For centuries the pen and ink heroes of Austen, the Brontes, Shakespeare and Dickens have been setting the hearts of women (and the occasional man) around the world aflutter.
For centuries the pen and ink heroes of Austen, the Brontes, Shakespeare and Dickens have been setting the hearts of women (and the occasional man) around the world aflutter. But behind the imagined words written on pages emblazoned with passion, there exists a dangerous world of duelling, betrayal, sex and of course, writing. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the bad boys of English literature, whose real life literary appendages far out-size those of their fictitious counterparts…
Our first bad boy is the infamous playwright Christopher Marlowe. Born the same year as Shakespeare, Marlowe’s career, although bright, was short lived. Famous for his dark and glamorous tragedies, amongst which is his infamous ‘Doctor Faustus,’ this man’s life was a precarious and complicated as his characters. Rumours of homosexuality, duels and fraud surrounded him wherever he went in Elizabethan London. Great mystery shrouds the circumstances of his death; found stabbed in the eye on the floor of a tavern, some said he had fought for a lover and lost, whilst others claim there was an argument over the bill.
Next on our list is the much underestimated Sir Thomas Malory. There is great debate over the true identity of the illusive author of the epic ‘Le Mort D’Arthur.’ Although he is generally believed to be Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, a knight native to Warwickshire, some mystery remains. After becoming embroiled in the War of the Roses, Malory was accused of theft and adultery and was eventually interred at Newgate Prison, from where he is believed to have composed what is now the ultimate compendium of Arthurian legend.
Inevitable on any list of badly behaved male writers is Ted Hughes. This charismatic poet famously met his match, both in terms of talent and poetic audacity, in the form of American poet Sylvia Plath at an undergraduate party in Cambridge. However, life with this pale and mysteriously tragic beauty from the US was not to be. It soon became apparent that two artists of such colossal importance could not live under one roof and when Plath’s already fragile mental health began to decline, Hughes found solace in affairs. It was in 1963 that, after leaving his wife for his already-pregnant mistress, Sylvia committed suicide, leaving behind their two children. Whether deserving of infamy, or simply unlucky in love, Hughes’ reputation was perhaps sealed when his second wife claimed the life of their four-year old daughter before killing herself.
In terms of seasoned lotharios, no list would be complete without Lord Byron. Dubbed by a former mistress as “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” Byron is perhaps the ultimate literary bad boy. Now catalogued as one of the key figures in the Romantic Movement, Byron considered himself, somewhat aloofly, as an outsider. After spending his time as an undergraduate at Cambridge conducting illicit affairs, entertaining gossip and provoking the college porters by keeping a bear as a pet, he left; followed everywhere by a trail of scandal, outrage and general carnage. After a string of affairs with both men and women, perhaps even with his own sister, Byron exiled himself to Greece. Taking up the mantle of a freedom fighter and revolutionary, it was not long before this vampiric, fatally attractive pale English aristocrat found himself hailed as a national hero.
However, when it comes to scandal and exile, the ultimate in bad behaviour both on and off the page is the Dublin dandy and long-time literary lord Oscar Wilde. This Victorian playboy has a well-deserved reputation for dishing out the wit and generally ruling over the upper echelons of London society with all the aloofness afforded by true genius. Parallels are often drawn between Wilde and his fictitious counterpart Dorian Grey, but the real excitement, scandal and tragedy came towards the end of his life when an infamous court case found Oscar in jail. When he was released in 1897, Wilde made for continental Europe and, never again to return to England, died in Paris in 1900, on the close of traditions and the dawn of a new century that saw change both in legislative and social.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, next time you pick up a copy of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, ‘Wodwo’ or ‘Don Juan’, take a moment to consider the men behind the words, and remember that when it comes to the bad boys of literature, not every adventure is confined to ink and paper.