Clues to the Adulterous Woman from Literature and History
From Adultery to Extramarital Sex
Most reports about female extramarital sex have been filed by male novelists and story writers. But in the last few years the subject has come increasingly under the scrutiny of female novelists. Indeed, it has provided them with so many portraits and so many plots that it seems not just a preoccupation of women writers, but their metaphor for life lived on the keen edge of experience.
In the early 1970s alone, female adultery was explored in Doris Lessing’s Summer Before the Dark, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Judith Rossner’s Any Minute I Can Split, Ann Birstein’s Dickie’s List, Barbara Raskin’s Loose Ends, and Joyce Carol Oates’ short story collection Marriages and Infidelities—to mention but a few of the more well-received titles. Most of these writers had previously tackled the subject, as had Mary McCarthy, Anaïs Nin, Lois Gould, Joan Didion, Sandra Hochman, Margaret Drabble, Alix Kates Shulman, Penelope Mortimer, and many other contemporary female novelists. It is as if women writers were all of them and all at once reflecting the sentiment expressed in the poet Erica Jong’s “Going to School in Bed”:
If it is impossible to promise
this is because
we learn so much geography
from the shifting of one body
If it is impossible to promise
this is because
we learn so much history
from the lying of one body
If it is impossible to promise
this is because
we learn so much psychology
from the dreaming of one body
Life writes so many letters
on the naked bodies of lovers.
What a tattoo artist!
What an ingenious teacher!
Is it any wonder we appear
like schoolchildren dreaming:
& anxious to learn?
Perhaps the burst of books on female extramarital sex can be traced to the fact that freedom to explore the subject is new among women writers. Until our own era, it was an impolitic subject for women, even given the safe harbor provided by fiction. Thus the majority of the great investigations of the matter had been done by men. Admittedly they were written by men who became, at least for the duration of their novelistic exploration, intensely sensitive to their adulterous heroines, men who were able, like Tolstoy, to draw a dreamy Anna Karenina who feels “as though everything were beginning to be double in her soul, just as objects sometimes appear double to over-tired eyes. She hardly knew at times what it was she feared, and what she hoped for. Whether she feared or desired what had happened, or what was going to happen, and exactly what she longed for, she could not have said.” Or they were men like Joyce, able to create a defiant Molly Bloom who says of her adultery, “O much about it if thats all the harm ever we did in this vale of tears God knows its not much doesn’t everybody only they hide it I suppose thats what a women is supposed to be there for or He wouldnt have made us the way He did.”
But until our own era, the subject of women’s extramarital sex was primarily a male writer’s province. And even today, some women writers report being uneasy about exploring it. When I interviewed a number of women novelists whose works had dealt with female extramarital sex, several spoke to me of experiencing or fearing negative reactions to their work because of the subject matter. Erica Jong explained, “After I finished Fear of Flying I went through the heebie-jeebies. I had a terrible struggle with myself. Something inside me was still saying that I shouldn’t end the book the way I had, with the adulterous heroine returning unscathed to her husband. I felt that perhaps it was still necessary for the plot to punish her, for her to get knocked-up or killed. And then, when the manuscript was sent off to be printed, the first printer it went to wouldn’t set the type. In 1973, post-Portnoy, post-Ulysses, there was nevertheless a printer refusing to set type! They had to find another compositor. Why? Because it was written by a woman, I guess. It may have been because he opened the manuscript to chapter one and it said ’Fuck’ or it may have been because of the attitude toward monogamy. All that summer I was depressed. My family will hate me. My husband will leave me. It sounds funny now, since none of that happened, but it’s what I expected. I kept wishing I could take it all back, that I had never written it, that I could just give back the money.”
The novelist Ann Birstein reported that for many years her novella Love in the Dunes, a politely worded story of female adultery, “went begging for a publisher. Nobody would buy it. Women who read the story always liked it, but the men in publishing wouldn’t buy it.” Alix Kates Shulman suggested to me that she had escaped a ticklish problem by using scenes of fantasied rather than real adultery in Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen.
Nevertheless, these authors, and many others, have begun writing about women’s extramarital sex, often focusing on heroines whose adultery does not involve great love but passion alone. One of the first women writers to explore adultery in this way was the remarkable turn-of-the-century novelist, Kate Chopin. In her 1899 novel, The Awakening, buried and unread for many years, but currently experiencing a revival as Chopin’s pertinence to today’s women has been discovered, a dissatisfied wife leaves her husband and children to embark on a voyage of self-discovery. It starts with the wife’s romantic dalliance with a young intellectual who reads de Goncourt to her, pauses at her sexual liaison with a flighty roué who, unlike her husband, makes her feel joyous about her body, and ends, in the expected nineteenth-century fashion, with the suicide of the heroine. While the book bears some resemblance to Madame Bovary, Chopin’s heroine Edna, unlike Flaubert’s Emma, is seen sympathetically throughout the novel and even her suicide is not presented as retribution for a life of hysteria and self-delusion but rather as a triumphant act of the will. As Emma dies, she curses her poison; her tongue hangs out of her mouth; her eyes roll and her ribs shake. Her death is “horrible, frantic, desperate.” Edna moves slowly, with composure, to her death. She prefers to die rather than live as wife to any man she knows, and as she drowns she peacefully recalls the sounds and smells of childhood.
The Awakening was shocking for its day and its country. The very fact that a woman had written it added to the antagonism it aroused. The book was “sensual and devilish” said one critic; it should be “marked poison” said another; and a third, ostrich-minded, found Kate Chopin’s truths about women’s yearnings “unseemly,” and therefore not really true at all. “A fact … which we have all agreed shall not be acknowledged is as good as no fact at all.” The book was banned from libraries, most painfully from the author’s hometown St. Louis library, and Kate Chopin never again wrote for publication, despite the fact that she had been well known and well respected previously as a local colorist. But she continued to write, and one of the works that she turned to after The Awakening might be considered radical and startling even in our own era. It is the 1904 short story “The Storm,” a light-hearted, amusing story that nevertheless seriously insists that a woman’s grasping of her right to sexual pleasure outside marriage need not upset the marital applecart.
