It's more than 300 years since playwright William Congreve first wrote that "nor hell a fury like a woman scorned".
Back in the 17th century, being "scorned" (dumped deserted, betrayed, whatever) might have left a woman not just emotionally bereft, but also destitute and powerless. Yet still we, as a society, love a good crazed, scorned woman tale. There's nothing like it for stoking up a battle-of-the-sexes notion that women can be mad, manipulative and devious, all in the name of purging their pain.
It is what made the Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne speeding points saga so compelling in a sickening, car-crash sort of way. Huhne's lawyer summed up Pryce's situation as a case of "scorned woman syndrome". And he is not the only one. Reworkings of the "hell hath no fury" quote have flowed thick and fast.
But isn't it misleading to suggest that this is some strange and exclusive pathology of the female gender? No-one ever speaks of "scorned man syndrome", yet men also get dumped. As author Susan Maushart points out, men more often turn to violence and stalking: "Hell hath no homicidal rage like a man scorned," she writes.
Rejection and betrayal are hard for all of us, male or female, to take. Modern women are also pretty frequent leavers of men (indeed, it is women who initiate the majority of divorce proceedings). And besides, infidelity is cited in only one-quarter of divorces these days, and the prime cause of marital breakdown is simply "growing apart".
Last week, the commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote a moving article supporting Vicky Pryce, saying: "I too was a woman scorned – and it drove me close to madness." Alibhai-Brown described her own journey into a "dark and ugly place" after her first husband walked out on her and their 10-year-old son. Many wrote online to say that they related to the columnist's feelings. Some of them were men. Many male writers also pointed out that women left men too, and that when they did, men were sometimes left with even less, without their children, and that they are expected to just put up and shut up.
So this is not just about the women. Few people manage to reach middle age without having at some point felt the flickering of rage that follows betrayal. I know I have – and caused it too – though fortunately there were no children involved.
Given all the personal detail that came out during the Pryce/Huhne court proceedings, it doesn't take much to imagine what she must have been feeling since he left her in 2010. It is all there, raw and suppurating. How could we not feel for a woman who was suddenly told by her husband that he was leaving her for his aide? According to Pryce, she then watched as he compiled a statement for the press before heading to the gym, telling her not to speak to the papers.
This is her account, of course, but if accurate it should make Pryce an empathetic figure, someone to whom we naturally warm. But strangely, it doesn't. Perhaps this is because, as Alibhai-Brown suggests, we like our women to deal with betrayal with dignity. We don't like them to rant and rave. People, she suggests, can't forgive Pryce "for her hellish fury, her refusal to let her husband go quietly, for wanting to punish him".
But I don't think this is a feminist issue. Our culture deals badly with angry distress, as expressed by both genders. Mostly when we see people showing grief, particularly crazed, incensed grief, we look away in horror. We urge them to move on. But still they rage.
No, I think the reason the public have become uncomfortable with the Pryce story is that she is plainly not the powerless woman of Congreve's time. And yet she has played that card. By resorting to "marital coercion" as a defence and portraying herself as bullied, she seemed to be exploiting a statute designed for women in relationships very different from her own. "Marital coercion", surely, was a concept created for the dependent woman, not the former joint head of a Government economic service. Of course, a woman can still be a martyr to her marriage while also maintaining a successful career.
What disturbs us is not this woman's rage, but her success. And perhaps the person that has come closest to the truth of how we feel about Pryce is Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, who described the reaction to the trial and sentencing as "a public revenge on those in any sort of power". Pryce, after all, was one half of a power marriage. Worse still, she was the female half of that couple. We don't know what to make of her. Is she a victim or not? It may well be true that she gave up a great deal for her family and husband, taking on lesser jobs than she might otherwise have done, but this high-powered sacrifice is not one many of us relate to. It is a gilded martyrdom
For Pryce, though, who has said she thought she and Huhne "were a unit", her desertion must nevertheless feel a horrible and painful betrayal. No doubt she does feel hopelessly and excruciatingly scorned. But a "woman scorned" in the 17th-century sense she is not. And it does not help – particularly in a time when the phrase "scorned woman syndrome" is still used all too readily to suggest that rape victims are merely seeking revenge following rejection – to portray her as such. Rather, she is just another human being who found it too hard to deal with the pain and insult of betrayal. It's rather sad. But it's still no big deal.
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