From time to time, I have had a mild swoon over Men Of Fiction. I have documented this in previous Top Tens. But then there are other times when I read a book and wonder what on earth the fictional female ever saw in the fictional male. To be honest – this has been one of those Top Tens where there are quite simply far too many applicants. I could do a Top Twenty or even a Top Fifty. I have narrowed it down from boys who are too obviously written as unpleasant; for example, Ruby Oliver’s awful ex-boyfriend Jackson. He dumped her, got together with her best friend and then shoved her under the metaphorical bus when the two of them were caught kissing again. Still, E. Lockhart was using him for a teachable moment because Ruby eventually comes to see that for herself and when he does ask her to get back together in the third book, Ruby awkwardly tells him that, “I’m sorry, I mean you’re a nice guy except that really, you’re not a nice guy.” Naturally, Jackson calls her a b**** and storms off – charming chap. There are lots of unsatisfactory boyfriends in young adult fiction – they’re there as helpful examples of what to look out for but they don’t carry a lot of individual weight as characters.
I’ve tried to think of romantic heroes who were obviously written to be positive but who seem hideously inappropriate to me, however I have also tried to stick to books which I have actually read – this was good news for Angel Clare as I actually haven’t read Tess of the D’Urbevilles, just watched it on television. Don’t get me wrong, Alec D’Urbeville is practically a pantomime villain but Angel Clare is a hypocritical twit. He dumps Tess when he finds out that she had been raped and impregnated before she even knew him and then takes off to the other side of the world in a fit of rage. Mr Clare, we all have pasts. It doesn’t matter if Tess had voluntarily dated an entire rugby team before she met you – if it was in the past, you had no right to judge her for it and since she was in a murderous mood, she should have taken you out along with Alec. But that’s just my personal opinion. I have also lumped a few separate characters who share personality traits in the same box. We get the gist – these are men who one would never live Happily Ever After with – these are Boys To Avoid.
At this point, I kind of start to hear Kate Bush’s voice in my head. I first read Wuthering Heights when I was a thirteen year-old girl and bluntly I had zero interest in any form of romance so Heathcliff suited me down to the ground. He is not exactly lovey-dovey. Recently, I read Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine with a sense of concern as she nominated Heathcliff as her romantic idol. There is no sense that if Cathy and Heathcliff had settled down in Wuthering Heights with a dog and tried to work the land that they would have been happy. As Ellis herself states, Wuthering Heights is a novel written by a woman who never herself experienced love. Heathcliff is a sociopath. His primary motivation is revenge – he doesn’t even like Cathy and he is hideously violent towards his wife Isabella. Indeed, his utter contempt for his wife for having had the temerity to try and love him is what sticks in my mind most about him – he is a creature built entirely of hate. He may have been forged by circumstance at the cruelty of the Earnshaws but after a certain point he should have just moved on – nobody forced him to come back after he had made his money. Heathcliff is a guy who is unable to forgive or forget and people like that are No Fun To Be Around.
I am putting these two characters together since they are essentially the Same Guy. Stephenie Meyer wrote Edward, then E.L. James re-fashioned him, stuck in some sex and changed the name. Same Guy. Equally unsavoury. Someone made a wonderful Youtube video sending up Edward Cullen as a romantic hero by having him try the same rubbish on Buffy the Vampire Slayer with predictable results – as Miss Summers wisely points out, “Being stalked isn’t a big turn-on for girls.” This is advice that Mr Cullen and Mr Grey have clearly never received; Edward watches Bella while she sleeps and Christian Grey investigates Ana to the point of being aware of her measurements and also tracks her cell phone. It’s perverse.
With both of them, a big part of their appeal seems to be the Grand Gestures. The Cullens are extremely rich, Edward swoops about the place Doing Things for Bella – Christian Grey has his own helicopter. I really don’t like the consumerism that seems to be at the root of both Ana and Bella’s ‘love’ for their husbands (spoilers). The guys are breath-takingly good-looking and have so much Stuff so then the girls just ignore how emotionally manipulative they are because really when they’re getting so much Stuff, why should they make a fuss? It’s also unsettling how in both cases, the alternative romantic interest (Jacob and Jose) have substantially less Stuff – in choosing who they choose, Bella and Ana are making the financially sensible decision but the emotionally irresponsible one. As if we search for Stuff over stability. Please, girls, don’t.