In “The Storm,” a young wife has an unplanned sexual encounter with an old boyfriend which not only proves sexually satisfying but which has no repercussions of retribution or even guilt for the lovers, and which seems to bring nothing but pleasure all around. Calixta, the heroine, has stayed at home while her husband and little son have gone off to do some marketing. While they are away a storm blows up. Calixta goes out on the front porch to gather in her child’s laundry before the rain descends and just at this moment, her old beau Alcée Laballière rides by. He asks whether he may take shelter on her porch until the rain stops, and then helps her to pull in the clothes.
The storm itself—reminiscent to the modern reader of D.H. Lawrence’s use of nature’s elements for sexual imagery—evokes the sexual tension between the two. Calixta is frightened of the rain, calls it a cyclone, cannot compose herself. Alcée tries to comfort her but when he clasps her shoulders to do so, “The contact of her warm palpitating body when he had unthinkingly drawn her into his arms, had aroused all the old-time infatuation and desire for her flesh.”
Each of the pair recalls, separately, their passionate impulses when they were young and single. As the storm continues to rage around them, they draw closer and embrace. When Alcée touches Calixta’s breasts “they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips.” And when he has intercourse with her, Calixta experiences her first orgasm, an inner storm that shakes “her firm elastic flesh that was knowing for the first time its birthright …” Yet, when the rain is over and the sun “was turning the glistening green world into a palace of gems,” the two part happily; Calixta smiles, lifts her chin in the air, and laughs aloud.
She busies herself preparing supper and when her husband and son come home is gay and effusive. They have brought her a special present, some shrimps she adores, and the three sit down to supper laughing “much and so loud that anyone might have heard then as far away as Laballière’s.” And Laballière? He too is happy that night as he sends a tender loving letter to his wife. And his wife is happy when she receives it. “So the storm passed and everyone was happy.”
It was 1960 when I first read Kate Chopin, yet I felt an immediate across-the-century intimacy with her. She had read de Maupassant and Zola and perhaps Flaubert in a provincial era when few American writers, male or female, knew what was being written or thought about in Europe. She didn’t start to write until she was thirty-four when, suddenly widowed, she found herself in charge of supporting her six young children. But then, child-interrupted and chorebound, she plugged away at her material, exploring the mainstreams that were to feed the fictional treatment of the adulterous woman in the twentieth century—the matter-of-fact earthiness of Molly Bloom, the orgasmic discoveries of Lady Chatterley, and the conviction of so many women writers who followed Chopin that perhaps adultery did not involve great love but merely a storm of passion.
Even prior to modern times, the adulterous woman exerted a unique pull on the imagination and provided for authors and readers alike a preoccupying figure. She made her first appearance, as far as I can tell, in an ancient Egyptian legend written down in the XVIIIth Dynasty, but describing events that took place long before in the IIIrd Dynasty reign of the Pharaoh Nabka. We don’t know the woman’s name; she is referred to throughout as “Ubaû-anir’s wife,” but what happens to her has the rattle of familiarity.
When the Pharaoh and his entourage paid a call on her husband, who was high up in court circles, she happened to be introduced to a royal vassal, a man of more humble station than herself but apparently the possessor of great bodily charm. Ubaû-anir’s wife felt physical attraction at first start. “From the hour that she beheld him she no longer knew in what part of the world she was.” So she asked her maid to approach him and set up a rendezvous. “Come, that we may lie together for the space of an hour; put on thy festival garments.”
The stranger and Ubaû-anir’s wife did lie together. It was presumably a pleasurable encounter, since they then determined to explore their relationship further by sneaking a few days together at her husband’s vacation retreat on the shores of an ancient lake.
Ubaû-anir’s wife directed the overseer of the vacation property to get everything ready for her arrival, and “it was done as she had said, and she stayed there, drinking with the vassal until the sun set.” But the overseer was not to be trusted; he had informed Ubaû-anir of his wife’s goings-on. When the lover decided to take a swim at twilight he disappeared into the dark waters of the lake; Ubaû-anir, using sorcery, had created a magic wax crocodile which turned real and carried off the vassal. Once the lover was taken care of, it was time to attend to the wife. She was brought back to the palace by her husband, under the Pharaoh’s express command, and there she was promptly burned to death.
The severity of the punishment meted out to Ubaû-anir’s wife has been taken as evidence of how rigorously the Egyptians condemned women’s adultery. Not only was she killed, but her body was destroyed. Since the ancient Egyptians favored entering death with intact mummified bodies, burning a body not only destroyed life but made even afterlife uncertain. Still, despite the cruelty displayed in this story, there must have been some recognition on men’s parts that they themselves, not women alone, coveted female extramarital adventuring. Another Egyptian Pharaoh was buried with a pornographic papyrus that assured him that the afterworld to which he was going was not so altogether dreadful a place since in it he could “at his pleasure take the wives away from the husbands.”
Certainly there were real-life rewards as well as punishments for women who engaged in extramarital sex, even in the ancient world, and even in places where the laws were harshest concerning female adultery. In ancient Assyria the legal code provided that a woman who had intercourse with a man not her husband could be mutilated by having her nose cut off or could be put to death. The choice was her husband’s. And yet the only female name which has come down to us from that bleak civilization is that of Semiramis, a semilegendary figure who, according to the Greek historian Diodorus, was an adulteress before she became a queen. In Semiramis’ case, her adultery was rewarded rather than punished because she abandoned a husband who was a mere officer in King Ninus’ army to have an affair with the king himself. Ninus later married her, died, and thus paved the way for Semiramis herself to rule through her young son.
There is a similar happy rise in station for the Biblical Bathsheba. King David had seen her washing herself as he walked upon his rooftop, and although he knew she was another man’s wife, “took her; and she came in unto him; and he lay with her.” Later, he arranged to get her husband out of the way by sending him unaided into the front lines of the hottest battle. There is punishment inflicted on David and Bathsheba; the child conceived during their first adulterous union dies. But Bathsheba goes on to become David’s wife and the mother of Solomon, again a dynastic adulteress. Of course, Bathsheba’s fate was in direct contradiction to ancient Hebrew law as stated in Leviticus: “And the man that commiteth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that commiteth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
Still most of the time, the adulteress came to a bad end, or brought misery to others. She is Helen, whose affair with Paris starts the Trojan war. She is Phaedra, whose sexual lust, albeit administered by a god, causes the death of Hippolytus. In Euripides’ version of the story, Hippolytus voices the prevailing Greek contempt for female sexuality: “Animals! Let someone teach them to smother their hot wishes. Or don’t ask me not to despise the lot of them.” Euripides was presenting in drama what numerous Greek philosophers were to complain of in treatises: women were almost by nature adulterous. Much later, St. Jerome, basing his words on a lost tract on marriage written by Aristotle’s protégé Theophrastus, implied that there was no end to women’s interest in extramarital seduction. The beautiful ones couldn’t help but attract lovers; the ugly ones were easily seduced because they wanted to gain reassurance about their appearance. Anything could start a woman on an adulterous course. “If you introduce old women, and soothsayers, and prophets, and vendors of jewels and silken clothing, you imperil her chastity.”
