I’m currently reading (and considerably enjoying) Edith Wharton’s Custom Of The Country. But I am also disquieted by the novel. At its core, the story of this novel is a very familiar one. It’s about an ambitious woman who sucks dry a somewhat dreamy man with her incessant financial demands.
The cunning woman who only longs for fine society and fine objects and uses her beauty as a tool with which to entrap men into providing for her desires is an incredibly familiar figure in literature. She is so familiar, in fact, that I kept having these strange echoes while I read the book. I’d have a brief impression, and then I wouldn’t be able to rest until I remembered the other book that I was being reminded of.
I haven’t tracked down all the impressions of what I call “woman as financial vampire”, but I can name a few. There’s Emile Zola’s Nana, about a French prostitute who destroys the fortunes of her admirers. There’s Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose eponymous heroine eventually gets her husband deep into debt after issuing numerous notes and trying all kinds of financial manipulations with the village moneylender. There’s Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: the main character has a paramour who engages in embezzlement to meet her monetary demands. There’s Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who bankrupts her creditors (and ruins her admittedly horribly husband) by knowingly borrowing huge sums and then running away from her debts. There’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: who screws over her second husband in various business deals. There’s Grushenka in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamozov, who causes the central conflict of the novel by creating a large need for money in the oldest brother, Dmitri. There’s Polina in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose mysterious need for money causes the hero to take up gambling.
Perhaps the most nuanced and complex use of this female trope comes (rather surprisingly) from Charles Dickens. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora Spenlow, shares many traits with the financial vampires described above: she’s spoiled, petulant, short-sighted, and used to being supported by wealthy men. And when she married David Copperfield, one is almost sure that she is immediately going to drive him to ruin. But she doesn’t. Their marriage is not precisely happy, but she does not destroy him. In the end, it seems like he genuinely loves her and she genuinely loves him.
Most of the examples I cited above are from a particular time period, and, indeed, I think it’s difficult to find more recent examples of the woman as financial vampire. An example from the fifties is Millie, from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, whose financial demands cause her father to enter into the spying business. Another that springs to mind is Jorah Mormont in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who becomes a slaver and a mercenary in order to satisfy his wife Lynesse’s need for jewels and finery and parties.
There must be many more examples of this trope, but its frequent occurrence in my own reading is enough to satisfy me that it is definitely “a thing”.
But it does puzzle me. The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety. In many cases, her financial needs are coupled with a sexual unfaithfulness, which seems to suggest that they’re both part of some kind of fear of emasculation or loss of control.
But it’s the financial aspect that has always been more startling to me than the sexual aspect. After all, a woman can’t be spendthrift without her husband’s consent. In most of the above relationships, the man has to sign for each and every purchase. He is fully capable, at any time, of cutting the purse strings, but he is so ensnared by her charm that he is unable to.
It’s a strange sort of anxiety and I question how often women like this actually existed. She’s more like a monster than she is like a real person. She has an unholy power to glamor a man. And she has an unquenchable appetite for jewels, hotel rooms, meals, carriages, and dresses.
In some cases (as in Our Man In Havana) the financial vampire is just a plot device. She’s a way to provide the hero with a huge need for money without also making him seem greedy or repellent. But many of these novels are explicitly devoted to the psychology or origins of these women. It’s quite fantastic that so much ink has been spilled about the inner workings creature that can’t have been very common.
But it doesn’t matter that the financial vampire probably didn’t exist too often: what matters is that she ought to exist. Most of these novels conclude that mankind deserves the financial vampire. Halfway through Custom of the Country, a character rather explicitly says that America gives rise to these financial vampires because it infantilizes women and doesn’t allow them to have real pursuits: the reason they have no real concept of money is because they are not allowed to work, and the reason they ruin men is because they are taught that their virtue is measured in what they can extract from males using their beauty and charm.
Personally, though, I am not convinced by these pseudo-feminist morals. Despite the gloss that these novels put on what they’re doing, they are still trafficking in very charged, very sexist imagery, and I think that part of their emotional appeal, as literature, is due to the horror that these women arouse in men. If I created a movie where a mob of blacks rioted and raped a bunch of white women, I think I would still be playing to the racist anxieties of my audience even if I ended the movie by saying “They were driven to this by your racism!”
I don’t know if vampire is the right word. But in my experience, financial security is a real motivation for many women.
Of the handful of serious partners I have had, two have driven me into debt. Typically, this has been done, not to have parties, but because they created distress for themselves by making poor decisions… well okay, the last one was definitely because she spent her money on drugs and travel as I came to find out, and not on her responsibilities and I repeatedly “rescued” her. One of her “village” creditor called me about her debt yesterday.
Aother broke up with me, in part, because I wouldn’t buy a new house for us and my own kids (I already own a house).
A third girlfriend made it clear that if I loved her, or anyone loved her, they would pay her rent. This girlfriend who is the sweetest of the three, went on to date a series of wealthy, sometimes married, men.
Now, I’m the first to admit there is something probably broken inside me that leads me to involve myself with women like this. A “difficult” childhood will do that to a person I suppose. And maybe the women I know were struggling to fix something that was broken inside them.
