Recently, my thoughts have been preoccupied with wicked women.
As a student of the humanities – namely, English literature, and even more specifically, Victorian literature, in all its verbosity – whose field of study recognizes the pivotal inextricability of words from complex networks of cultural meaning, contemporary and historical connotations, and critical scrutiny, I feel the need to explain what I mean.
Just that assertion, the typical aha, gotcha! factor necessary for any captivating opening line, required some consideration and several revisions. “Evil” brings to mind Miltonic images of Eve’s “golden tresses wore / Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved” or of equally mythic personages such as the so-called Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory, who bathed in the blood of virgins – an apt model for Stoker’s brides of Dracula. “Naughty,” on the other hand, has already been so thoroughly appropriated for the weirdly incongruent rhetorical camps of child-minders and the marketing of adult entertainment, which intersect in disturbing cases of the Lolita-inspired schoolgirl: the jailbait, childish version of the seductive vixen, all grown-up save in physical form. “Bad” may suit well enough, but those who have experienced attempting to explain ‘90s slang to an older or younger generation may understand the shortcomings of that particular descriptor.
Meanwhile, there’s a secret thrill that accompanies the concept of the wicked. The very concept invites a conspiratorial grin, a winking with the one eye while closing the other against the injunctions of a too-stringent, too-prudish society; an empowerment, a tantalizing call to action for personal gratification, or just enough fun in the rebellion to make any censure worth the risk. When gendered, the mystique becomes doubly attractive – male wickedness seems tame, in comparison to the female strain of the same.
Sing along; you know you want to…
The greater part of this peculiar interest stems, as it should, from my current reading material: amidst the host of blushing heroines of angelic disposition, graceful white arms and nary a selfish thought in their heads, much less the least shred of wickedness in their souls, I happen to stumble across a Jezebel and a Delilah, a Lady Macbeth and a Cersei Lannister. Presumably, any a reader may hesitate to define what “wicked” means, but could beyond a shadow of a doubt name a fictional female representative of such an epithet.
If pressed to apply an admittedly narrow descriptor to such women, one befitting their literary status, and in homage to another house bearing green iconography, we might find ready meaning in the words of the Sorting Hat: “Those cunning folk use any means // To Achieve their ends.”
“There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin,” they say. I say: Slytherins, represent!
For those more comfortable with the precise, authoritative statements given in reference texts, the following may provide an apt grounding for the following investigation:
Wicked, adj (n. and adv)
Etymology: Middle English (13th cent.)
- Bad in moral character, disposition, or conduct; inclined or addicted to willful wrong-doing; practicing or disposed to practice evil; morally depraved. (A term of wide application, but always of strong reprobation, implying a high degree of evil quality.)
- of a person (or a community of persons).
- of action, speech, thought, or other personal attribute; also transf. of a thing connected in some way with such action, etc.
- Designating a stock evil character in a fairy-tale, as Wicked Fairy, Wicked Stepmother, Wicked Uncle, etc. Freq. transf.
From the vast assemblage of personages inspired by this “term of wide application,” my subject of inquiry over the next two weeks will focus on two characters who thoroughly earn the infamously attractive epithet. They play their parts to beguile, to perform, and master the sympathies of the naïve and, significantly, even the knowing reader, who cannot help but stand amazed. In other words, a wicked woman, as proven by Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, and Gone Girl’s Amazing Amy, must be an impeccable actress.
The Victorians held an ambivalent attitude toward actresses – some, like the celebrated Ellen Terry, enjoyed a prosperous stage career and earned enthusiastic acclaim particularly for her role as Lady Macbeth, as immortalized in John Singer Sargent’s painting. On the whole, however, most held suspect – especially those who could not, or would not give an “honest” account of her character. Like their maligned cousins, the French ballet girls or opera singers, these were women who not only dared to labor for wages, but stooped so low as to perform onstage and in public, to adorn their bodies with artificial rouge and roguery, to sell their person for entertainment – in short, to channel physical charms and feminine wiles through the unnatural art of deception. Despite the emerging trend in Victorian celebrity culture that patronized and flattered literary lions such as Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens, actresses represented a common, immodest kind of woman cultivated from the same fallen stock as prostitutes.
(Credit:Wikiart.org) (Credit: charlesdickenspage.com)
Mary Robinson as Perdita, (left) and Ellen Terry (right)
Mary Robinson (1758-1800) was an English actress, novelist, poet, and perhaps one of England’s first female celebrities. At the age of twenty-one, she played Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, caught the eye of the then-Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and became his first public mistress. Ellen Ternan (1839-1914) – who must not be confused with her contemporary, the aforementioned Ellen Terry – remains a much more controversial figure, and is best known as the young actress with whom a married and middle-aged Dickens engaged upon a sustained love affair, a secret intrigue starting when the former was eighteen years old.
Robinson’s constructed public persona worked greatly to her advantage: as the Prince’s mistress, she gave up her acting career and was left to negotiate the disastrous aftermath of a ruined reputation when her lover eventually broke off ties. Throughout the affair, she thus crafted a representative identity through careful stylizing of fashionable dress, and later reinforced that image through her own literary productions, determining who would have the privilege of seeing her, of reading her body through the scripts she wrote. The image of Ternan, on the other hand, has up until recently been largely ignored by the majority of Dickens’s historians, fans, and those who would guard his legacy; their correspondence burned, the woman herself effaced from the historical record.
Were these women wicked? By Puritanical standards, maybe.
But in comparison, neither Robinson nor Ternan fit the same type as William Makepeace Thackeray’s small, French, social-climbing governess, or Gillian Flynn’s calculating Manhattanite who wields a Master’s degree in psychology with more finesse than any weapon. The type of acting that interests me pushes beyond the bounds of mere self-fashioning; it is a rampant, powerfully manipulative, chameleon-like reinvention of the self. This clever and constant re-writing of one’s image implies more than a comprehensive knowledge of signifying codes; it urges readers to stand in awe at the character’s mastery of the fluidity of meaning.
The seductive reach of the wicked woman extends beyond her textual place. She threatens to hold both fellow fictional characters and readers enrapt, against better senses. She has elevated wickedness into an art form, manipulating social signs encoded through appearances, behavior, and culturally reinforced signifying practices.
Next week, I will discuss how Becky Sharp, an orphan who rises through the ranks of society through her quick wit, a penchant for intelligent scheming, and an aptitude for changing her manners with every elevation or drop in station dwarfs the position of the stock character that her satirizing author would make for her within the narrative. Against this vivacious but rather two-dimensional character, I will bring in the formidable Amy Eliott, the merciless, sociopathic trust fund daughter turned scorned wife, who uses the sensational media and private narrative to turn popular opinion against her philandering husband, and perhaps even earns a hearty cheer of support from the reader in the process. In these two characters, ambition mingles with the skill of dissimulation, and issues of modesty, silent long-suffering, and fidelity – the common lot of many a female character – quickly become irrelevant. Perhaps, then, we who have longed for so much more than these in women’s narratives, like their wickedness all the much more for it.
 Paradise Lost.org, (4.303-304).
 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 7: “The Sorting Hat.” (113-130). New York: Scholastic, 1998.
 “wicked, adj. 1 (n. and adv.).” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 18 March 2016.
Vicky Cheng is a third year Ph.D. student and teaching associate in Syracuse’s English Department. She studies Victorian literature and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and queer readings of the body. When not reading for forthcoming qualifying exams, she can be found drinking tea, napping, or having strong feelings about Star Wars, Marvel films, and Hamilton.