The Hebraic and Greek view of women as unpleasantly, dangerously sexual had entered the thinking of the first Christians and was to linger through much of Christianity, even in periods when women were upgraded and idolized. Early Christianity set great store by celibacy, and women were seen as the stumbling block that prevented right-minded men from avoiding sex. Women were a veritable pollutant. Thus the second-century theologian Tertullian longed to have every woman veiled or else all men would be put in peril, and the fourth-century theologian St. John Chrysostom warned men that behind the superficial appeal of women’s pretty faces and bodies there lay nothing but death and disaster. If men were to “consider what is stored up inside those beautiful eyes and that straight nose, and the mouth and cheeks, you will affirm the well-shaped body to be nothing else than a white sepulchre; the parts within are full of so much uncleanness.” Down into the Middle Ages, such warnings continued, often with implications of woman’s adulterous nature. The thirteenth-century Franciscan Friar Salimbene offered, “Wouldst thou define or know what woman is? She is glittering mud, a stinking rose, sweet poison, ever leaning toward that which is forbidden her.”
And yet gradually a new prestige adhered to women. They became the objects of courtly or romantic love, a love that stressed adoration of women. Men were to accomplish great deeds of heroism for women, and to worship them with despairing even tragic sentiments. But debate still flourishes as to the essential nature of courtly love. It was certainly adulterous, in that the object of a man’s dedication was often a married woman, wife of a lord to whom the lover owed fealty. But was this adulterous love sexual or not? Some explicators of medieval poetry stress that courtly love was nonsexual and that the married woman was a perfect object of admiration precisely because she was unattainable, thus adding to the intensity and spirituality of a passion.
But there is no doubt that some such loves were not only consummated but even ended in cheerful domesticity. The twelfth-century poet Marie de France, for example, disarmingly tells the story of Gugemar, a virile knight who fell in love with a married exotic queen. The queen, a woman “of tender age,” was the wife of a king much older than she. When Gugemar happened along, the queen and the knight fell intensely in love. They met secretly and joyously in her bedchamber before they were discovered and parted by the queen’s husband who wounded Gugemar and left him to die in an unmanned ship on the sea. The queen was locked in a prison. Miraculously Gugemar made it to Brittany and one day the queen too escaped and she also sailed to France. There, she was again imprisoned, but this time she was rescued by Gugemar, with whom she ended up living happily ever after “in peace in his own land.”
But most of the time when medievalists wrote of adulterous love that was consummated, their stories ended tragically. A favorite and often-told legend was that of Tristan and Isolde. Their adulterous love ended in death for both even though they had never meant to become sexual with one another and had only done so because of a magic potion.
Dante popularized the story of Francesca da Rimini, another adulteress whose physical passion for a man not her husband brought death to both herself and her lover. When her lengthy passionate attachment to her husband’s brother was finally discovered, she and her lover were murdered by her husband and ended up in the Inferno. There Dante, perhaps the first person ever to interview an adulteress, questioned Francesca about just what exactly made her turn to adultery. She offered an explanation that was to linger throughout history and figure in the speculations of Flaubert, Tolstoy, and even modern writers. It was that books—romantic stories of other impassioned lovers—had brought her low. Had she and her brother-in-law not read the story of Lancelot together, they might never have thought of exchanging their first kiss.
How did an adulterous woman feel in those long-ago years? We have little to go on in the way of personal accounts except for one written early in the fifteenth century by the mystic Margery Kempe, author of the first extant autobiography in English.
When Margery Kempe had been married several years, “it so fell that a man she loved well, said unto her on Saint Margaret’s Eve before evensong that, for anything, he would lie by her and have his lust of his body.” Kempe was immensely troubled by the man’s words, so disturbed “that she could not hear her evensong, nor say her Paternoster.” But what was troubling her was not, as one might expect, fear of the man’s threat or even anger at his boldness. She was distressed because she recognized in herself an enormous temptation to agree to the sexual encounter. All that night she thought about it. “She lay by her husband, and to commune with him was so abominable to her that she could not endure it.” Finally, “through the importunity of temptation and lack of discretion she was overcome and consented in her mind” to adultery.
Shortly afterwards she went to her admired friend to arrange their assignation. Suddenly, completely to her surprise, he turned on her, rejected her, and, adding insult to injury, made her feel the whole thing had been her idea. He told her he would “rather be hewn as small as flesh for the pot” than have intercourse with her.
Margery Kempe went home and did extreme penance. Yet all year she was tempted to “lechery and despair,” until finally she felt God’s forgiveness. She seems to have believed she actually spoke with God about her lustfulness and that He helped her overcome it by suggesting that she turn her thoughts to religious, but nevertheless still sexualized fantasies about Himself. God said,
When thou art in thy bed, take Me to thee as thy wedded husband, as thy dearworthy darling, and as thy sweet son, for I will be loved as a son should be loved by the mother, and I will that thou lovest Me, daughter, as a good wife ought to love her husband. Therefore thou mayest boldly take Me in the arms of thy soul and kiss My mouth, My head, and My feet, as sweetly as thou wilt.
Loving God, Kempe eschewed further efforts at adultery.
Women’s confessional accounts of adulterous feelings are rare almost until our own day, but gradually their fictional and reportorial accounts began to accumulate. One of the most charming was Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 psychological novel about a woman tempted to adultery, The Princess of Cleves.
In a pattern that is already familiar in the literature of the adulterous woman, the underage princess admires but cannot love her older husband. Therefore, surrounded by a frivolous court in which adultery is the norm, she inevitably falls in love with someone else—the handsome and accomplished Duke of Nemours. But although the duke ardently returns the princess’ love, he is never able to convince her to sexualize their love, even when at last her husband’s death leaves her free and available for marriage. She has “an austere virtue which is almost without a precedent.” She parts from the court, spends much of her time in a convent, and dies.