Each of these women, two of which I am still friendly with, are middle class in style, though perhaps not in cash. The women in the novels you mention are, or aspire to be, upper-class. But if you change the context of class, you can see how the same behavior is played out in other classes. (And class does not mean as much as it did a century ago.)
There is nothing wrong with a desire for financial security. That inclination may be stronger among women than among men. Pregnancy and young children can have a detrimental affect on cash and career pursuits. I understand this firsthand as a single parent.
But in my experience, there are many women whose “love” fades if the bank account declines. Not to destitution, but to belt tightening. And when that happens, they go looking for the next man.
caveat: this does not mean there are not loads of lecherous spendthrift manipulative abusive violent men. The stories my father tells of his father would place him as the drinking, gambling, spendthrift type who did not care for his own wife or children. She eventually rightly divorced him. Men can be horrible jerks.
When I think of these women I have known, in terms of literature, I would say they are Byronic characters. They struggled to be heroic, but they are flawed. If I were to write them as characters in a story, one would certainly be an antiheroine.
What I find fascinating is changes in two of these women that have married. Both have changed their appearance significantly. One had plastic surgery to lose her distinctive nose. The other went from blonde wavy to straight dark hair (resembling her now husbands ex-wife and the severe look among her own sisters). I do not have the same emotional response to either one. As they went through these transformations and eventually married, they became more mediocre, less dynamic. I found it disappointing.
I would not think of either one as a Byronic heroine now. As my own kids say, they got old. They sit on the beach instead of playing in the waves… LITERALLY.
Perhaps the struggle of a person, of even a vampire, contains energy and beauty and that is a source of attraction… and a reason to include such a character in a novel.
It’s interesting to see your take on this! After writing up this post, I began to think that maybe I was incorrect and that this was a real phenomenon. I don’t have much experience with romantic relationships of this type, and the financial considerations involved in setting up a life with another person have always been fascinating for me (which is why I think I like this kind of novel so much).
I think it’s right to call these women Byronic heroes. There’s something very beautiful about them, and something quite insipid about the men they prey on. I don’t think there’s anyone who has more compassion for Charles Bovary than he does for Emma, or who likes Amelia Sedley more than Becky Sharp.
I have noticed that people tend to have their moment of utmost dynamism, where the tension inside them renders them the most graceful, charming, and attractive. F. Scott Fitzgerald often explored that theme in his work. One of my favorite stories of mine is “Winter Dreams”, about a successful stock broker who’s confronted with the memory of a woman he used to love when she was a debutante and he was a caddy at the country club.
In my own ink-spilling on these kinds of women, I’ve been fascinated with how we impute malice to them. It is easy to impute malice to a person who seems intrinsically impelled to produce a negative outcome. The negative outcome is usually the result of short-sighted selfishness. But the woman’s intent is to produce a more loving, happier, or more fulfilling life.
Now I guess I should read some Fitzgerald…
oh, and I love your blog and am glad you distribute it via email. Thank you very much!
Thanks, I am glad that you commented! It’s good to know that people are reading.
I think to some extent that this trope, among others, is an exploitation and exaggeration take on human biological predispositions.
As far as my understanding goes; Men marry for looks and women marry for money.
I don’t think this is a hard fact as much an adage on the observation and dichotomy of attractiveness between men and women.
Men marry for looks, I would take this to imply that men enter relationships based on the attributes of a potential mate: Large breasts means a large supply of milk for a child and wide hips mean easier child birth. These things on some instinctual level register as a higher level of success for offspring, a staple in biological drives.
Woman marry for money, I would take this as a skew on women’s need for financial security. In other words a mate with resources or access to resources to raise a child without worry of food, shelter, and other basic necessities. A wealthier man can provide a stable foundation for raising a child with a higher success of living.
I’ve seen the trope many times, not just in literature but in movies and plays. Almost always exaggerated as a general rule, but exceptions always exist.
On the flip side, how many times do we see the young playboy with bottomless lecherous appetites?
I agree with you about this potentially being a product of the time. I think it was more generally accepted and expected for women during past time periods to be like the financial vampire to some extent, with equal rites I think the old perspective has been broken.
If you are really interested in understanding this, at least from a scientific point of view. I have a few books I could recommend to you. You sound like you read a lot.
Ehh….I don’t really buy into that crazy evolutionary psychology stuff about the biological differences between the sexes. To me, it seems impossible for a biologist or social scientist to separate a cultural imperative from a biological one. And, anecdotally, it seems like both men and women are fairly concerned with both looks and earning potential. If men married for looks and women married for money, then there would be no class or caste segregation in marriage: rich men would just go out and marry the hottest women. However, from my observations, it seems that men tend to marry women who come from a similar socioeconomic background and, furthermore, many societies (such as India, with its caste system) explicitly require that men and women come from the same socioeconomic class. Actually, with India’s dowry system, marrying women for their fortunes is extremely common. Now that I think of it, there are plenty of novels that use a “rich heiress” trope, where an adventurer tries to marry a woman for her money. If we’re saying that these relationship tropes represent some kind of biological imperative, then doesn’t that suggest the exact opposite of what you’re saying?
