In Shakespeare’s comedy, a shrew is known by her “impatient humour,” a “chattering tongue,” “scolding” and “waspish,” bandying “word for word and frown for frown.” She is “froward, peevish, sullen, sour,” and “not obedient to [her husband’s] honest will.” In the end, of course, the shrew is tamed. She places her hand below her husband’s foot.
On the literary level it would be a long time before women, in Gershon Legman’s phrase, carried the war into the camp of the enemy. In his foul-mouthed study of censorship Love and Death, Legman frankly calls the shrew, the “spirited” woman, by a different name:
The bitch has been here before. She was never gone. But, for our generation, first in Gone With the Wind in 1936 was she made a heroine. Margaret Mitchell did for bitchery what Edgar Allan Poe did for murder — she made it respectable.
David Plante suggested a less inflammatory term. His 1983 memoir of Jean Rhys, Germaine Greer, and Sonia Brownell Orwell was called Difficult Women. Whether a woman or man is doing the calling makes a difference. But given her literary pedigree, the not-so-nice woman (whatever she ends up being called) ought to be fair game for male authors as well as female.
When a man takes a shot at her, though, he is likely to be criticized. In a tweet this morning, Holly Robbins agreed with my assessment yesterday that Stoner is a great novel, but she added that “its depictions of the female sex are irritating.” The severe restrictions of a tweet did not give her the chance to elaborate, but Robbins is probably troubled by John Williams’s portrait of Edith Bostwick Stoner, the hero’s wife.
Deeply unhappy and “morosely withdrawn” in the early years of their marriage, Edith returns from her father’s funeral in St. Louis a changed woman. She declares war with her husband over the love of their daughter Grace. She removes Grace’s desk from Stoner’s study — the small desk that stood beside his, where they worked happily together every evening — repainting it a “pale pink, attaching around the top a broad ribbon of matching ruffled satin, so that it bore no resemblance to the desk that Grace had grown used to.” She throws out the clothes that he had bought and buys more “girlish” things. She arranges piano lessons and sits beside Grace on the bench while she practices. She supervises every moment of her daughter’s life. Stoner almost never sees her:
The enormity came upon him gradually, so that it was several weeks before he could admit to himself what Edith was doing; and when he was able at last to make that admission, he made it almost without surprise. Edith’s was a campaign waged with such cleverness and skill that he could find no rational grounds for complaint.
Edith is a moral monster, an infinitely subtle one, and the portrait of her is not demeaned by the fact that she is a woman and her author a man. She is, in fact, one of the greatest, um, difficult women in contemporary literature.
Who are the others? There are bad girlfriends (Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim), bad wives (Antonia Lynch-Gibbon in A Severed Head), bad mothers (Rosemary Porter in Francine Prose’s Primitive People), bad daughters (Ginny Smith in Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres), bad women to have as adversaries (Hester Lilt in Cynthia Ozick’s Cannibal Galaxy.
Easily the most brilliant portrait of a self-described “harridan” is Zoë Heller’s novel of three years ago The Believers. Audrey Litvinoff is described by her friends in New York as the “cute little English girl with the chutzpah and the longshoreman’s mouth.” Or at least she once was. Now 58, she has lost her cuteness — her friends now scowl behind her back — but she has not lost her “ugly view of the world.” She drops F-bombs in every other sentence, accuses everyone (but herself) of bad faith and shallow self-interest, disparages her daughters without letup or charity. She is unforgettable. But because of Audrey’s unflagging nastiness, her daughters’ independent decisions to go their own separate ways come off as acts of moral courage.
Even in fiction written by a woman, a wicked woman has her uses.