The Worst Couples in Literature

Anna Stephenson 15 February 2019
Merchant Ivory Productions

Couples on your Instagram feed might seem too good to be true: they probably are. Thankfully, we have literature to show us just how terrible #couplegoals can be under the surface…

Cecil Vyse and Lucy Honeychurch – A Room with a View, E. M. Forster

The original twerp who forces all his views on his date, Cecil treats his fiancée just like the art he claims to appreciate, seeing only the surface and viewing her as a good investment.

Mr and Mrs Elton – Emma, Jane Austen

While they are not badly-matched as a couple – in fact, they thoroughly deserve each other – their smug marriedness wins these two their place on the list. Mr and Mrs Elton have all the hallmarks of the cringey ‘power couple’, right down to the self-delusion and obnoxious nicknames – who could forget ‘Mr. E’?

Mr and Mrs Hale – North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell

Waiting for their tedious, drawn-out (in the case of the latter) deaths seems to take up at least three quarters of this five-hundred-page novel. A miserable, whiny wife and a husband who uproots his family for selfish reasons: I have never rejoiced ‘so much at a Victorian death scene.

The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont – Les liaisons dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos

Let’s be clear: these two are a bad couple not because they band together to manipulate others – that’s actually delightful and #couplegoals. They do work very well as a couple so long as their cold philosophy is intact and they can carry it out without emotional consequences. They are all set for a physical reconciliation, until Merteuil realises she cares for him in a way that can only drive them apart, as it collapses their entire shared enterprise. Thus, as ever, it’s the intrusion of love that spoils things for this otherwise perfectly-functioning couple.

Mr and Mrs Wakefield – Wakefield, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The antihero of this short story, from the author of The Scarlet Letter, abandons his wife and children with an enigmatic ‘sly smile’, only to live secretly in the very next street. Spying on them for twenty years, Wakefield is determined to watch the consequences of his seemingly inexplicable action play out. He vows to ‘frighten her half to death’ but becomes disturbed when he sees her building a life without him. This unusual combination then leads to a shocking twist; Wakefield simply decides to return one day, ending apparently on a whim his ‘little joke’. His wife takes him back in, but she remains a ‘shadow’. We never really understand the true motivations behind either member of the couple, but something between them is deeply amiss.

Artist and Model – The Oval Portrait, Edgar Allen Poe

In a strong contender for Worst Honeymoon Ever, this artist’s marital consummation comes from, indirectly, killing her. Obsessively rendering her beauty with his brush, he proclaims to have captured ‘Life itself!’ only for her to fall down dead. What this reverse Pygmalion lacks in attentiveness to his partner (her disturbing compliance is a whole other issue), he at least makes up for in unwitting irony.

Charles Swann and Odette – Du côté de chez Swann, Marcel Proust

Proust leaves us in no doubt that Swann’s love for Odette in the first instalment of A la recherche du temps perdu represents an extraordinary lapse of judgement for the elegant art critic; his fondness for her in the first place is the result of her vague resemblance to Botticelli’s depiction of Zipporah. The affair turns Swann, once a well-connected Lothario, into a devoted, but madly jealous lover, who turns his back on his aristocratic circles of friends to join the obnoxious Verdurin set. Odette quickly tires of him – though not the extravagant presents he gives her – and begins seeing a loathsome assortment of other men behind his back. Needless to say, this amour de Swann was not a match made in heaven.

Tomalin and Frances – The Choice of Valentines, Thomas Nashe

Finally, a tale of sexual frustration to round off the list. The Choice of Valentines, better known as ‘Nashe’s Dildo’, is an Elizabethan poem in heroic couplets following Tomalin’s quest to get his rocks off on Valentine’s Day. He finds his girlfriend has just moved into a brothel and so pays extra to see her; what follows is a lengthy report of the uncoordinated sex they have, until Tomalin finally disappoints her by ejaculating prematurely, all the while cursing his ‘faint-hearted instrument of lust’. Frances does not fret; she immediately takes up the eponymous sex toy, which the narrator attacks in a prolonged section Wikipedia cites as ‘the most detailed description of a dildo in Renaissance literature’. Although Tomalin’s Valentine’s Day doesn’t quite go to plan, Nashe at least provides us with perhaps the best couple in literature with Frances and her ‘little dilldo’.