Vicky Pryce at Chatham House

Best Served Cold

18th October 2013

As Vicky Pryce publishes 'Prisonomics', based on her experiences at Her Majesty's pleasure, Kathy Walton looks at the emotion behind the crime that put her there…

Was there anyone not secretly gripped by the saga of former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne and his ex-wife when it dominated the news earlier this year? Thanks to Ms Pryce’s Greek origins (she was born Vasiliki Courmouzis), the tale of her revenge on her former husband assumed epic proportions, with excited headlines screaming ‘Greek tragedy’; ‘Truth or myth?’; and ‘Vicky opens Pandora’s box of worms’.

I suspect that many wronged wives may have initially felt a sneaking admiration for Pryce, whom Huhne had abandoned for another woman after 26 years of marriage. But admiration quickly turned to pity once she found herself in the dock beside her former husband, both convicted of perverting the course of justice, after she had accused him of coercing her into accepting speeding points on his behalf.

Silly woman. Hadn’t she read fellow Greek Euripides, who warned as long ago as 412BC that the exacting of revenge nearly always involves breaking the law? She might even have taken notice of Aunt May in Spider Man III, who knew that revenge is ‘a poison (that) can turn you into something ugly’.

The trouble is that wanting to get your own back is a very human feeling. It might even be considered altruistic, since it can serve to deter criminal behaviour in others. The Anglo-Saxons, for example, allowed a victim to ‘name his price’ to his offender to settle the matter.

In places where the justice system has all but broken down, such as present-day Somalia, getting even can spiral completely out of control into violence and bloodshed – but while we find vigilantism on that scale pretty repugnant, curiously we do still retain a horrified fascination for – and are even amused by – tales from Southern Europe, where blood feuds can continue for several generations as individuals and families retaliate whenever their honour is compromised.

The Mafia has its origins lie in pre-unification Italy when governments changed faster than it takes an Italian driver to accelerate at a green light and people looked instead to their families for redress. I’m told that modern-day gang culture operates on similar lines.

The vendetta is not just confined to Italy, mind you; there are proverbs in both English and French recommending that revenge is a dish best served cold – which may mean that it is more effective if it’s been a long time in the plotting – but is more likely to be an injunction to let your anger subside so that a wiser and more restrained course of action may prevail. A cooling-off period might actually save your life; the Chinese advise anyone planning revenge to dig two graves, one for your victim and one for yourself.

Evidently, the desire for revenge may be human, but, like all human endeavours, it can go horribly wrong. Indeed, as Dr Ian McKee of Adelaide University, South Australia, wrote in a study of revenge and social justice published in 2008: ‘Revenge is a very human response to feeling slighted, yet humans are very bad at predicting its effects’.

Poor Vicky Pryce learned this to her cost – and it is to the shame of women everywhere that revenge is seen not just a human response, but apparently, a particularly female one. It’s a notion long exploited by male writers, perhaps because the spectre of a woman subjugating all that is soft and nurturing in her nature to ruthless bloodlust has so much dramatic appeal.

English playwright William Congreve, in his 1697 play The Mourning Bride, spoke of Hell having ‘no fury like a woman scorn’d’; German philosopher Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil in 1886: ‘Beware, in revenge and in love, woman is more barbarous than man.’ Clearly, neither of these men were familiar with Hamlet or Othello. Shakespeare knew a thing or two about gender bias in revenge cases.

It has, of course, served Hollywood to dramatise the female desire for retribution, often to comic effect, as in the 1996 film The First Wives Club (motto: Don’t get mad. Get everything), while one of the most popular series on American tv recently – Revenge – luxuriates in the story of a young woman hell bent on avenging the wrongful imprisonment of her late father. It has been critically acclaimed, too: reviewed in The Wall Street Journal as ‘one pure and unadulterated drama about a passion as old as man… spellbinding in its satisfyingly gaudy way’.

Hollywood wasn’t the first to exploit this female predilection. Euripides got there in 431BC with Medea, which makes Pryce look like Mother Teresa. Medea is the jilted wife who not only poisons the wedding robes to be worn by her husband’s new bride, but also knifes her own children to death – and then laughs at her husband’s distress.

Dr McKee makes no suggestion that women, more than men, go for the jugular (either metaphorically or literally), but he does link revenge to a feeling of powerlessness, which may explain a female bias. ‘People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and the desire for status… they don’t want to lose face,’ he writes.

Perhaps the most compelling motive may be resolution, or, as the ancient Greeks didn’t put it, ‘closure’, but the idea that taking revenge makes you feel better is a myth, according to Dr Kevin Carlsmith of Hamilton University, New York, whose research indicates that thinking about revenge actually stokes our anger and that the way to extinguish it is to let it go. “When we don’t get revenge, we’re able to trivialise the event, we tell ourselves it wasn’t a big deal and move on,” he says. “But when we do think about revenge, we think about it a lot.”

No wonder, then, that most legal systems prefer the state to punish on behalf of the victim; no surprise that most religions warn against the cycle of anger and retaliation. In a rare display of humour, though, the New Testament does at least recognise that (inverted) revenge can be rather satisfying. Be nice to your enemies, says Paul in Romans 12, ‘for that way you heap burning coals upon their heads’.

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