But despite the princess’ sturdy religiosity, there is no doubt that something besides religion holds her back from adultery. Madame de Lafayette supported her heroine’s religious argument against adultery with another, psychological deterrent. One cannot fall in love and live by its consequences, for who knows whether love has any stability? When M. de Cleves is dead and by all moral rules the princess is at liberty to marry the duke, she still refuses, saying to her lover,
I cannot confess to you without deep shame that the certainty of not being loved by you as I am, seems to me a horrible misfortune.… I know that you are free, as I am, and that we are so situated that the world would probably blame neither of us if we should marry; but do men keep their love in these permanent unions? Ought I to expect a miracle in my case, and can I run the risk of seeing this passion, which would be my only happiness, fade away?
Madame de Lafayette had added a new insight to the literature of adultery. She recognized that a married woman might cherish adulterous fantasies but fear translating romantic into mundane love. Today psychologists often list as a major cause of adultery people’s inability to commit themselves to their spouses. It is amusing to note that in The Princess of Cleves the fear of commitment works in two directions; it isolates the princess from her husband but also from her lover.
In England, a little later than the period in which Madame de Lafayette wrote, the adventurous Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was to question the wisdom of the Christian world’s insistence on sweeping under the rug all traces of women’s adultery. She had observed while visiting Constantinople in 1716 that many Turkish women had lovers and that they even appeared publicly with both husbands and lovers. She wrote that among these women “getting a lover is so far from losing, that ’tis properly getting reputation; ladies being much more respected in regard to the rank of their lovers than that of their husbands.” Corresponding with an English friend about the liaisons of Turkish women, she ended her letter with a plea for relativism. “Thus you see, my dear, gallantry and good-breeding are as different, in different climates, as morality and religion. Who have the rightest notions of both, we shall never know till the day of judgment …”
As Lady Montagu implied, the major difference between the English women she knew and the Turkish women she was observing was not that the former group did not take lovers, but that they hid their extramarital activities out of concern for their reputations. At no period in Western history does it appear that female adultery was unknown. This was true even when dire governmental laws attempted to restrict its occurrence. The English Puritans had tried. In 1650 they had passed an act requiring the death penalty for adultery and in 1653, they had actually executed an adulterer, an eighty-nine-year-old man. But even under Puritan rule, juries were loath to hand down convictions, and most of the time, in Western countries, moral responsibility rather than law was urged as the means to prevent adultery. Preachers and priests were the guardians of morality, and in their sermons and writings they propagandized the dangers of adultery.
In The Natural, Civil and Religious Mischiefs Arising From Conjugal Infidelity, a text published in 1700, the author presented a myriad of reasons, beyond respect of God’s law, for eschewing adultery. Male adultery, he warned, would “consume the Strength, and melt down the Courage of the Nation.” Women’s adultery was even worse. It produced either crippled or temperamentally deformed offspring, or it could render a wife sterile, incapable of producing any heir at all, since “the beaten Paths are always barren, and never productive of Fruit.”
One of my favorite explicators of the dangers of female adultery was Mason Locke Weems, an eighteenth-century American Episcopalian clergyman, a purveyor of legends—notably the one about George Washington and the cherry tree—and a vibrant proselytizer who, while determined to make sin nasty, often merely succeeded in making it read well.
In God’s Revenge Against Adultery, Weems told the hair-raising story of Nancy Wiley, wife of a Pennsylvania tavern keeper, and her affair with the local physician, Doctor Wilson, “an Apollo in his form and a Chesterfield in his manners.” The upshot of the affair was particularly tragic. When Mr. Wiley discovered it, he shot Dr. Wilson, thereby widowing the doctor’s wife and orphaning his young children; later, consumed with depression, he caused even his own seemingly natural death.
In trying to analyze Nancy Wiley’s fall into adultery, Weems fastened the blame on the poor education given to girls. Digging back into her past, he unearthed a friend of her parents who reported telling the girl’s mother years before that Nancy would be an angel “if she could but receive the polish of a good education,” only to be rebuffed by the mother’s retort, “Never mind! Let Nancy alone. She will be angel enough, I’ll be bound for her, without education.”
Weems felt that
such cruel neglect of parents to direct their daughters to the pleasures of the mind has been the ruin of many a fine girl. It proved, in the sequel, the ruin of beautiful Mrs. Wiley. Having never been taught to polish that immortal jewel, her soul, she had nothing left but to polish the poor casket, her body—to trick it up in gaudy attire—to perfume it with sweet odours—to blanch its skin—to whiten its teeth—to curl its tresses, making it in this way, the goddess of her devotions. Thus idolized by herself, she expected, of course, that her dear person should be idolized by all others. And those were most sure of her favour who most flattered her vanity.
But despite the efforts of even the most dynamic moralists, female adultery persisted. By the mid-eighteenth century there was evidence of its frequency in the records of trials for adultery which were published in both the American colonies and England.
There are many such documents. They seem to have been popular almost as a kind of pornography. A publisher would send a clerk to court and the clerk would write out whatever testimony he could copy down, and the result would be published for the amusement of the general public. At least this is the impression the title pages of these trials convey. Like book advertisements of today, they were filled with seductive promises. One announces itself as “Being the particulars of an adulterous intercourse for the space of several years in which the partners showed as little attention to decency as to fidelity”; another features “the amorous love letters” exchanged by the two people on trial; a third is advertised as “The whole trial of Mrs. Harriet Errington, with nine amorous scenes elegantly engraved,” including, “The Breeches scene … the Hiding scene … the Bed scene.” This particular trial report promised that “the Essence and Quintessence of all the trials for Adultery that ever appeared in the Rambler’s magazine or any other publication is Chastity to this.”
A typical case is that of Mrs. Ann Wood, tried for adultery in 1785. Her husband, stationed in the colonies as a paymaster of artillery for his Majesty during the period of the American Revolution, sent her home to England so that she could be safe from the ravages of war. The Woods had been married fifteen years at the time they experienced this first separation. Poor Mrs. Wood must have felt sexually deprived. After doing without a man for three years, she began to entertain frequent visits in her Mayfair home from Mr. Quintin Dick, a merchant of King Street. Although she went to great lengths not to let her neighbors know, the servants began to spy on her. They took to examining her sofa and bed each morning, “plainly distinguishing the marks of two persons having lain therein, and also such marks and stains on the sheets, as convinced them that a man and a woman had been in the act of carnal copulation therein.” No matter that Mr. Wood had stayed away for six years, returning home only in 1784. He was enraged at his wife and demanded, and obtained, a divorce.
