Saturday 16 may 2009
One of the earliest femmes fatales in western literature is also one of the few to be tamed. Having turned Odysseus's men into pigs, the lovely sorceress beckons the hero into her bed in Homer's Odyssey. However, he has been armed by Hermes with the protective herb Moly and told how to guard his manhood from her wiles.
The most alluring of the various deadly females in Spenser's The Faerie Queene. "Upon a bed of Roses she was layd, / ... / And was arayd, or rather disarayd, / All in a vele of silke and silver thin". The virtuous Sir Guyon resists her.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Somehow knights are especially susceptible to the spellbinding charms of a deadly woman. Long after she has abandoned him "on the cold hill's side", Keats's "palely loitering" hero is still in thrall to the beautiful, pitiless "faery's child". A few hours – or is it minutes? – in her "elﬁn grot", and he is lost forever.
In Coleridge's unﬁnished narrative poem "Christabel", the heroine meets the lovely Geraldine in the woods. "Her stately neck, and arms were bare; / Her blue-veined feet unsandaled were; / And wildly glittered here and there / The gems entangled in her hair." Look in Geraldine's "serpent's eye" and you will see what she is up to ...
Sheridan Le Fanu's tale of a female vampire predates Dracula and established the character of the supernaturally beautiful young woman who is after your blood – literally. Living in a castle with her father, lonely Laura is befriended by the moody, mysterious Carmilla, who seems to sleep most of the day. Bad dreams and bite marks follow. Will Laura discover her lovely companion's true identity in time?
Victorian novelists liked to make you feel sorry for their femmes fatales. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's bestselling sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret featured a beautiful anti-heroine who manages to entrap a doting aristocrat. She has (of course) a past, and when a previous husband turns up to reclaim her she shoves him down a well. Madness and doom await her.
Taken from the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Herod's seductive step-daughter is famous from Oscar Wilde's play (in turn made into an opera by Richard Strauss). Wilde's Salome fancies John the Baptist and confronts him with her unambiguous desires. After she has demanded the prophet's decapitation, she amorously kisses the head that is brought to her on a silver platter.
First appearing on the Paris stage in the part of Venus, the eponymous protagonist of Zola's novel becomes a courtesan who bewitches men and drives them to folly or disaster. One of them kills himself (with a pair of scissors) when she rejects him. She leaves a trail of male egos and corpses in her wake, on her way to a very nasty end indeed.
At the end of the 19th century audiences were deliciously shocked by the sexy heroine/villainess of an infamous pair of plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box. Lulu sexually intoxicates her lovers, before destroying or abandoning them. She ends up confronting Jack the Ripper.
In Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Brigid has hired private eye Sam Spade to protect her. Spade sleeps with Brigid even though he knows that she killed his former partner, Miles Archer. In the end, he turns her in.