The Enduring Legacy of the Woman in Jeopardy

As a child, I was obsessed with fairy tales. So many of them seemed to be about the underside of romantic love and chivalrous devotion. Maidens were locked away in towers. Chambers were slippery with the blood of murdered wives. Girls went missing, stolen away by tricksters. Queens came within seconds of being executed by husbands who supposedly worshiped them.Stories that center on a woman held prisoner or threatened with violence are still all around us. Watch an evening of television drama or browse the shelves in the nearest bookshop. How many of these women do you find? A trapped or endangered victim produces extreme suspense, and that partly explains the narrative power of these stories and their proliferation. But perhaps the most important reason why the woman in jeopardy persists in contemporary fiction and culture is that so many real women continue to be put in real jeopardy. This was what I wanted to write about in my own novel, The Book of You. It is the story of Clarissa, a woman who is being stalked.The Enduring Legacy of the Woman in JeopardyThe woman-in-jeopardy story—told at its greatest intensity—will often place the reader in the heroine’s position, so that they themselves experience her terror and her frantic search for ways of defending herself. To gather evidence for the police, Clarissa records everything her stalker does to her in a notebook, using a second person present tense that seems to address him and thereby suggests an unnerving mock intimacy. I wanted Clarissa’s voice to possess a heightened immediacy, sometimes even feverishness, as if her stalker were making her ill. It is you. Of course it is you. Always it is you. The more I wrote, the more I saw that my villain and heroine seemed to spring from the dark, imaginative landscape of the fairy tales and novels I read while I was young.

To speak of the woman in jeopardy is necessarily to speak about the man who puts her in that position as well as the world that allows it and readily blames the victim for what happens to her. Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel, Clarissa,written in the eighteenth century is the story of a woman who is kidnapped and held captive. It is one of the longest novels in the English language, and to me it is one of the most powerful. Part of this complex and disturbing power rests in the heroine’s initial attraction to a man of disquieting charisma who proves unworthy of her trust. Lovelace, the novel’s libertine villain, subjects Clarissa not only to repeated physical restraint and assault but also to a series of artifices and deceits that systematically isolate her from everyone she loves.

The human dynamics that make these events possible are still with us. Richardson asks how an intelligent young woman can fall prey to such a man, and I wanted to explore this, too. Rafe, the academic who stalks my own heroine, is seemingly ordinary. It is my own Clarissa’s very kindness that compromises her safety. “Aren’t you going to invite me in for a coffee?” It can’t fail to work, your manipulative little call to my politeness. Against her instincts, and like so many fairy tale heroines, she opens her door to the wolf.

Rafe makes me think of the wizard from the Grimms’ story “Fitcher’s Bird,” who “used to take the form of a poor man, and went to houses and begged, and caught pretty girls.” It is the deliberate pretense of weakness that is so deadly. Even when Rafe is fully immersed in his campaign against her, Clarissa’s human sympathy for him isn’t entirely vanquished. You aren’t wearing a coat or a hat, and your shoulders are hunched against the cold. You actually look vulnerable. Like my heroine, Richardson’s Clarissa is also subject to flashes of compassion for her persecutor. Lovelace goes so far as to swallow an emetic in order to fake illness and so gain Clarissa’s pity and closeness; she even holds his hand in concern.

While writing The Book of You, I wondered about the possibility of telling more of Rafe’s side of the story. I considered Charles Perrault, and the fact that he never gives us Bluebeard’s point of view. I also reflected on one of my favorite nineteenth-century novels, Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. In it, Lizzie Hexam is relentlessly pursued by Bradley Headstone. Dickens mostly avoids inhabiting Headstone’s consciousness in the passages where Headstone torments Lizzie. “The dark look of hatred and revenge…made her so afraid of him that she turned to run away. But he caught her by the arm.” Here, we are told only what Headstone does; we are entirely outside him. However, with Lizzie, we get her feelings as well as her actions. There is no doubt about where the author wants the reader’s identification and sympathy to lie.

I wanted this to be the case in my own novel,too, because the stalker doesn’t know his victim in any meaningful way, despite his delusion that he does. The Book of You is Clarissa’s story, not Rafe’s, and she detests the proximity that he forces upon her. I am right. As soon as I get out of the taxi, you’re walking next to me. I wish I weren’t right. I wish I didn’t know you as well as I do. But Clarissa doesn’t really know Rafe. She doesn’t want to know him. And I want the reader to shrink from him, too. Headstone tells Lizzie, “If I were shut up in a strong prison, you would draw me out. I should break through the wall to come to you.” How can he imagine that Lizzie will think this is a good thing? Such adoration is not a compliment but a hazard.

The women in jeopardy in these novels and fairy tales all have their lives ripped apart. All find themselves estranged from family and friends. All experience physical contact from a man whose touch they do not want. All are placed in grave danger and some of them end up dead. I’m looking ahead and moving as fast as I can. I’m wondering if I am going to get out of this at all. The laws and customs of the day do not protect Richardson’s heroine from violence and the loss of her freedom. Nor, despite the huge changes since Richardson’s time, do they protect mine. Only when real women are no longer put in real jeopardy will such stories cease to be written anew.


Claire Kendal lives in England where she lectures in English Literature and Creative Writing. The Book of You is her first novel and will be translated into more than a dozen languages.