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.