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Classics about Scandalous Women

Updated on March 9, 2013

Prostitutes, courtesans, adulteresses – despite censors, authors have pushed the envelope for years as far as their leading ladies. However, even though some met with bans and public outcry, the scandalous women of literature have become some of the world’s favorite characters:

"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s elegant tale of an aristocratic woman who falls into adultery has been loved from almost day one. He never had much trouble from censors and the novel is rightly considered one of the best works ever written...if not THE best!

Anna Karenina was the product of Tolstoy slaving away to find a heroine who is loving, sympathetic, and attractive despite what she had done wrong. He pulled this off largely because this novel relies on realism rather than melodramatic, Romeo and Juliet-style doomed love. The heroine is shown as a wife, mother, and above all else, a woman before she is shown as a sinner. Anna Karenina is a story about what any other woman could easily have done.

Painting of Marie Duplessis by Camille Roqueplan
Painting of Marie Duplessis by Camille Roqueplan | Source

"La Dame aux camélias" by Alexandre Dumas, fils

Also known as Camille, this story has inspired countless adaptations including the opera La Traviata, the movies Camille starring Greta Garbo (1936), Isabelle Huppert (1981), and Greta Scacchi (1984), and to a certain extent, Nicole Kidman’s character in Moulin Rouge!

The Lady of the Camellias is probably the most tasteful and accurate record there is about the life of a courtesan. Marguerite Gautier, the heroine, is only a thin literary veil for Marie Duplessis, one of Frances’ most famous courtesans and a former love of Alexandre Dumas, fils.

"Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell

Sarlett O’Hara topped them all : She married three times, defied convention, and continued to openly flirt with the man she thought she loved even after he was married. Despite all this, she proved to be a voice of reason in a world falling apart; do you think they would have survived Reconstruction if Ashley or Melanie had been in charge? And that, more than anything, is probably what has kept Gone With the Wind on the best-seller list since day one.

Katherine Swynford's Coat of Arms, the creation of which is discussed in Chapter Twelve of Seton's novel
Katherine Swynford's Coat of Arms, the creation of which is discussed in Chapter Twelve of Seton's novel | Source

"Katherine" by Anya Seton

Anya Seton’s Katherine really existed: her name was Katherine Swynford (1350-1403) and she became the mistress of John of Gaunt (1340-1399), even though he was already married. After years as an adulteress, Katherine married John and their legitimized children founded the Tudor Dynasty.

Seton’s Katherine is acclaimed for being 100% historically accurate. However, some readers are turned off by the story’s slightly feminist leanings. It still is one heck of a read though.

"Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert

What are Emma Bovary’s redeeming qualities? She ignored her husband; she ignored her child - she eventually even ignored the men she committed adultery with. Everything in her life was wrapped around her pursuit of pleasure. But she is not an unlikable character. Whatever the magic spell is that she casts, it has been there from the beginning.

Shortly after publishing Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert was placed on trial for what the public considered obscenity. After a month of debate he was acquitted and his novel has never been forgotten.

"Manon Lescaut" by Abbé Prévost

Manon Lescaut is supposedly based on the early experiences of the flamboyant priest Antoine François Prévost. This story is boring; it is a soap opera, and you feel like you wasted your time reading it…but you cannot forget about Manon. She herself has deified the flaws of the original novel and has remained “alive” – despite the original story now being almost completely forgotten. Really the only way anyone is now familiar with Manon’s story is because of the operas composed by Puccini, Massenet, and Auber.

Manon attempts to become a great courtesan, but comes across more like a cheap prostitute. She prefers jewels and an extravagant lifestyle to living with Des Grieux, her one true love. But the two cannot seem to keep apart. Manon Lescaut plays an important role in La Dame aux camélias and is mentioned in countless other 19th century novels.

Original poster for Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut
Original poster for Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut | Source

"Tess of the d’Urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy

This story is different from those listed above in that the heroine did not “fall into sin” through any fault of her own. However, Tess of the d’Urbervilles was a scandalous woman – both in the novel and in real life – because her story challenged the Victorian idea that a woman became impure the moment she slept with any man to whom she was not married.

To be perfectly honest this book is not that great. Thomas Hardy made some very poor plot choices despite his resolution to give the world “pure woman faithfully presented”. Let’s put it this way: Tess of the d’Urbervilles was a story that needed to be told, but Thomas Hardy was the wrong person to tell it.

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    • europewalker profile image

      europewalker 3 years ago

      Interesting read. I have read all of these books except for Manon Lescaut. I will add this to my list of books to read.

    • ziyena profile image

      ziyena 3 years ago from Southern Colorado

      Scarlet and Anna are my favorite women! Very interesting Hub ... I decided to link you to my "Scandalous" Hub ... just a bit of poetry on the same subject. Thanks

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