Not every husband whose wife had had an affair wanted or could obtain a divorce. With a few exceptions, divorce was granted not by the courts but only through an act of Parliament. This was a costly and scandalous procedure and sometimes husbands preferred merely to separate from their adulterous wives. But whether they divorced or not, it was customary for them to go to court to try to obtain financial rewards from their wives’ paramours to pay for “the outrage on their feelings and happiness” or for the loss of “the Aid and Comfort” of a wife’s society. Most eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century trials for adultery were held for damages, not divorce. Financial awards were granted more often than not although usually the husband had to prove that he and his wife had lived amicably until a seducer appeared on the scene. This was what had happened in 1815 to the charming and loving Trelawneys.
They were in their early twenties, a delightful couple fond of living in retirement and filling up their leisure hours with reading. Trelawney, a lieutenant, had served in India until he had been wounded in a naval engagement; Caroline, his wife, was “extremely beautiful” and of a cultured, sensitive frame of mind. The pair had one child and were living in perfect harmony in a Bristol lodging house when a man almost twice Caroline’s age, a Captain Coleman, “a military man, aged forty, a man of the world, of great experience” set his sights on her. He had moved into the same lodging house and was quickly attracted by her good looks and elegant manners. He was accused of having carefully planned his seduction by figuring out Caroline’s weak points. He discovered that she was fond of reading. Although Caroline had a very moral, upright nature, by lending her books and holding literary discussions, Coleman soon “obtained the enjoyment of her person.”
The two began seeing each other whenever Lieutenant Trelawney was away. The trusting husband was unaware of any difficulty. It was true that Caroline now requested that they sleep in separate beds, but she was pregnant again and he figured she was uncomfortable and restless at night. But one day he picked up a note which dropped out of a book that was lying about and which was filled with the most passionate expressions of tenderness. It was addressed to “Dearest Anne” not “Dearest Caroline,” but somehow it aroused his suspicions.
Trelawney thereupon asked the landlady whether she had noticed anything odd in Caroline’s habits when he was out of the house. She hadn’t, but after he mentioned his distrust, the landlady took to spying. One day she climbed on top of an outhouse which adjoined Captain Coleman’s bedroom, and, casting her eyes toward the room, saw there Mrs. Trelawney’s shoes. She took a “more enlarged view of the room, and she saw the Defendant and Mrs. Trelawney in bed together; and she had no doubt, from what she saw, that the adulterous intercourse had taken place.” In the end, the jury decided that Trelawney had indeed been sorely damaged by the seducer Captain Coleman, and awarded him five hundred pounds in damages.
That was small pickings. Lord Elgin, who brought to England the Greek sculptures called the Elgin marbles, sued a man who had had an affair with Lady Elgin and obtained a monumental award. The lover, R. J. Fergusson, at one time Elgin’s secretary, was accused of adopting a “deliberate system” to break down Lady Elgin’s morality. That system was a series of impassioned love letters, filled with pronouncements like, “Till I breathe my last, Mary, I boast of loving you with a passion never known before; never was there such a perfect union.”
Fergusson’s lawyer argued that his client, a young man without a shilling, wasn’t scheming but, rather, suffering from a form of temporary insanity. He said the letters “appear to be the effusions of a man in a frenzy, persuading himself that he and this lady were born for one another, and to live in a state of bliss more than was possible to be enjoyed by mortals upon this earth … [it is] impossible that any man could read them without being convinced that such romantic ideas of happiness could not exist in a sane mind.” Nevertheless, Lord Elgin was granted an award of ten thousand pounds.
Of course, husbands didn’t always get the rewards they asked for. One rather famous case was brought by the actor Theophilus Cibber, son of England’s highly-respected dramatist and poet laureate, Colley Cibber. It ended in Cibber’s being denied his requested award of five thousand pounds for a Mr. Sloper’s adultery with Cibber’s wife Susannah Maria because the jury felt that not only Cibber but even Susannah Maria had arranged the adultery as a get-rich-quick scheme.
What was motivating these eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women to be adulterous, to push so brazenly against the morality of their day? One reason may have been that adultery was the only grounds for divorce. At least, this was the opinion expressed in many English documents of the period, although two entirely different cures for the situation were recommended. One group of social critics argued that adultery would decrease only if additional grounds for divorce were permitted. Their position was that unhappy marriages were breeding grounds for adultery. Pointing to the fact that repeatedly people who had been abandoned by their spouses and people whose marriages had never been consummated failed in their legal efforts to divorce, they insisted that in a peculiar albeit unintentional way the law rewarded the adulterous.
One particularly touching case that was brought to trial involved Mary Forester and George Downing, who had been married in 1701 when she was thirteen years old and he a mere two years her elder. They had been “put to Bed, in the Day Time, according to Custom, and continued there a little while, but … they touch’d not One the Other.” Immediately afterwards, perhaps ashamed of his inadequate performance, George left his bride and went abroad, disappearing from her life, avoiding all contact and communication. He traveled for three or four years and, when he eventually returned to England, wanted nothing to do with the young woman with whom he had been so unaroused. Fourteen years later both the young people’s families attempted to have the marriage dissolved.
The House of Peers debated the situation for a strenuous three hours, but in the end voted against the dissolution, citing the “solemn words used by Our Saviour, that those whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder.”
Eloquently, the counsel for the young couple argued that it was appalling that a pair so young should be forced to waste their entire lives because of their early disastrous marriage. And he made the radical assertion that it was incredibly unfair that in a case like this where “the parties are each of them untouched, pure and unsullyed, even in thought” no divorce should be possible, whereas in cases of adultery, where one or both partners had done “such things as I have neither will nor leave to mention,” divorce “follows of course.” But the House of Peers remained adamant. “Nothing but adultery can dissolve a marriage.”
While one group of social critics was arguing that divorce should be made more accessible, so as not to reward the adulterous, another maintained the reverse. They held that adultery could only be eliminated if the adulterous could be prohibited from divorcing or at least from marrying again and especially from marrying their adulterous paramours. On occasion they proposed laws to ensure this.
