10/06/2014 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Most Dastardly Husbands in Fiction

October is the month for marriages gone sour, at least at the cinema this year, where the screen adaptations of "Gone Girl" and "Before I Go To Sleep" are both poised for release ("Gone Girl" was released Friday; "Before I Go To Sleep," fittingly, will be released on the 31st).

'Marriage thrillers' have been hard to avoid in the past couple of years in bookshops, where these two have been kept good company by The Husband's Secret, The Silent Wife, You Should Have Known and my own novel, Before We Met. As readers, we seem to have been hungry for stories of marital discord, for terrible secrets and worse behaviour.

Often -- though not always -- in this recent crop, it's the husbands who are the bad apples and that made me curious. It hasn't always been the case: do a Google search for :worst husbands in literature" and some of the very first hits will offer you the worst wives in literature, the worst girlfriends, the worst mothers. You'd think it was women who were the bad guys here...

Doing some thinking on the subject with well-read friends, we came to the conclusion that much of what seems like unforgivable behaviour on the part of major fictional husbands is excused or explained by their authors as having to conform to 'the system' (the Commander in The Handmaid's Tale) or just being caught in a tragic position (the Mayor of Casterbridge, who sells his wife). Even a Goodreads survey seeking to identify which fictional character would make the worst husband included Casaubon of Middlemarch whose worst crimes, surely, were being utterly selfish and boring beyond belief. Definitely not good husband material but far from an out-and-out sociopath like Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca or a femme fatale like Cora of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Challenged, I set out to even the balance and identify some fictional husbands who were bad to the bone. Here are eight of the worst offenders:

Agamemnon, Oresteia by Aeschylus

Perhaps some would argue that sacrificing one's own daughter in exchange for a wind to carry the Greek fleet to Troy and avenge your brother is unselfish. Most people, I suspect, would side with Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra. Not only does Agamemnon slaughter Iphigenia but when eventually he does make it home after the war, he brings a mistress with him -- and a psychic one who prophesies doom at that.

Blue Beard, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé by Charles Perrault

A monster of French folktale, La Barbe Bleue is noble and wealthy but struggles to find a new bride on account of his ugly colored beard and the fact that no one can say with any certainty what happened to his numerous previous wives. After turning her head with a lavish courtship, however, Blue Beard persuades the young daughter of a neighbor to take a chance on him. Going away soon after the wedding, he hands her a bunch of keys, telling her she can open every room of his chateau except one, thus ensuring, of course, that she heads straight for it. Big mistake -- and mystery of the missing wives solved.

Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

If you were Cathy Earnshaw, Heathcliff might make you a wonderful -- if somewhat intense -- husband. Married to Isabella Linton, however, he's the stuff of nightmare. Seeing in her an opportunity to take vengeance on Isabella's brother, Edgar, who has married his beloved Cathy, Heathcliff sets out to ruin her, eloping with her and thus ruining her reputation and causing her beloved brother to disown her. Later, keeping her in utter isolation at Wuthering Heights, he subjects her to a life of savage cruelty and violence. One can only imagine the encounter that results in their son.

Edward Murdstone, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

With his 'beautiful black hair and whiskers' (all the better for twirling) Edward Murdstone is a pantomime-strength villain. He quickly marries David Copperfield's mother, a "pretty little widow" whose dead husband has left her an annuity, and sets about destroying her relationship with her son. His methods are brutal and effective. From the first, he insists that his pliable new wife is "firm" with David but he soon moves on: "He beat me then, as if he would have beaten me to death." Murdstone dispatches David to a terrible boarding school then slowly kills his mother by oppression in his absence. David learns that, hopeless and loveless, she "died like a child that had gone to sleep," her new infant son buried with her. After her death, the monstrous Murdstone sets David to work in a factory pasting labels to bottles.

Sir Percival Glyde, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Sir Percival Glyde marries the beautiful Laura Fairlie and, being in dire financial straits, tries to force her to assign to him her marriage settlement of £20,000. When she refuses, he plots with his Italian friend Count Fosco to switch the identities of Laura and Anne Catherick, 'the woman in white' who bears a striking resemblance to Laura and whom we encounter at the beginning of the book in flight from a mental asylum. Anne is fatally ill and Glyde plans to bury her as Laura and claim the inheritance. To do so, he has to get the real Laura out of the picture, which he does by drugging her and 'returning' her as Anne to the asylum. It later transpires that he is, quite literally, a total bastard.

Pinky Brown, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

The idea of marriage is abhorrent to the teenage sociopath Pinky but when he learns that the innocent waitress Rose witnessed something that could get him convicted of murder, he sets out to marry her, knowing that a wife can't give evidence against her husband. Rose's naivety and yearning to love is painfully contrasted with Pinky's hate-filled psychopathy in this chilling story. The vial of acid that Pinky carries in his pocket for much of the action is the book's equivalent of a loaded gun.

Humbert Humbert, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

As a husband, there can be few crimes worse than having married your wife -- by whom you're repulsed -- in order to gain access to her 12-year-old daughter. Contemplating killing your wife while also following her daughter, flirting with her and recording the details of your obsession in your diary is also pretty unforgivable, especially if you're not careful enough to keep it where your wife can never find it.

Runner Day, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn At first glance, Runner Day seems no worse than your average negligent drunkard wastrel husband but as the story goes on, a more detailed picture emerges. This is a man who bullies his ex-wife for money when their kids are close to starving and against whose return she loads a shotgun, "just in case." It's a family joke that the code on the gun cabinet is the date of their wedding anniversary...

Lucie Whitehouse's latest novel, Before We Met, is just out in paperback from Bloomsbury.


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