In Gothic fiction, it never pays to be the first wife. The things these women go through are awful, and are made worse by the fact they usually end up as the backdrop of someone else’s story. Here’s our ranking of the 10 Gothic first wives who suffered the most — and what you can learn from them.
This is the lady who started it all! Nearly all Gothic tales involving wronged wives use these elements — a naive young wife, a rich older husband, and a terrible secret that will ruin everything when the new wife discovers it. This basic template has been used countless times in Gothic fiction, albeit with a few variations. In some versions of the legend, after the new bride enters the forbidden room in Bluebeard’s castle and sees all his murdered previous wives Bluebeard kills her. In other versions she’s able to stall until her brothers arrive and kill him. But while Bluebeard’s motive for killing each new wife is clear — to keep her from blabbing about the previous wives’ bodies — no one knows why the first wife was murdered. Which leads us to one reliable fixture of this kind of Gothic fiction: The first wife always gets screwed over.
Lesson: If you’ve bagged a guy who owns an entire castle, it shouldn’t be that hard to avoid one room. Also avoid men known primarily for their facial hair. (I’m looking at you, Brooklynites.)
Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel is so dominated by Maxim de Winter’s first wife that the second wife never even gets a name, despite being the novel’s narrator and protagonist. Maxim’s estate, Manderley, is full of paintings of Rebecca and souvenirs of the pursuits Rebecca enjoyed. The fanatical housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, never misses a chance to needle the new Mrs. de Winter about her failings, as compared to Rebecca. Maxim is withdrawn, hung up on Rebecca’s memory.
But it turns out that Rebecca was no prize. She was a cheating, manipulative woman who made Maxim’s life hell. He’s withdrawn because one night, she decided to announce that she was pregnant with another man’s child, and he flew into a rage and shot her. An inquest into the death reveals that Rebecca was dying of cancer (we are given to understand that she wanted Maxim to kill her), and her murder is ruled a suicide. Just when we think everything is going to work out for the new De Winter couple, Mrs. Danvers sets fire to the manor house, and they flee forever. Rebecca is possibly the least sympathetic character on this list. That being said, her husband did murder her and get away with it.
Lesson: There’s nothing more valuable than a really devoted employee.
Some claim that Horace Walpole was the originator of the Gothic genre, and that The Castle of Otranto was the first example of that genre. It’s easy to see why it made an impression, though sometimes hard to see why it wasn’t considered comedic. The book starts with Lord Manfred’s son getting squished, on his wedding day, by a falling helmet, and ends with Lord Manfred mistakenly stabbing to death his own daughter. In between those two events, Manfred spends his days pursuing his dead son’s fiancee, Isabella. Isabella spends practically the entire book fleeing from churches and hiding in caves. She goes to her father for protection, only to have her dad develop a lust for Manfred’s daughter. The two lords decide to give their daughters to each other. Manfred suspects Isabella is cheating, when actually his own daughter is the one stepping out with a handsome peasant, which is what leads to the accidental stabbing and Manfred’s madness. Also the peasant somehow turns out to be a king.
And all of this is made possible by the melancholy acquiescence of Manfred’s wife. Yes, his first wife, Hippolita, has been alive for all of this, but graciously steps aside as wife and helps him pursue his new, unwilling bride. As a reward for her accommodation, she gets a front row seat to her family’s utter destruction.
Lesson: Show some backbone. Or at least get your hands on some poison.
Ann Radcliff was a near-contemporary of Walpole, and although she developed her own respected body of work, his influence shows. Julia, of A Sicilian Romance, has nearly the exact same story as Isabella. She also spends the entire book climbing out windows and hiding in the cellars of abandoned churches to attempt to escape marriage to lecherous old nobleman. The marriage is also being forced on her by her father, the Marquis de Mazzini, and to a lesser extent by her stepmother.
During her adventures, who should Julia happen on but Louisa, her supposedly dead mother. Louisa has been imprisoned for years by the evil Marquis. Before Julia and Louisa can do much more than hide in more big spooky buildings, the Marquis gets poisoned by his new wife, who also stabs herself.
Lesson: Seriously, get your hands on some poison before the new wife does.
Louisa May Alcott got rich off the Little Women books, but she didn’t like them. She was a fan of the Gothics. This one was shocking enough that it didn’t get published until the 1970s. There are some pretty evil husbands on this list, but only one that appears right after the heroine declares, “I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.” Philip Tempest dutifully shows up, wins Rosamund Vivian in a game of cards, marries her, and whisks her away to a glamorous life of yachts and villas in Nice.
About a year in, she realizes . . . well, the twist can’t possibly be a shock at this point in the list. Tempest had arranged a false marriage ceremony, and his first wife is still alive, though not well. Tempest had been using her son Lito, who he passed off as a servant boy to Rosamund, to control her and keep her quiet. Rosamund discovers the truth and rushes off, leading an even more glamorous life of faking her way into convents, going undercover in Germany, and having a torrid affair with a priest. In the end, Tempest accidentally kills Rosamund (Like Manfred he thinks that she’s someone else. Gothic characters of the early era rarely confirm their kills.), and then stabs himself over her coffin.
Lesson: Lock down your birth control method, or you’ll be stuck in a shack in Greece watching your successor jet all over Europe.
