The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Fatal Woman

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Fatal Woman” is the direct translation of “femme fatale,” and it might reasonably be asked why the former rather than the latter phrase is used here. While “femme fatale” is a part of common parlance, it conjures up too many purely twentieth century associations, especially from hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir. The “Fatal Woman” is a creature of the nineteenth century, and as such is a more appropriate term for this encyclopedia.

Lord Byron’s Manfred, A Dramatic Poem (1817) articulated a character type which had been previously present in Romantic literature1 but which was to become more common following Manfred’s publication. Manfred is the homme fatale, the Fatal Man, who is doomed and who brings destruction to those he meets, most especially those women who are unfortunate enough to become romantically involved with him. The Fatal Man would become one of the stock character types in Gothics, most notably in Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, and in supernatural fiction (see: Varney the Vampire), during the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century the Fatal Man was supplanted by his opposite, the Fatal Woman, the woman who is so sexually alluring that men are attracted to her regardless of danger, guaranteeing their own destruction–the woman who beguiles men, destroys them, and moves on, uncaring. There were similar characters in myth, from the sirens to the lamias to Circe to Salome, and Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists used the Leyenda Negra (see: The Yellow Peril) and rumors about historical women such as Lucretia Borgia (1480-1519) to create memorably dangerous female characters, but the literary Fatal Woman was established in eighteenth century Romantic fiction through the work of Jacques Cazotte and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In Cazotte’s Le Diable Amoureux (1772) a young Spanish nobleman, Alvaro, falls in love with the fetching Biondetta. Biondetta takes Alvaro to bed, where after his declaration of love for her she reveals herself to be the Devil. Only Alvaro’s faith and confession save him from damnation. In Goethe’s play Gotz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand. Ein Schauspiel (1773), the actions of the beautiful, malicious Adelheid von Walldorf lead to the Peasants’ War and the death of her lover. Le Diable Amoureux was the first modern French horror novel and was widely read, and Gotz von Berlichingen was one of the major early works of the Sturm und Drang movement (see: Romanticism).

Following Cazotte, Fatal Women appeared in Gothics–Matilda, in Lewis’ The Monk, and Vittoria Bracciano in William Henry Ireland’s The Abbess–in poetry (Coleridge’s “Christabel,” Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”)—and with increasing frequency in supernatural fiction (see: “Clarimonde,” “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” the witch Cecily in The Mysteries of Paris, and Mérimée’s Carmen [1845]), but it was only after the midway point of the century when the Fatal Woman replaced the Fatal Man as a mainstay in horror fiction.

In disrupting narrative conventions, Victorian femmes fatales follow the example of the supernatural fatal women of the Romantic era. But by the middle of the century, the Victorian femme had become less ethereal and yet still elusive and itinerant within the domestic realms of realist and sensation novels. Her repeated appearances in late-century vampire tales, for example, reveal a growing disenchantment with a figure who was losing her Gothic and supernatural allure. At this point in her less-than-seamless progression from elusive ghost to fraught cliché, the femme fatale’s ambiguity emerges, in part from her own lack of self-awareness and in part from her authors’ increasing ambivalence about the nature and extent of her powers. By the time we meet this figure again in late-century vampire tales, she has gained a remarkable degree of self-knowledge, perhaps at the expense of her earlier mystique.2 

This loss of mystique was counterbalanced by the new self-knowledge and the new genres in which the Fatal Woman could appear.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the fatal woman figure began to appear frequently in popular and controversial genres other than the Gothic novel and ballad. In the Victorian realist novel, for example, this silent and spectral ballad figure becomes articulate and earth-bound even as she was reprimanded for her newfound freedom and deviance. Unmarried women— attractive, intelligent women supporting themselves as governesses or factory workers— were regarded as “surplus” or redundant, at least until they learned to use their beauty and wits to achieve financial security in marriage. Becky Sharp, the notorious femme fatale of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847– 1848), conceals her class origins and enacts a successful tale of socio-economic rise. Yet her success is short-lived and severely punished. Moreover, her punishment serves to reinstate a social order based primarily on inheritance rather than acts of seduction and beguilement. Many novelists at this time even seemed fond of punishing heroines for such social indecencies by relegating them to death or lives in the convent, the streets, or the asylum.3 

What followed, in mainstream literature, was the rise, heyday, and decline of the Fatal Woman.

By the time the femme fatale reached her glory years between 1860 and 1910, she was closely aligned with the Decadent Movement. Charles Baudelaire’s “Le Vampire” from Les fleurs du mal (1868), among the first texts to associate her with decadence and cultural malaise, inspired intrigue as well as languor. This tone was reinforced in nineteenth-century art, most notably in Moreau’s Salomé paintings, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862) and “Hérodias” (1877), and Gustav Klimt’s Judith (1901). Ironically, the femme fatale’s intense popularity helped to ensure her rapid decline. As Jacqueline Bel explains: “the exclusiveness that the Decadents had longed for, the idea of making art for the chosen few, was done to death by the enormous popularity of this female type” (Bel 65). By the end of the nineteenth century, the overdone image of the femme fatale was mocked in parodies such as Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (1911) and unmasked in Wilde’s Salomé (1894) and Mary E. Coleridge’s “The Other Side of a Mirror” (1896), a poem that exposes the once empowered young woman as a withered and wretched crone.4 

In horror literature, however, the popularity of the Fatal Women did not wane at the end of the nineteenth century, but continued unabated. The majority of werewolf stories in the latter half of the nineteenth century had female werewolves, and nearly all major vampires after 1850 were female. (In Dracula there are four vampires, only one of whom is male). This frequency of appearance matched the rise of feminism, the appearance of the New Woman, and general anxiety about passive males and unnaturally aggressive women (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease).


1 I recommend Adriana Craciun’s Fatal Women of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) for those curious about the role the Fatal Woman played for the Romantics.

2 Heather L. Braun, The Rise and Fall of the Femme Fatale in British Literature, 1790–1910 : From Gothic Novel to Vampire Tale (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 2012), 13.

3 Braun, The Rise and Fall of the Femme Fatale, 16.

4 Braun, The Rise and Fall of the Femme Fatale, 16-17.