I also really don’t like the implication that Edward and Christian Control Because They Care. No, they control because they are controlling. The logical conclusion to the Fifty Shades trilogy was the one that came at the end of the first book; Ana fled the scene, was sad for a little while and then wised up. In the case of Twilight, Bella was just a hopeless case. I think that Edward worries me more than Christian though because Twilight is marketed at a younger audience. It implies that being afraid of a lover is part of the passion, that Edward’s thirst to drink Bella’s blood is somehow a sign of his great love rather than something that is Unacceptable Behaviour. When you are afraid even for a second, you need to get away and fast. Avoid these two like the plague ladies and if you really must truck with the undead, find yourself in a nice werewolf instead.
Charles is probably the most contemptible of all these – and he is based on a real-life man, Barbara Comyns’ first husband. Oh dear. He and the narrator get married young against their parents’ wishes and attempt to eke out a living despite the fact that Charles refuses to work since he is an artist and wants to focus on that. He is furious with his young wife for having had the audacity to become pregnant ten weeks into the marriage, takes no responsibility for his own part in the proceedings and generally contributes nothing to his family. It is implied at various points that Charles is simply not a very good artist but even if he was a second Leonardo Da Vinci his behaviour is still appalling. He may believe himself the Great Artist, but we see him for what he really is – a weasel. Girls, beware the weasel, it may charm you but it remains a weasel.
Ashley Wilkes is another idiot which is strange because he is supposedly the intellectual out of the quartet at the centre of Gone With The Wind. His pontifications about the ‘slow beauty’ of plantation life sit at odds with the fact that his life of luxury depended on his slaves breaking their backs out on the cotton fields. Still, on a personal level – he’s dreadful. He is married to Mellie, the woman Margaret Mitchell herself proclaimed to be the true heroine of Gone With The Wind. I adore Mellie and Ashley just does not appreciate what he has. Even worse, he poisons Scarlett and Rhett’s marriage with his hankering after Scarlett. He had the chance to marry Scarlett. He did not take it. From then on, he should have left her the heck alone. Scarlett is to blame too though, she realises herself that Ashley is nothing but an empty set of clothes that she fashioned into a lover – her love for him was not real, just a very bad habit that she will spend the rest of her life paying for. Ashley brought nobody any happiness, instead like a vampire he fed on the spirits of the two women who loved him until at the end of the novel, they both collapsed – one to the grave and the other to the horrified realisation that he is a weak man who for the rest of her life, she will be doomed to provide for since he cannot take care of himself. Not a wicked man, but like spreading ivy, Ashley is pestilential and almost impossible to get rid of.
Never understood how Rebecca made its way into the romance genre. The heroine is written to be insipid, so much so that Daphne Du Maurier does not give her a first name. The hero is Maxim Dewinter. Maxim Dewinter. Hero. Does not compute. Anyway – spoiler warning – (seriously, real spoilers, I hardly ever do spoilers any more so really, look away) Maxim seems fairly uninterested in his new wife and then had murdered his first. Yes, we can argue the technicalities but the fact that the best case scenario is that Rebecca committed suicide-via-crazed-husband does not speak wonders for Maxim’s suitability for membership of the general populace let alone as a husband. Plus in the most recent adaptation, he was played by Charles Dance who everyone knows is terrifying. I feel that if you were married to Maxim Dewinter, you would definitely want to Sleep With At Least One Eye Open. Another one to steer well clear of.
I’m putting all of these in one category because I didn’t want to be overly repetitive but Austen did write a fair clutch of wrong ‘uns. Wickham is the most unsettling, something Jo Baker underlines in Longbourn when she has him attempt to seduce the youngest servant girl. Wickham is roughly thirty – what on earth is he doing running after all these fifteen year-olds? Austen stipulates the age of Lydia and Georgiana, it implies a very unsettling predilection. Similarly, Willoughby has a strange habit of physically seducing and then abandoning young ladies of previously respectable character implying some very serious issues with emotional intimacy. John Thorpe is the worst boor of the three though; he wildly re-writes Catherine Morland’s personality and family history to suit himself and then just as cheerfully performs a character assassination when her family displeases him. Then there is that very strange incident when he tries to carry her off in his barouche. It is Austenspeak for some very sexually aggressive behaviour – Val McDermid transposes him into the twenty-first century as a vile City Boy and he is all too recognisable. These men may wear elegant costumes in the costumed adaptations but we would be foolish if we believed that their personality types have been vanquished.
To be totally honest, I am not too crazy about Rochester in Jane Eyre. I think he’s very manipulative of Jane, that the game-playing before he proposes to her is ridiculous and that lying to someone you supposedly love about keeping your mad wife up in the attic is just a bit … off. Am I alone on that one? Still, my mother adores Jane Eyre so I try not to dwell on those points. Although in the most recent film when Jamie Bell played StJohn Rivers, I thought that Jane should have just stuck with him. But that’s just me and I was only fifteen when Billy Elliot came out so I appreciate that I am slightly biased. The Wild Sargasso Sea places Rochester firmly as the villain. Poor Antoinette tries to please him, to be a good wife but Rochester will not have it. He pushes her and neglects her and denies her her true identity and then is unfaithful to her and suspicious – he drives her insane and then imprisons her for it. He is a mean Victorian man.
