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8 Literary Heartbreakers

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Who can forget Miss Havisham, withering away in her wedding dress after being jilted at the altar in Great Expectations? Or the fallen milkmaid in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, doomed to a life of hardship and misery after she crossed paths with a caddish aristocrat? And who better epitomized the agony of mutual heartbreak than star-crossed lovers Cathy and Heathcliff, torn apart by pride and selfishness? The anguish of the romantically wronged and their wrongdoers made for great storytelling, with classic writers proving that the modern maxim "He's just not that into you" isn't so modern after all. Is it any wonder that those who wrought fictional heartbreak so convincingly often honed the art of the heartless break-up off the page?

Though a full list of literary heartbreakers would rival War and Peace in length, here are eight of the worst culprits.

  • Lord Byron
    “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” was one lover’s famous assessment of the flamboyant poet whose compulsive sexual liaisons put him squarely at the top of the heartbreaker heap. Byron was quick to respond to female advances and just as quick to get bored and move on to the next conquest. One spurned lover sent him a lock of her blood-tinged pubic hair and rushed him with a table knife during a dinner party, while another threw herself into Venice's Grand Canal. Even true love couldn’t tame his rampant machismo, as the brokenhearted Teresa Guiccoli found out when he left her behind her to take up arms in the Greek war for independence. He died of rheumatic fever before even making it to the battlefield, leaving Teresa to pine his loss for the rest of her life.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley
    The jerk gene was also shared by fellow Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who dumped his pregnant wife to elope with 16-year-old Mary Godwin. The pair’s continental honeymoon was short lived after their bank account ran dry six weeks into the trip, forcing their disgraced return to England. Shelley’s first stop? His ex’s house, where he shamelessly begged for money to pay their cab fare while Mary waited outside in the coach. His heartbroken wife later drowned herself and to absolve himself of blame, Shelley painted her as a gold digger and a prostitute. Only three weeks after her funeral, the poet made his union with Mary official by tying the knot in a church ceremony.
  • T.S. Eliot
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    An unlikely playboy, the shy, bespectacled poet often snuck out the back door of his office to avoid his wife, Vivienne, who stalked him for years after he abruptly deserted her. In despair, she even attempted to place a Times personal advertisement, pleading for him to return home. None of her desperate measures won him back and she was eventually committed to an asylum. Eliot never visited and instead took up with two new women, neither of whom knew about the other. For years, he rebuffed their marital overtures and eventually stunned them both by secretly marrying his young secretary. After hearing the shocking news, one spurned paramour stopped speaking to him while the other was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.
  • Ted Hughes
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    When Sylvia Plath first locked gazes with fellow poet Ted Hughes at a party, their attraction was instant and explosive: he kissed her on the mouth while she responded by biting his cheek. Although Plath sensed the charismatic Casanova would be trouble—foreshadowing her fate by describing him as “a breaker of things and people”—they wed just four months later. Seven years into their volatile coupling, Plath was devastated to discover that Hughes was having an affair with a recent dinner guest, thrice-married temptress Assia Wevill. Like Plath, the seductress later committed suicide after she, too, had her heart broken by Hughes.
  • Thomas Wolfe
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    Buyer’s remorse? When Thomas Wolfe’s mediocre plays failed to sell, his wealthy lover, Aline Bernstein, urged him to write a novel and bankrolled his living expenses. After making a name for himself with Look Homeward, Angel, he repaid her by acrimoniously ending their affair, accusing her of sleeping around and deriding her Jewish heritage. Reluctant to call it quits despite his abhorrent behavior, Aline bombarded the coldly indifferent writer with pleading letters and cables and attempted suicide. But when he showed up drunk at her apartment building and launched into an anti-Semitic tirade, she ended the rant by punching him in the face and having him tossed out on the street.
  • Simone de Beauvoir
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    Even great sex wasn’t enough to convince Simone de Beauvoir to make it official with journalist Nelson Algren, who was desperate to marry her. She refused to cut ties with fellow philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, to whom she had pledged her eternal devotion, and Algren understandably wasn’t interested in a three-way liaison. Simone then poured salt in his wounds by dishing on their affair—notably their sexual exploits—in print. Although Algren went on to marry twice, he continued to carry a torch for his French lover and cursed her to a reporter shortly before he died. She never completely forgot him and wore the ring he gave her to the grave she shares with Sartre.
  • Gustave Flaubert
    Gustave Flaubert was lucky his tempestuous ex-mistress, Louise Colet, didn’t come after him with a knife when she read his racy novel Madame Bovary, like she once did with a journalist who besmirched her reputation. Not only had the rascally writer already broken her heart—twice—he shamelessly infused his story with details from her life. Instead of wielding a knife in revenge, Louise proved turnabout was fair play by penning a semi-autobiographical tale depicting Flaubert as a buffoon and cad.
  • Jacqueline Susann
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    The bed-hopping social-climbers in her runaway bestseller Valley of the Dolls had nothing on Jackie Susann, who surely penned one of the cruelest break-up letters of all time after her husband was drafted into the Army. Until then, he had generously funded her champagne and caviar lifestyle while she struggled to make it as an actress. But when she fell for someone else, she cut him loose like driftwood, composing a humorous “Dear John” letter and reading it aloud to her cast mates: “Irving, when we were at the Essex House and I had room service and I could buy all my Florence Lustig dresses, I found that I loved you very much, but now that you’re in the Army and getting $56 a month, I feel that my love has waned.”

Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon are the authors of the new book Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads.