tetjiens opposite his saintly Christopher in Parade's End. Sylvia is vile in lots of respects, and the poor soul gets pitted against the lovely young Valentina Bold just to sink her even further. But she's a highly intelligent woman who feels trapped and doesn't know how to turn that frustration into something better. We recognise that, I think, and still have sympathy for her. Ultimately, we don't have to like the mean girls, but they serve a purpose and I'd be sorry to see them disappear from our fiction.


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