For the full horror of an evil woman using class and sex warfare you might consider trying Dornford Yates’s magnificently toe-curling novel, This Publican, from 1938, which I podcasted about a few years ago. Its villain Rowena is the most loathsome woman character I’ve ever read, but it is faintly possible that she could be read differently through a feminist perspective, had the author left any room for us to see past his patriarchal loathing. She was invented to represent all that Yates hated about women who don’t follow the rules, who manipulate men, and who attack men’s honour where it hurts: at the club. This Publican is one of the strongest expressions of Yates’s determination to maintain class and sex boundaries in his many, many novels and short stories, by making his characters examples of how to behave, and how not to behave. Thus the worst of these feature evil wives and soft husbands.
Yates was a marvellous writer, a great stylist, a master of light comic fiction and epicly tense thrillers of the quest romance, but this novel is not one of those best-selling forms. This Publican (I’ll explain the title in a moment) is one of Yates’s psychological thrillers, where the tension is increased, chapter by chapter, as the reader wonders how long someone decent can endure the torments inflicted by an intolerable situation, or an intolerable person. The details of why such a situation or person is intolerable vary from book to book, but there are some common factors. The hero is always a gentleman: this is non-negotiable. Yates’s ideal protagonist is the gentleman ex-officer, who likes dogs, and is the epitome of honour. Other common factors are a perfect and pure heroine with small feet and grey eyes, who also likes dogs; examples of the suffering nobility, either the landed aristocracy forced to clean their own shoes through no fault of their own, or an honest gentleman forced to work in an office; and fast cars. Apart from the dogs, all of these are in This Publican.
The title will not be obvious to many readers now, as it’s a phrase from the Bible now normally modernised: Luke 18, 10-11. A Pharisee and a publican (in modern versions a tax-gatherer, a distasteful person doing a hated job) go to the Temple, and the Pharisee thanks God that he is better than other men, especially this awful publican, whereas the publican asks for mercy for being a sinner. The publican is acquitted of his sins and the Pharisee isn’t, because those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. So the title of the book is a reference to modesty and pride, but even in Yates’s day the phrase ‘this publican’ would have been a puzzler for those not accustomed to reading the Bible or attending church every week.
Yates’s American publishers certainly balked at the title: in the USA the novel was called The Devil in Satin, which shows the difference in expectations of the story between Yates’ British and American readers. The puzzle remaining is, just who is the publican: the evil Rowena, or the saintly David, her persecuted husband?
Lord Eldon makes a codicil to his will, a day before he dies. Half his fortune is to be set aside for a detective to hunt down evidence of wrong-doing by a beautiful low-class orphan from the stage who has married his heir, the honest and dependable lawyer David Bohun. Lord Eldon does this because she reminds him of a wicked perjurer he had convicted 20 years before, and ‘those alike in body are alike in mind’. Rowena Bohun is thus revealed as a bad ‘un right from the start: Eldon calls her ‘a brilliant vampire, who knows no law but that of her own desires, who’s clever as sin, whose heart is of frozen iron’. She is a murderer and a fraud, a gold-digger climbing her way to the top of society. Money is not her particular interest: she wants social acceptance, and her final goal is to be a widowed countess. Now, who could not want to read on, if only to watch Rowena get her comeuppance?
Naturally, Rowena has an antithesis, Helen, a saintly heroine who risks her own happiness and reputation to protect David, whom she loves and who loves her. Helen has to be invented, to give David hope, since Rowena is otherwise crushing him into submission by crossing class and sex boundaries, the lowest that anyone can sink in Yates’ idealised world. Yates doesn’t excuse David all of his suffering: he quite clearly thinks that men who are too soft on their women only deserve the trouble they receive. David is one of Yates’ inarticulate heroes, the man who is too much of a gentleman (in the Yates sense) to ever say no to his wife simply because she is his wife: he thinks that this is how gentlemen behave. Yates, of course, knows better: wives are to be instructed and have to obey, and so Rowena as a terrible example of what happens to marriages where the man is not fully in control of his wife. David allows himself to be fooled by Rowena because he is too much of a gentleman. The appalling situation that he sinks into through the machinations of his wife is partially his own fault, because he refuses to take action until it is too late.
So what does this she-devil actually do? Rowena gets David to dismiss his aged servants, and then tells them that she couldn’t persuade David to keep them on. Quite apart from the sneaky placing of blame on David’s shoulders, this is an offence against the master-servant relationship, another important foundation stone in the perfect society according to Yates: masters protect their servants for life. Rowena takes David to parties that he doesn’t really want to attend, and leaves with low company whom a lady should not even notice, thus shaming David in the eyes of the other guests. She insists on him taking her to the south of France where she neglects and ignores him, and mixes, again, with low company. She is fluent in French but David can’t understand it because it is gutter French, not the French of a lady. So not only is he isolated by his wife, and isolated from other people because he can’t speak French, he doesn’t even understand that Rowena’s French is shameful to him as her husband. You can feel the shuddering of Yates’ original readers from here.
Rowena encourages David to fall in love with Helen, so she will be able to divorce him as the innocent plaintiff, thus ruining the reputations of Helen and David. Divorce in the late 1930s was not quite the social death that Yates liked to think it was, but he was by this time writing in a warped fantasy mode exacerbated by his own recent divorce, and is insisting on public pillorying for innocent parties. Rowena would then be free to marry the dull but rich Lord Juliot, who will die soon after, leaving her all his money, but more importantly, his title. When David leaves Rowena, but does not divorce her, she calls, uninvited, at his club, which is now his only refuge, and causes a scene designed to ensure that everyone pities her and will despise him. She clings to him begging him to return to her, she weeps on the floor, she behaves so heartbreakingly, and so cleverly, to make it seem as if she is the abandoned innocent wife. David resigns from his club next day, and has effectively been thrown out of polite society. However, we must not forget the parallel plot, of the lawyer instructed secretly to find out all about Rowena’s past and bring her to justice. This is the only relief for the reader, since the episodes of lies and blackmailing by Rowena are paralleled, without her knowledge, by the discovery of new and interesting pieces of information about her past.
It all ends in the divorce court, where, among other exciting revelations in a cliff-hanger ending, Rowena is found to have an Argentinian lover living somewhere near Potter’s Bar. He is also Jewish, and a dress designer: Yates clearly could not imagine anything worse. Although the ending is not quite as happy as it could be, since so much social damage has been done to David and Helen, Yates has made it absolutely clear how women may, and may not, behave, and how men must behave to secure the happiness and orderly running of society. Rowena is a magnificent weapon of social terrorism to warn Yates’s readers of the evils in store if society were allowed to degenerate any further.