I’ve read a lot of 19th-century literature, and one of the things I love about it is how great so many of the women are. They live in a time when women are expected to do as they’re told, and yet they often find a way to have their voices heard and get their way in the end.
A lot of the time, heroines of 19th-century novels stay within bounds and follow the rules of propriety—or they only flout the rules that are truly ridiculous. (Think of Jane Eyre refusing a bigamous marriage or Elizabeth Bennett turning down proposals that don’t interest her.)
But some women decide that being good is not for them, and they break any rule that stands in their way. I’d like to pay tribute to a few of these women. They may be villains, and I may not like them (though sometimes I do), but they’re always fun to read about.
Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery. Becky Sharp is perhaps the most notorious of these notorious ladies. Her main crime is being a social climber who starts with nothing and schemes her way into high society. Who can blame her for that? The trouble is, she’s extremely selfish and doesn’t care who she hurts along the way.
Lizzie Eustace from The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope. You can hardly blame Lizzie Eustace for wanting to keep the Eustace family diamonds when her husband dies after their brief marriage. Never mind that they’re not really hers. They should be! So she’ll do whatever lying it takes to make sure she can keep them.
Milady De Winter from The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. When we meet her, she’s a thief in the shadows. But eventually the meandering plot of this novel lands on this spy for Cardinal Richelieu as one of the principal sources of all of our hero d’Artagnan’s problems. Personally, I don’t think d’Artagnan is much of a hero, and, after d’Artagnan seduced Milady under false pretenses, I was glad whenever Milady got the better of him. But I suppose I do need to come out against her tendency to poison her adversaries.
Lydia Gwilt from Armadale by Wilkie Collins. Although the two men named Allen Armadale are supposedly the heroes of this novel, Lydia Gwilt’s main act of theft is that she steals the book right out from under them! Huge chunks of the novel are taken from her letters and journals, so we can see up close what a schemer she is. She’s never anything other than a villain, but it’s impossible not to love a woman who writes something like, “I am in one of my tempers to-night. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something of that sort.”
Susan Vernon from Lady Susan by Jane Austen. Although this novella was probably written in the late 18th century, it was published in 1871. And Lady Susan Vernon is too delicious a schemer to leave out. She wheedles her way into all sorts of places where she isn’t wanted, at least not by the women. Men always seem to fall for her. Because Austen’s novella is told entirely in letters, it’s hard to know exactly what Lady Susan has actually done and what she’s merely rumored to have done. Her cruelty to her daughter is clear, but I loved following her plots and schemes.