Further, I don’t think the “gold digger” trope is exactly what I am talking about. Women who marry for money are extremely common in fiction (and film), but they usually do not _destroy_ the fortunes that they marry. In modern fiction “gold diggers” are often portrayed comically, as people who are engaged in a mostly commercial transaction with an older man who is getting exactly what he is paying for (here, the humor comes from placing an old man–usually considered somewhat sexless–into very sexually charged situations).
Well it isn’t completely crazy, at times outlandish.
Through many observations of human interaction, results do point into a very interesting direction in some areas of human psychology very similar to animal basic evolutionary needs. Even further we have observed different parts of the brain light up and be active when scanning the sexes during various stimuli, whether sexual, environmental, etc. While interesting, ultimately the differences are negligible as the end result is often the same. That doesn’t necessarily mean that men won’t marry for money or women won’t marry for looks, as a rule what I was getting at is kind of a general “in the background” instinctual situation. It isn’t a wholly universal rule, but it does exist.
When a woman is pregnant, evolutionary speaking she cannot gather the necessary resources to provide enough food for her and the baby and maintain a safe environment. Enter men; the strongest, fastest, smartest, and more so adaptable can provide these so a woman can focus on carrying a child and then birth. The more a man provides these things, the more likely he will get sex, which means progeny. The more biological appealing a woman is (breasts and hips) the most chance of a survival rate for a child, more progeny.
I would agree that a reasonable portion of cultural ideologies are based on biologically driven imperatives. Through small differences in the culture, politics, economical changes, the cultural tenets can shift over time, but will always have some kernel of imperative at the foundation. India would actually be a great example of this. It wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t treated as equals but rather property. In some parts of the world this continues and even where it doesn’t some of the old world cultural beliefs continue. Look at what a dowry actually is, where it came from, and how it is practiced.
Take a look at Edward VIII who gave up his throne to marry a divorced American woman.
My cultural knowledge of India is a little rusty, it has been years since I read on the cultural. It is my understanding that a man can marry a woman from a lower caste and pull her up. I am not claiming accuracy as I am pulling deep for this. I might break out the books on this and investigate further as you have piqued my interest. Feel free to correct me on this.
I wasn’t talking about a gold digger, but they fall into the same category as the financial vampire. The differences can be found on the back end. The imperative still drives some desire, but as I said earlier, biological imperatives aren’t wholly universal governing rules.
Example: In the Victorian era, large breasts were considered unattractive.
Before then in the Renaissance sexual attractiveness was determined by a woman’s hair, they covered their hair because if exposed a man would go into a fit of sexual desire and be unable to control himself.
I wouldn’t say they prove the exact opposite of what I am discussing, just not a defining and governing fact which I never claimed they were.
I guess the simplified version of what I am saying is this: biological imperatives are found in the background of most things we as humans do. It doesn’t necessitate that they steer the ship, but they have a little pull on the wheel. Sometimes these imperatives are over inflated to rationalize the behavior of certain tropes.
Hey there. I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now and love it. Haven’t chimed in much (yet).
> The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety.
I suggest that the issue might be that you’re viewing earlier literature from a 21st century perspective where both technology and culture make it easy for a woman to earn her own way, and thus the status-climbing-by-proxy of earlier ages is no longer remotely as relevant as it once was.
It is, I suggest, a bit like saying “all this early literature with it’s obsession on getting the harvest in so that there’s enough for everyone to eat over the winter is CLEARLY symbolic!”.
I don’t know, I’m still not convinced that she isn’t more anxiety than reality. In those days, a woman didn’t really have any control over the marital property. What doesn’t make sense is the sense of helplessness that the men feel in these novels. In those days, if a man didn’t want his wife to spend so much money, it’d be pretty easy to stop her. The husband (or father) has the entirety of the law on his side.
> What doesn’t make sense is the sense of helplessness that the men feel in these novels. In those days, if a man didn’t want his wife to spend so much money, it’d be pretty easy to stop her.
I admit that I’m the furthest thing from an expert in this area, but one thing I recall from my Roman history undergrad major is that one technique to find actual problems is to look for laws that got passed again and again and again.
For example, in the late imperial stage, when the Empire was starting to head towards feudalism, there was a law passed saying that soldiers (a) couldn’t marry, (b) couldn’t live with their wives, and (c) couldn’t live with their wives in the barracks.
Then, twelve years later, an identical law was passed. Then forty years later, a very similar law. Then twenty eight years later, the same law. (all exact numbers are purely fictional here!). The point being that just because on paper X was easy to stomp out did not mean that in reality it was.
Perhaps in the Victorian era women could overspend the household budget either by direct hands on the purse, or by running up debts at local merchants that the husband found it embarrassing (even mortifying) to renegotiate or decline. There was a New York Times column a year or so back (tried to find it; can’t) where the columnist talked about his own personal debt: he’d remarried and didn’t want to disappoint his wife by ever denying her anything, so in addition to his fixed costs of child support, he also paid and paid and paid for clothes, vacations, etc.
I suspect that complicated psychological quirks of retaining one’s partner, not disappointing people, keeping up face vs peers, etc. all come into play.
Hmm, that’s an interesting point.