The Rise of the Literary Bad Girl  

The femme fatale or dangerous woman has been stalking the pages of literature and mythology since the beginning of civilisation. Even The Bible abounds with potent, poisonous and mysterious seductresses such as Delilah and Salomē, their stories of betrayal and deceit using guile and sexual allure have both enthralled and repelled for thousands of years.


Greek mythology gave life to such notable female characters as Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into swine in book 10 of The Odyssey and Medea whose story is told in a pre-Homeric ballad, the Argonautika. This niece of Circe’s is a sorceress who uses her potions and powers to help her husband Jason through many trials and adventures. When he later abandons her for Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth, Medea unleashes her revenge. This reaches its zenith with the murder of their children and she flees the scene in a dragon-pulled chariot provided by her grandfather, the Sun-God. The pantheon of vamps and fatal women runs the gamut from the powerful and sensual Egyptian queen Cleopatra to the exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari, who was arrested and shot by the French for espionage during World War 1.

These monster female figures  capable of luring men to death and destruction is personified by the Greek mythological sirens, beautiful sea nymphs who lured sailors to ship wreck on treacherous rocks after listening to the sweetness of their song.  Keat’s La Belle Dame sans Merci or The Beautiful Woman Without Pity is a ballad which again features a seductive and treacherous woman  who tempts men away from the real world and then leaves them “haggard and so woe-begone” cast adrift “alone and palely loitering.”


This femme fatale as a cruel enchantress evolved further with depictions of female sirens in the hard-boiled detective fiction of Edgar Allen Poe and Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s The Big Sleep cements the image of the femme fatale with the creation of the unforgettable Carmen Sternwood, who attempts to seduce Marlowe and murders Regan, and who Marlowe consigned to an institution “somewhere where they can handle her type, where they will keep guns and knives and fancy drinks away from her.” These simpering vixens of the noir style in both cinema and fiction were bordering on the psychotic and bristling with mental derangement.

Helen Gurley Brown famously said that “good girls go to heaven and that bad girls go everywhere”. They are certainly going everywhere in the world of publishing with the much anticipated release of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum later in the year and the best-seller status of The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. Both novels feature women unhinged by domesticity and these anti-heroines make Flaubert’s famously malcontented Emma Bovary and Thackeray’s social climbing Becky Sharpe seem benign by comparison.

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The girl on the train is Rachel, an alcoholic divorcée who rides the train daily past her old London home, spying on the domestic lives that she glimpses. Hausfrau’s anti-heroine Anna is described as a train-wreck by the author who admits that although she may not be a very likeable character, it’s a compulsive read, as the reader recognizes a little sliver of herself in her, however unpalatable that may be .The new femme fatale is a hybrid of the mythological Greek seductresses with unpredictable protagonists who are the embodiment of the anti-heroine. Gillian Flynn’s  Gone Girl was first off the mark with the creation of Amy Dunne, an all-American cool girl who morphs into a scheming supreme-manipulator, a good girl gone bad, her behaviour is transgressive, duplicitous and shocking but makes for a compelling read. Thankfully there are many more of these flawed but interesting characters coming down the tracks and careening to a bookshop near you.   The last word goes to Kipling with his line “the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

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