In one curious document, women were portrayed as the greatest obstacle to the passage of such laws. It is The House of Peeresses or Female Oratory, published in 1779, in which a group of unnamed but identifiable English peeresses strenuously oppose the passage of a law proposed by the Bishop of Landaff to prohibit the adulterous from remarrying for twelve months after divorce. In the debate, the peeresses express their fear that such a restriction might indeed hinder them and they assert that adultery has been for them a treasure “surpassing the descriptive fire of eloquence, a treasure your mothers and grandmothers have maintained with united and irresistible torrents of threats, prayers, ill language, and omnipotent invective.” One dynamic orator sums up the case: adultery is woman’s “last expedient,” her only outlet from “her Lord’s imperious government.” Rather than give up the privilege, the women should riot as the American Colonists have done.
It is, of course, a satire, but it reflects the very serious concern of the period over the uses of adultery.
In France, even adultery did not lead to the dissolution of marriage. Divorce was unknown until 1792, although a husband (but not a wife) could obtain a separation from an unfaithful spouse. During the Revolution the law was changed to permit divorce on the grounds of incompatibility, but it was quickly revoked, then reinstituted by Napoleon with some restrictions, and at last suppressed again under the Bourbons. It remained impossible to divorce in France until 1884.
Adultery nevertheless appears to have been common in France as well as in England, at least among rich and powerful women. It was not the carrot of divorce that dangled at the end of the stick of extramarital liaisons. Other enticements were suspended there. Women found themselves in pursuit not of remarriage but of love. “Love is above the laws, above the opinion of men; it is the truth, the flame, the pure element, the primary idea of the moral world,” wrote Madame de Staël in a novel, while living her life in demonstration. It was the dawn of a period in which declarations of independence flourished. De Staël had married her husband in 1786; by 1789 she had already taken at least two lovers, and was smartly outwitting her husband. Did he say she had spent twelve hours with a lover? Madame de Staël acted outraged, insulted. It had only been six.
Like many other women of her day, de Staël was an admirer of Rousseau, a believer in tempestuous passion and the stormy majesty of the emotions. Her husband had disappointed her. He may have been a homosexual. But whether he was or wasn’t, he was certainly never able to produce in her the torrents of passion she had envisioned. She grew depressed and for the rest of her life used affairs as a form of therapy—they countered her depression and maintained her ego. She may have been one of the first women writers to recognize how this worked—there have been many since. Writing to one lover who had angered her, she provocatively explained why she had let another man “love me madly”; she had done so in order to pick up “a sort of excitement that would relieve for a moment the terrible weight that was pressing on my heart.”
George Sand, who also had her first affair within a few short years of marriage, was to attempt later in life to describe to her husband the lack of uxorious appreciation which provoked her adultery.
At nineteen, freed from all real anxieties and troubles, married to a man of excellent qualities and mother of a fine child, surrounded by everything calculated to flatter my tastes, I yet lived a life of utter boredom. This mood of mine can be easily explained. There is a period in the life of every woman when she needs to love, and to love exclusively. When she is in that state of mind, it needs must be that her every action is concentrated upon the beloved object. She values her charms and her talents only insofar as they give delight to him. You never noticed mine. Such knowledge as I had was wasted, since you did not share it. I did not put all this into words, even to myself, but I felt it. I pressed you in my arms, I was loved by you, and yet, something, I knew not what, was lacking to my happiness …
Sand, Madame de Staël, most other heiresses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and indeed most middle-class women, were married when very young. Marriages were arranged for economic convenience by parental command. Sand had actually tried to resist early marriage. But when she was eighteen, her mother threatened that unless she married she would be locked up until she reached twenty-one in a particularly punitive convent where “no one will listen to your complaints, and neither you nor your friends will know the name and whereabouts of your retreat.” Her mother actually went so far as to take Sand to the door of the proposed convent-jail, and Sand married the next man who asked.
Many advanced nineteenth-century social thinkers concluded from examples like this that the marriage of parental command or economic convenience was itself what was provoking female adultery. Harriet Martineau, the mid-nineteenth-century sociologist, argued that if love marriages could replace “mercenary marriages,” extramarital sex would diminish. She felt that when people married for economic reasons “the sanctity of marriage is impaired, and vice succeeds. Anyone must see at a glance that if men and women marry those whom they do not love, they must love those whom they do not marry.”
The love that nineteenth-century women sought was not usually envisioned as a carnal pursuit. In fact, often it was the opposite. Women craved sentimental and spiritual attachment to men who, unlike their husbands, did not demand sex of them. Sand found her husband’s sexuality brutal, degrading. She was to write, “Men do not know that what is fun for them is hell for us.” Her first love affair was with a young man with whom she exchanged merely kisses and passionate letters. Confessing her attachment in an eighteen-page letter to her husband, she swore the affair would never become physical, but begged her husband’s permission to send her lover “one letter a month.… You shall read all his letters to me, and all my answers.”
When Leo Tolstoy’s wife at age fifty-three developed an attachment to a musician who was a frequent visitor to the Tolstoy home, she wrote in her diary how much more enticing she found the thought of spiritual love than the sexual love in her marriage. “I yearn for a poetic, spiritual, even a sentimental relationship with someone—only to get away from this eternal sex.”
In England, it was the period of Victorianism and the sexologist William Acton wrote, “I should say that the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.” In the United States, even leaders of the women’s rights movement like Sarah Grimké did not put much stock in women’s sexuality. Grimké, who believed that women were naturally superior to men, thought that the superiority had to do with the very fact that “the sexual passion in man is ten times stronger than in woman.”
With the flowering of the psychological novel in the nineteenth century, the adulterous woman now emerged as heroine or central figure in many analytic novels, plays, and stories. Almost always her emotional rather than her physical yearnings were stressed. Who did not have a go at her? She was examined by Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Balzac, Flaubert and many other writers. Many of the attitudes that still dominate our understanding of female adultery are drawn from the careful observations of nineteenth-century writers.
We see the adulteress as self-absorbed and narcissistic, the way Dostoyevsky saw her in The Eternal Husband. His Natalya Vassilyevna is
resolute and domineering.… She never thought herself wrong or to blame in anything. Her continual unfaithfulness to her husband did not weigh on her conscience in the least.… She was faithful to her lover, but only as long as he did not bore her.
