Just recently, I’ve been thinking about femme fatales. Not through any personal desire, you understand, but merely in a writing context.
Femme fatale (“that’s yer actual French,” as Delboy might say) translates as “fatal woman”, which is quite a burden to carry if you think about it. Of course, the femme fatale is a staple diet of cinema, especially from the noir films of the thirties and forties. I think here of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.
Then we can come right up to date with Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
The idea of a femme fatale has existed in the culture and myths of many civilisations. Cleopatra can be classed as such, not to mention Biblical figures Salome and Jezebel. The femme was a common figure in the Middle Ages, when even Eve was considered a wicked woman, and during the Romantic period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the femme flourished through the art of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the writing of people like John Keats (La Belle Dame sans Merci) and especially the gothic novel The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796 and featuring Matilda, who seduces the hero Ambrosio and helps in the destruction of fifteen-year-old Antonia using magic. Matilda proved so popular a character that she was used by Edgar Allan Poe, and she eventually became Camilla, one of the Brides of Dracula in the Bram Stoker novel Dracula (1897).
Of course, a good femme fatale can enhance any novel. In James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, Joan Medford is under suspicion over the death of her husband, and is forced to wait tables and undertake a series of perilous risks to hit the big time. Likewise, in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie Wilkes is driven to drastic measures to keep her favourite author close by.
In the New York Times bestseller And When She Was Good, by Laura Lippman, Heloise is a devoted mum, but in hotel rooms throughout her area she is the woman of every man’s dreams. But, of course, this secret life is crumbling, and her future is about to take interesting turns.
As yet, I haven’t created a femme fatale of my own. My two favourite characters to date are the lovely Judith Wiseman and the incredibly intelligent and sensible Grace Templeman, who appear in both of my John Withers novels. However, if I was going to write someone into one of my stories, she would have to be very much like probably the greatest femme fatale of them all … Mata Hari.
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