I had to read this for part of my university degree. Basic premise: Pamela is a sixteen year-old servant girl whose primary duties have been singing, dancing and wearing necklaces and pretty clothes but then her mistress dies and her Master takes over. And take over he does. After his more straight-forward approaches are rebuffed by Pamela’s shrieks that she must remain honest, Mr B_ kidnaps her and keeps her captive, all the while trying to get into her petticoats. Given that his assaults were imagined by an elderly gentleman of good character, they do lack a certain conviction. At one point Mr B_ dresses up as a woman and tries to hide in Pamela’s bed. Still, he is nonetheless pretty violent at other times yet when he finally decides that he wants Pamela so much that only marriage will do … Pamela decides that actually, he is the very best of men and that she will be delighted to be his wife. Now, either Pamela has secretly been a manipulative little madam from day one (Henry Fielding wrote Shamela based on this theory) or else that is the most offensive plot resolution violent and I can ever remember. There is no third option. Marriage is a wonderful thing (although in the words of Billy Connolly, so is a bicycle repair kit) but it should not be implied that by offering to make a woman ‘respectable’, any other behaviour can be excused. It reminds me of an episode of The Sopranos where Christopher is scolded by his girlfriend’s uncle for beating her and warned that if he wanted to do that, “You give her your last name, then it’s up to you.” No. Violence is never acceptable, it doesn’t matter what the girl’s name is.
Many of us have ghastly first boyfriends to reflect upon. Still, whenever you look back and cringe, wondering how on earth you ever let that happen, always remember – it could be worse. You could be Sansa Stark. A winsome combination of violent psychopath and physical coward, Joffrey is not someone you want to be alone with for five minutes, let alone for a lifetime. No wonder the Queen of Thorns decided that really, this just wouldn’t do. It was nice to see women sticking up for women just for once (seldom occurs in A Song of Ice and Fire). Joffrey is like the inverse of Prince Charming – a morality tale in judging sparkle over substance. I really hope that Sansa finds someone nice before the series is over. And by nice, I mean not Petyr Baelish.
I almost forgot about this guy – and indeed it seems as though everyone did since his villainy goes almost unchallenged within the series. It is not until late on in the books that you realise the true fate of John Arryn and that the entire War of the Five Kings has been all Petyr’s fault. He is truly the psycho-ex-boyfriend from Hades. And not someone to have around if you live somewhere that happens to have windows that have several thousand feet sheer drops right below them. He is not a man to trust (although to be fair he did warn Ned Stark of this fact before he betrayed him), he is not a man to get close to because he may have your husband killed twenty plus years later (Catelyn) or murder you directly (Lysa) or else he may somewhat unofficially take you prisoner in an incestuous and creepy fashion (Sansa). Sansa sweetheart, you really need to get away from him – I know it’s hard and you don’t have anyone to run to as such, but you still need to run.
I have an embarrassing tendency to Mother my friends who are boys and have once or twice expressed my dismay when one or other (actually, one in particular) happened to behave in an unseemly fashion towards the young ladies in their lives. Having effectively known Ron Weasley since I was ten, I felt similarly horrified when I read how he treated Hermione in The Half Blood Prince. It was bad enough in The Goblet Of Fire because Hermione was quite right, if Ron had a problem with Hermione going to the Yule Ball with Viktor Krum, then he ought to have asked her out properly beforehand. But perhaps his feelings surprised him. Not so by Half Blood Prince. He had had plenty of time. He knew he liked Hermione. But then he got annoyed because she had kissed someone else two years previously. Again, I refer back to my opening paragraphs – it was none of his business, it was in the past. If Hermione had kissed every male from Durmstrang, it would still have had nothing to do with Ron. And I hate the idea that he felt it was somehow Hermione’s fault that he rejected her, for why else would he have behaved so awfully to her afterwards? I think that J K Rowling captures a common adolescent male instinct – to turn on the girl who has disappointed them, to take the pain of apparent rejection and turn it back on her in the cruellest possible way. Even in their early years at Hogwarts, Hermione had loved Ron as her dear friend and he owed her better than that. Don’t get me wrong, his behaviour picks up and presumably his Near Death Experience taught him a lot – Ron does prove himself as the series progresses. But I hope that at some point – off-stage, away from Harry – that Ron did apologise to Hermione properly. Because it was not her fault.
So those are my thoughts on the worst men and boys of fiction – do feel free to let me know your thoughts!