Simultaneously we see her as a kind of noble savage, as Pushkin saw her in his dramatic poem The Gypsies. His Zemfira has lived only a few years with the adoring Aleko, but she finds his love monotonous and so she almost frivolously takes a gypsy lover.
But most of all, we see her as she was presented in The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina. All three novels, each so different and so wonderful, share one view in common: the adulteress is seeking emotional fulfillment, whether authentically, as are Anna and Hester Prynne, or shallowly, hysterically, as is Emma Bovary. These women may victimize their husbands, but they are themselves victims of their societies’ emphasis upon finding love.
For one thing, each of the heroines shares a biographical fact that we have come to assume common to all nineteenth-century women. Each, like the real-life adulteresses who left journals and letters, had married husbands they did not love. Emma had married her husband to get away from her father’s farm where she wore wooden shoes and roughened her hands. It took her little time to realize that although her husband brought her material comfort, he was no savior. “Charles’ conversation was flat as a sidewalk, a place of passage for the ideas of everyman … This man could teach you nothing; he knew nothing; he wished for nothing.” Hawthorne’s Hester considers her “crime most to be repented of” not her adultery with Dimmesdale, but the fact that she “had ever endured, and reciprocated, the lukewarm grasp” of her elderly, scholarly husband’s hands, “and had suffered the smile of her lips and eyes to mingle and melt into his own.” And Anna’s husband, although innately kind, is pompous and frigid, with “an habitual sarcastic smile” and “big tired eyes.”
It is important to note that not one of the authors of these three most compelling novels of female adultery was, in his personal attitudes or literary intentions, sympathetic to women’s sexual experimentation. Hawthorne had once refused to meet George Eliot because she was living with a man without marrying him; Tolstoy had in mind, when he started Anna Karenina, the story of a heartless, flirtatious and crude woman, “not guilty but merely pitiful”; and Flaubert wanted to expose the banality of adultery. When Baudelaire praised him for discussing this “tritest possible human situation” he thanked him, saying, “You have entered into the secret of my book as though my brain were yours.” Yet Hawthorne’s Hester emerges as an honorable figure, ennobled by her never-wavering love for the unworthy Dimmesdale. Anna grew sympathetic and complex, so overtaking Tolstoy’s original conception of her character that he had to rewrite the novel several times. And even Emma so overcame Flaubert’s distaste for her that at times he wept over her troubles and, almost despite himself, seems to have felt some tenderheartedness for her, however banal he painted her. There is certainly a tinge of tenderness toward Emma in his explanation of why she desires a male and not a female child:
A man is free, at least—free to range the passions and the world, to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest pleasures. Whereas a woman is continually thwarted. Inert, compliant, she has to struggle against her physical weakness and legal subjection. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat, quivers with every breeze; there is always a desire that entices, always a convention that restrains.
It is against this background of the great nineteenth-century novels that today’s women novelists explore the adulteress. But along the way her passion has become sexualized.
Perhaps it was inevitable once sex no longer led inexorably to pregnancy, with its ever-present tragic risks. Male contraceptives—condoms—were in use in the eighteenth century but they were uncomfortable and inadequate. Madame de Staël had described them as “a breast plate against pleasure and a cobweb against danger.” In the nineteenth century they were improved, and female contraceptives—cervical caps—were invented, but both types caught on very slowly. There were powerful religious proscriptions against their use even until our own day. Thus nineteenth-century opponents of adultery used to urge women to eschew it not just because of moral scruples but because their sexual wandering brought with it the danger of polluting family blood—the possibility of illegitimate children. As an American physician explained in 1866, an adulterous wife might easily become pregnant, thereby introducing into her family an illegitimate child “which must either be maintained by a man not its father, or cruelly driven from the household for a sin not its own.” With contraception, illegitimacy became less fearsome, and so too did sex itself.
Just as powerful as contraception in lessening women’s fear of sex, and consequent avoidance of it, were the medical advances that reduced the dangers of that so common killer of women, childbirth complications, and that so common killer of infants, early childhood diseases. In England, as late as the 1890s, the average wife had a life expectancy of only forty-six years. It was expected rather than astonishing that several of the children she gave birth to would die in infancy or that she herself might die in childbirth. No wonder then that women loved for emotional rather than sexual pleasure.
It was, I believe, the removal of these two awesome negative consequences of sex—continual pregnancy and the concomitant fear of death either for the self or young offspring—that turned women’s thoughts about sex to joy rather than dread. I don’t mean that it turned women’s thoughts to extramarital relations, but rather that the adulterous began to add to their emotional pursuits the quest for sexual pleasure.
Thus, in the twentieth century and among women writers, the adulteress is usually portrayed as a woman seeking not only emotional but sexual gratification. On occasion it is even sexual gratification of the no-strings-attached variety that heroines pursue—what Kate Chopin presented as Calixta’s “birthright” in 1904, and Erica Jong as Isadora Wing’s “zipless fuck” in 1973.
Curiously, the contemporary adulterous heroine is still out of love with her husband, despite the fact that she has presumably married in the twentieth-century fashion, for love. Here is something that has not changed. Adultery has not withered away along with the withering of the marriage of parental command. There are two different points of view among women novelists as to why their heroines do not love their husbands.
One view holds that even though parents and economic necessity no longer dominate the young woman’s choice of a husband, there are nevertheless powerful social pressures that make her marry with as little thought to her future needs as did her nineteenth-century sister.
In Judith Rossner’s Any Minute I Can Split the heroine seems to have been aware of potential disappointments in her husband-to-be before they married. “Even then he would pinch her hard or kick her in the shins under the table if they had an argument when her parents were around, coming attractions for his proclivity to hit below the belt.” But yet, as the author points out, these prickings of anxiety do not constitute reasons not to marry. “Once you decided to get married there was a kind of impetus that carried you through without leaving room in your thoughts for questions of mistakes.” In Barbara Raskin’s Loose Ends, the author explains that her heroine “married Gavin for a variety of reasons among which was the fact that Gavin was the first man to propose.”
Another, perhaps more pessimistic group of writers, attributes adultery to alienation: either a woman’s alienation from the goals of her society or her personal alienation from her husband. One can feel as alienated from a loved spouse as from an unloved one. Alienation develops like a disease. Psychoanalyst Leon Salzman, author of numerous articles on the psychology of adultery, says that even in marriages that begin with devotion, loyalty, and mutual commitment, alienation may set in as a result of “disappointed, unreal expectations and other exaggerated demands that cannot be fulfilled.” Adultery follows as inevitably as it does in loveless matches.