Solaris is a sci-fi Gothic by Stanislaw Lem. It focuses on Dr. Kris Kelvin, who travels to the mysterious planet Solaris after his mentor dies there. There’s not much left for Kelvin on Earth. He walked out on his wife, Rheya. Shortly after that, she committed suicide. He’s haunted by her memory.
Later, orbiting Solaris, he wakes up to find Rheya in the room with him. What follows is a terrifying and trippy story, punctuated with some brutal emotional sadism. At one point, Kris locks a “New Rheya” in an escape capsule and shoots her off into space. He never tries to retrieve her. Soon the next iteration of Rheya has shown up. The novel is too ambiguous for us to be clear on what’s happening. Is each new Rheya really Rheya, or is it something designed to be the person that Kris wants, or the person that Kris remembers, or what? All we know is that Kris isn’t able to do anything other than destroy his original wife, and any new “original wives” that come along.
Lesson: I don’t know, with this one. I’m not even sure whether the space Rheya counts as first wife or second wife. Maybe the lesson here is don’t marry a space psychologist. Although I’ve interviewed a space psychiatrist and he was very nice.
Any list of Gothic fiction has to include one V. C. Andrews book. The trick to including one on this list was finding a first wife. Although most of the Andrews books chronicle the extraordinary woes of women, few of them are about wronged first wives because almost none of the men in these books live long enough to marry second wives. Any man who marries a beautiful, blonde, tortured V. C. Andrews heroine will almost certainly drown himself in a Louisiana swamp, or drunkenly crash his sports car in Paris, or drop dead from a heart attack after witnessing his daughter hooking up with a boy who is secretly her half-brother in a swan bed in her dead grandmother’s room.
So if we’re looking for a wronged first wife in these series, we have to look for a “villain.” Gisselle Dumas is supposed to be a villain, but isn’t. She’s a spoiled rich girl, yes, and when her secret identical twin Ruby shows up, she doesn’t take it well. She plays pranks on Ruby, and teases her at school. In return, Ruby casts a spell on her, which causes a car wreck that paralyzes Gisselle for years. Once Gisselle learns to walk again, she marries Beau Andreas, a boy Ruby likes. Ruby and Beau soon start having an affair right in front of Gisselle. Gisselle contracts encephalitis from a mosquito bite. Ruby decides that she’ll just replace Gisselle. Gisselle gets buried in Ruby’s grave, and Ruby lives with Gisselle’s husband, giving birth to twins who star in the next book of the series.
Lesson: Do not trust a twin. At the very least, give that twin a facial scar so they can’t steal your name and husband.
Here’s the star of the list. Thanks to high school English class, almost everyone knows Charlotte Brontë‘s most famous book. But here’s a quick review, from the first wife’s point of view. Bertha is rich. Edward Fairfax Rochester needs money. He marries her. She goes insane, in part, Rochester claims, because she was “unchaste.” He locks her in a single room in his attic with a single alcoholic servant to mind her, and then works off his anguish by slutting his way around Europe in an extremely “unchaste” manner. Finally comes back to England with an illegitimate daughter he barely tolerates and keeps Bertha a secret so he can marry the teenage governess he likes to verbally abuse.
The governess finds out about Bertha, and leaves. Eventually Bertha, who has a habit of being a firebug, sets fire to the entire house. Rochester escapes, and is reunited with Jane Eyre, the governess, but is blinded for many years and scarred for the rest of his life.
Lesson: Arson is usually the answer.
Dragonwyck, by Anya Seton, isn’t well-known today but was such an instant hit in its time that the movie — starring the incomparable Vincent Price — came out just one year after the book was published. The aristocratic Nicholas Van Ryn, a Dutch-American “patroon,” is the owner of the titular Dragonwyck. This is one of the few Gothics in which the first wife and the second wife meet right away. Miranda, a distant relative of Nicholas, gets called out to Dragonwyck to be a companion to the couple’s little daughter. Johanna, chosen for her blood, is unable to bear any more children. The two women are both in love with Nicholas. Since it’s a Gothic novel, we all know which one is going to win.
Nicholas slowly poisons Johanna. Miranda, once married, has plenty of time to learn that her husband isn’t nearly as nice as he once seemed to be. Then she discovers Johanna’s diary, which contains, along with a lot of unflattering entries about Miranda, clues to Johanna’s murder.
Lesson: Keep a journal, if only to make your successor feel really bad about herself.
As divorce became more prevalent and less damaging, the “wife in the attic and body in the basement” domestic Gothics became less common. There was no practical reason to murder your wife, and so The Stepford Wives, an early “suburban gothic” novel, came up with an ideological reason to murder your wife.
Joanna Eberhart moves to Stepford with her husband Walter and their two children. The move is traumatic, and only gets more so as Joanna becomes estranged from her husband when he joins the local men’s club and loses her friends when they succumb one by one to suburban domestic bliss. Soon, she begins to realize something awful is going on, and it’s likely something to do with the fact that the head of the men’s club builds robots for Disneyland. If that sounds crazy to you, it sounds just as crazy to Joanna, who allows herself to be led to the house of her newly Stepfordized friend. This friend will demonstrate that Stepford women bleed, and will do so with a conveniently large knife. In the epilogue we are treated to Walter’s new Joanna wandering around and his old Joanna nowhere in sight.
Lesson: Don’t call your kid Joanna. Joannas never make it through a Gothic novel alive.