Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, Part Two: The Girls

A print of Lady Macbeth from Mrs. Anna Jameson's 1832 analysis of Shakespeare's Heroines, Characteristics of Women.

Last week we went on the hunt for the bad boys of literature, this week it’s the girls’ turn.

We’ve got to be honest, finding deviant (yet still well-rounded and intriguing) men in books? Cake walk. Finding women? Hard. While literature has no shortage of evil step mothers, power mad queens and adulterous harpies who want nothing more than to make men’s lives miserable, finding female characters who are deeply flawed and complex rather than simply ‘evil’ is still a rarity. Too often women in literature fit the stereotypes of heroes or whores, victims or witches and the vast grey area in between remains largely unexplored. That’s a shame because when you come across a character whose moral compass is genuinely askew or who has committed a particularly heinous deed with solid motivation, more often than not they are compelling and their stories are fascinating.

We’re really keen to read more stories featuring complex women with a dark streak. If you have titles to recommend, drop us a note in the comments below.

Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the CastleAn unreliable narrator, Merricat lives a reclusive life with her elder sister and ailing uncle on their sprawling estate, only venturing into town for groceries and library books. Though an adult, Merricat behaves like a small child, playing games with her cat and placing enchanted objects around the garden to keep the townsfolk away.

It’s hard to reveal more without giving away the twist, but Merricat gives the distinct impression that she’s hiding something.

Find out more and get a copy:

Celeste Price in Tampa by Alissa Nutting

tampa-coverA sociopathic pedophile, Celeste is one of the most unnerving narrators in recent literature. She uses her good looks to deceive the men around her into believing she’s a good person while seducing school boys on the sly. One of the most controversial reads of the 21st century to date, Tampa offers sharp commentary on the danger of stereotyping, specifically the stereotyping of women by men, and offers sound proof that looks can be deceiving.


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Amy Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlWe’re not convinced that Amy really fits the bill of ‘three-dimensional’—in all honesty her motivations weren’t clear and she’s more in camp ‘evil’ than ‘interesting’. But she is compelling. Smart and sneaky, she deceives her reader easily as she does her husband. We’d say more, but that would give the game away.



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Sugar in The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the WhiteA prostitute and fledgling novelist, Sugar is determined to sleep, claw and manipulate her way out of the gutter to the top ranks of 19th century London society. Ruthlessly determined, she’s eager to make a buck any way she can and you have to admire her ingenuity if not her methods.



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Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Notes on a ScandalOne of our favourite narrators, Barbara, a near-retirement age school teacher with no real friends to speak of, sees something she shouldn’t and takes advantage of it. She’s manipulative, a blackmailer, but also incredibly lonely and driven by a desire to connect.



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Rebecca in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

rebeccaFor a character who never appears, Rebecca de Winter sure has presence. The jury remains out on whether she’s guilty of anything worse than cheating on her husband, as the reader only gets his side of the story, but it’s clear that she was manipulative and not to be trifled with.

She haunts the narrator, the second Mrs de Winter, and in death continues to exert her destructive will over Manderley. However, she also embodies a darkly glittering ‘what if…?’—the possibilities and desires the meek and mousy narrator cannot give voice to.

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Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

MacbethAfter learning of the weird sisters’ prophecy that Macbeth will become king, Lady Macbeth urges her husband to murder King Duncan in his sleep and helps him carry out the deed. But as Macbeth is driven to further murders to ensure he keeps his crown, Lady Macbeth becomes wracked with guilt, eventually taking her own life.

On the one hand, Lady Macbeth is the archetypal evil queen, but she’s also a tragic figure, moved by fate, who pays dearly for her crimes.

Fun fact I learned from a friend last week: Lady Macbeth’s first name is Gruoch. Wikipedia concurs.

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Agnes Magnúsdóttir in Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial RitesBurial Rites is a novel, but Agnes was a real person, the last woman to be executed in Iceland after she was found guilty of being party to the murder of two men on the farm where she worked. Interestingly, she was also a poet. Very few facts are known about Agnes’s life, but historically she has been remembered as either an innocent victim or a wicked whore. In Burial Rites Kent follows Agnes in the months leading up to her execution and seeks to find the real woman behind the myths.

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Louise Connor (‘Lou’) in How the Light Gets In by M. J. Hyland

How the Light Gets InWe had to include at least one teenage rebel on the list. A precocious teenager from working class Sydney who earns a place on a US student exchange program, Lou has been likened to J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Initially she believes the American Dream is the perfect antidote to a childhood of poverty. However, when upper middle class American suburbia leaves her equally disillusioned, she turns to acts of rebellion.


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Everyone in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R. R. Martin

A Game of ThronesFull disclosure, these books are still on our TBR list, but we’re HUGE fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones, mostly because the characters, especially the women, are so flawed and complex. Cirsei Lannister is a lady we love to hate. Her actions are abominable and she’s a power addict, but she’s also motivated by a mother’s love and there are moments when we can’t help but sympathise with her. Arya Stark is another favourite. She’s absolutely ruthless, but again she’s empathetic and we’re quietly hoping she gets her revenge.

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