The Villain Of The Piece

photo via

Monstrous villains; cads; bounders. When is a brute really a brute: and who are we to believe when they tell us it is so?

Reynald De Chatillon, influence for the Sheriff of Nottingham; Vlad the Impaler; Dick Turpin, Burke and Hare; Jack the Ripper. Life has thrown many dastardly villains into its timeline.

But many villains are just brutes. Bullies.

Like Count Fosco. Wilkie Collins’ baddie from The Woman In White is a complex layering laced with theatre: an Italian, grossly obese, who has a fascination with small animals like mice and birds. The problem with the count is his terrifying unpredictability: he can be charming, urbane, clever and witty if eccentric. But his ability to change suddenly, to menace, to dominate intellectually; it’s bordering on the creepy.

When the world was celebrating The Woman in White and its complex  villain, Wilkie Collins received a letter from a lady who was much in the public eye.

She began by congratulating the author on his success, albeit with a certain coolness. And she went on: “But, Mr Collins, the great failure of your book is your villain.”

Oh, dear. And everyone else thought Fosco such a capital rascal.

“Excuse me if I say,” she continued inexorably, ” that you really do not know a villain. Your Count Fosco is a very poor one, and when next you want a character of that description I trust you will not disdain to come to me.

I know a villain, and have one in my eye at this moment that would far eclipse anything I have read of in books. Don’t think that I am drawing on my imagination. The man is alive and constantly under my gaze. In fact, he is my own husband.

The author of the letter was called Rosina. A novelist herself, she was the wife of Edward Bulwer Lytton.

Lytton and Fosco had intellect, at least, in common. Rosina’s husband was a sharp operator; he knew his public, and published a string of best sellers. Some of his phrases have slipped effortlessly into the English language: “the great unwashed”;  “the pen is mightier than the sword;” and that old chestnut which was new on his pen: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

His marriage started without the approval of his wife’s family or his own: writing made the money in the Bulwer-Lytton household. Still, he made a good fist of it, and ended up a baronet with influence.

As a husband, we have only his wife to speak. And as well as her letter to Mr Collins, she wrote prolifically. One of her novels has raw, possibly biographical detail, under the guise of fiction. It smarts to read it: it is called Chieveley, Man of Honour.

An early scene shows Lord De Clifford striking his beautiful wife and injuring her because she will not relinquish some precious books to one of his contacts. And when he does so, he accompanies his actions with:”That’s right, Madam, make a scene, and let the world know how ill-used you are; why don’t you ring the bel for your maid to come and see what a suffering angel her mistress is?…If you don’t wash your face and dry your tears, and go out to that damned ball directly as becomes my wife, I’ll find some means of bringing you to your senses.”

There are fictional villains.

And then there are just plain, unvarnished brutes.


28 thoughts on “The Villain Of The Piece

  1. Nicely written Kate. Villains are fun to write but sometimes hard to read. I feel a chump if I actually get riled at one, no matter how evil. It’s like the author is playing me for a sucker if I make enemies of a fictional character. I guess some may call it painting a vivid portrait. Maybe so.
    I get angry at vacuous tripe, cry over a beautifully written passage, how it’s written-not about the fortunes of the character. At least I try to.

  2. I’ve always heard that the best book villains have both good and bad in them. You hate them while you still sort of like something about them. Not so if in real life the villain-brute is your husband.

  3. Wow Kate, that was a very interesting bit of literary history. Where on earth did you find that tidbit? In today’s world, you can’t write a villain from the real world without the risk of a lawsuit. Which is too bad, because there are some pretty tasty ones out there for all to see.

    Writer Chick

  4. This is where “truth is stranger than fiction” comes to mind, although domestic abuse is hardly unusual. Just horrific. I’m wondering if you’ve ever done any reading about “The Black Dahlia” murder, the 1947 Los Angeles murder of Elizabeth Short? If you’re not familiar, I think you’d find this a fascinating story. The crime has never been solved, and there are so many intriguing theories. One fairly recent development has been a man claiming he believes his father was the murderer. His arguments are very compelling. I’ve read several books through the years and for some reason find this a very interesting cold case. I think what made the parallel for me with Lytton is the belief that Elizabeth’s killer was probably a surgeon or someone with intellect and medical skill. Undoubtedly someone with a “respectable” life. The idea of this level of deception resulting in horror is almost unspeakable!

    1. I have just had a look at the details, Debra, what a shocking piece of violence and a very 20th century response. I am left wondering if laws were changed to prevent the press dominating cases like this after that? And the idea that the murderer was a highly intelligent man with skills such as you mention is chilling to the bone.

  5. Whenever a battered wife gets the best of her dastardly husband, I send up a silent cheer . . . Huzzah!

    I’ve read Wilkie Collins, but only The Moonstone, not The Woman in White. So, I’ve yet to meet the acquaintance of Count Fosco. Lord de Clifford sounds a right ass.

    1. I suppose just as good men have ambition, so do evil ones, Roger: and in my life it is always the no-good liars and cheats who make it to the best jobs. The vacuous ones without real skills, but who will push to get what they want.So perhaps political leadership works the same way.

  6. We befriended a fellow Rotarian who was urbane, charming and witty. On one visit his wife looked battered and I said to him, ‘You must stop beating up X like this!’ The remark went down like a helium balloon,, and I was puzzled.
    After his death it transpired that he had, indeed, abused his wife and daughters when in his cups.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s