Literary Ladies Who Bet on the Wrong Horse

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I am so thankful that I do not live in a time in which my survival depends on how well I marry and other delightful circumstances out of my control.

Often, marriage/sexual choices had severe consequences for the entrapped women of the past, but thankfully fictional women often ended up okay, even after some heinous choices (for the most part.  Not always, as we know).  A woman’s marriage/sexual choices are a natural source of tension in classic literature and there have been many permutations on how these choices are made and how they work out for her.

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Here are five women in classic literature who clearly bet on the wrong horse:

  1. Lydia Bennet, Pride and Prejudice Perhaps one of the most well known marital disasters. Lydia takes one for the team for Darcy to come in and save the day and convince Lizzy of his love for her. Of course, he did not intend Lizzy to know of his deed, he just was scrabbling to keep a modicum of respectability about the family. The Bennets are a mess and for once that brutal fact actually benefits the heroine. I am not a huge fan of Lydia so I don’t mind that she took a fall for the advancement of the plot.  Plus, her choice left the option open for swarms of fan fiction books. Thanks for being an air headed girl, Lydia.
  2. Mercedes Herrera Mondego, The Count of Monte Cristo: Semi love triangle. Only semi, because if Mercedes truly had her druthers she would have married Edmund Dantes. If your lover is sentenced to life in prison, and even if you are told he has been executed, the best thing to do may not be to marry his enemy.  He just might show back up and be angry with you for not waiting for his improbable resurrection by unwittingly marrying the man who framed him. For not believing that he might not actually be dead. Some women just have to have a secure future above moral superiority, don’t they? Darn those women who put wanting security and a family over fidelity to a seemingly lost cause! I can’t blame her for not being able to know the truth.  Some women overlook flaws in their chosen husbands in favor of some other appealing aspect, but the Count de Morcerf’s largest flaw was cleverly concealed through much of the book, in addition to his being devoted to her. Can’t blame a girl for just trying to get on in a world run by men.


3. Bathsheba Everdene, Far from the Madding Crowd: I first tried to spell her name Everdeen, like Katniss does, and 2. No I have not seen the most recent movie rendition of this book.  Bathsheba gets sucked in by fancy swordsmanship and the rakish good looks of Frank Troy.  Not only is this man awash in vices, he does not really love her. He is not a bad man deep down, however. I can see where a woman with good looks and property would be a hot commodity if one can overlook her independence.  She has all the men in the neighborhood going crazy for her and she does not need a one of them.  And because she works her inheritance and makes it a project rather than living off the labor of others, I cannot help but respect her.

4. Dorothea Brooke, Middlemarch: Dorothea Brooke has a mind of her own and strains against the perameters of her role to live an intellectually fulfilling and useful life, contrary to societal expectations of her as idle and ornamental. Like the other women in this post, she is beautiful to boot, and accomplishes what no other woman has ever managed to, which is to entice Edward Casaubon out of a quite comfortable bachelorhood. She is baited by his intellectual pursuits as other women are by money, good looks, and masculine displays. Sadly, she marries Casaubon because she believes that he will be a way for her to fulfill her intellectual desires, and the marriage quickly crumbles.  Resent her as he does for her enthusiasm and youth, he nonetheless makes a last ditch effort to control her even after his death by a clause in his inheritance.  Worry not, however.  At the risk of spoiling the novel, reader need not be worried about Dorothea cashing in her power for a dead and disappointing husband’s money.

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5. Helen Lawrence Huntingdon/Helen Graham, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: I don’t know if Lydia Bennet felt that she could change Wickham, but Helen certainly was enamored with the idea of making Arthur Huntingdon into the man of her dreams.  His flaws were obvious from the get go, and it was not that he deceived her (as Mercedes did not get the full truth), she deceived herself into anticipating a marriage with a man who she morally rehabilitates. The theme of failing to change a man continues to this day.   Women marry men expecting them to change, men marry women expecting they will not.  Arthur expects that he will always be able to be just as drunk and abusive as he pleases and Helen will always accept it, which she does not.  A highly scandalous novel for its time.  Wait, a woman can deny sex to her husband whenever she pleases?  Helen expects that with her gentle ministrations he will leave his vices behind.  The Bronte sisters drive me crazy with their emphasis on virtue at a woman’s expense.  It does work out in the end, I promise, but my modern brain was screaming at Helen to get and stay as far away as she can from Arthur, especially when she has her own means for support.

Marriage is a tenuous prospect, even in this day and time, with everyone having all the independence that they can bring into being.  Mismatched couples will always be a generator for the all important tension in novels and in real life.

This list is far from comprehensive.  Who do you think I missed?  Leave a comment below!!!

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