“Dear Dr. Reuben,” asks the heroine of Fear of Flying, “Why does the fucking always become like processed cheese?” A marriage that has at least the grace note of good sex has deteriorated. Isadora, the heroine, had once loved her husband—had even loved his tendency to be silent. Yet eventually this very trait began to dismay her. Bennett Wing had
appeared as in a dream. On the wing, you might say. Tall, good-looking, inscrutably Oriental. Long thin fingers, hairless balls, a lovely swivel to his hips when he screwed—at which he seemed to be absolutely indefatigable. But he was also mute and at that point his silence was music to my ears. How did I know that a few years later, I’d feel like I was fucking Helen Keller?
In Sandra Hochman’s Walking Papers a similar alienation has overcome the heroine, destroying what once she assumed was love. In the case of Hochman’s heroine, not only communication but sex too has deteriorated.
I ask myself, what went wrong with Jason?
And me? It’s hard to explain. Suddenly there was no more sweetness. No more kindness. The talking stopped. And the lovemaking. No talk. No touch. How else do people reach out? By eyes. By the eyes. But he never looked at my eyes. I kept searching his eyes for looks that would mean something to me. And nothing was there. … I was being wrapped in bandages. Nothing to look forward to but my mummification.
Sometimes the husband has lost his wife’s respect. This is the situation in Doris Lessing’s Summer Before the Dark. Kate, many years married, feels disappointed with her husband because he has begun having casual sexual affairs with women who are emotionally unimportant to him. “… she was feeling about him, had felt for some time, rather as if he had a weakness for eating sweets and would not restrain it. He was diminished; there was no doubt about that.”
In Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life there is a chilling insistence on the fact that love itself breeds alienation. Martha and her husband actually still love each other, but this in itself makes them depressed. There is no longer anything to hope for.
If they could have chosen over again, neither would have chosen differently. Neither of them knew anyone they would have preferred to the other. They could not even imagine an ideal companion they would put in the other’s place. From their point of view, for their purposes, they had the best there was. There lay the bleakness; for them, as they were constituted, through all eternity, this had been the optimum—there was no beyond. There was nothing.
Yet when the wife in a contemporary novel of adultery falls into a love affair, she does not fall in love. Something is always wrong with the lovers. Jong’s heroine, Lady Chatterley in reverse, chooses an impotent man. Hochman’s chooses a man whom she despises for his emotional cruelty. McCarthy’s heroine chooses her ex-husband, a man she has previously rejected and fled. The lover in the Rossner novel is a puerile youth who asks the heroine, “How do you get attached to people?” while she can only wonder, “How could you not get attached to people?” Lessing’s heroine knew at the start of her affair that “Jeffrey Merton, in retrospect, when she looked back, would seem to her all dryness and repetition.”
Sometimes the men selected must be seduced into love affairs. This is a great humiliation for heroines and a surefire deterrent to love. In Ann Birstein’s novels and stories, lovers are incapable or unwilling to make arrangements for liaisons. In Love in the Dunes Mrs. Kane thinks:
Charlie make arrangements? That was the best joke yet. Poor Charlie, what had he ever done, except be willing? It was she who had dreamed the whole thing up single-handed, she who had planned and schemed and even—she blushed to think of it now—dragged him off bodily this morning.
In Birstein’s Dickie’s List, the heroine suggests any number of romantic or at least comfortable lovemaking situations but the lover rejects them all. There will be no idyllic overnight trains to Chicago—“They’ve discontinued the run, love”—no day at a country inn or even an afternoon at a Plaza suite. The lover merely offers a hasty grab at the heroine while they are both attending a party. Dismayed, she means to refuse him, but ends by agreeing to the abrupt intercourse. She has come to realize “This was how you bought an ounce of love.”
Small portions—millimeters—are the only quantities of love the contemporary heroine seeks or obtains. The big passions are beyond her calculation.
When the affair is over, the contemporary heroine usually returns home to husband and family. If she never physically but merely psychologically and sexually wandered, she nevertheless has traversed a path, even though she has ended up, to the outsider’s eye, exactly where she started out. We have lived through the era of suicide as fiction’s conventional retribution for women’s adultery. Mary McCarthy in A Charmed Life was the last modern female author to kill off a funtioning adulteress at plot’s end. (Joan Didion’s Maria does kill herself in Play It As It Lays, but she is already only half-conscious at the start of this dirgeful novel.)
But retribution itself is not dead. The return to marriage may be the new fictional convention of retribution, as suicide was in nineteenth-century novels. When I interviewed Ann Birstein, she stated that in her novels at least, “the heroines’ marriages are their retribution. Although they don’t walk into the sea, they’re treading water while living. Although they don’t die, something in them is dead because of the death of their aspirations.”
If the contemporary adulterous heroine is not seeking or finding great love, what is it she pursues? It is still emotional fulfillment, although this frequently comes garbed now in an almost mystical belief in the healing powers of explosive sexuality. Alfred Kazin found such insistence on the holiness of sex nostalgic—for men—when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was at last issued in America in 1959. He wrote of that book that it brought back “memories of a time when men still believed in establishing freedom as their destiny on earth, when sex was the major symbol of the imprisoned energies of man, for when that castle was razed, life would break open and flow free.” Kazin was suggesting that such a belief, fashionable in the twenties, was already outmoded in 1959 and that contemporary men no longer held illusions about the power of sex.
Perhaps so, but it was not so for women. Women were just then beginning to cotton to such beliefs. They came late to an absorption with sexuality. And it is not yet outmoded or illusory for them. They are still pondering what will make their imprisoned energies flow free, and sex—along with many other things—seems at times a likely key. Therefore, it is no surprise that the figure of the adulterous woman—the woman who gambles security for sex—is so preoccupying for today’s women novelists. They do not necessarily find her admirable, nor do they represent her sexual encounters as particularly rewarding. Nevertheless, they focus on her, if only because she is so enigmatic a heroine, a self-determined but mysterious guerrilla fighting in the underbrush of social custom. She has figured in so many plots, yet neither her full story nor her ultimate aims has altogether unfolded.