This passage from 'The Pursuit of Love' actually made me snort in bed the other night:
‘For dinner, Linda wore a white chintz dress with an enormous skirt, and a black lace scarf. She looked entirely ravishing, and it was obvious that Sir Leicester was much taken with her appearance – Lady Kroesig and Miss Marjorie, in bits of georgette and lace, seemed not to notice it. Marjorie was an intensely dreary girl, a few years older than Tony, who had failed so far to marry, and seemed to have no biological reason for existing.’
Now, I’m not all sweetness and light by any stretch of the imagination and have barbed insults and back-handed comments flying through my head at a rate of which I should probably be ashamed. I’m on intimate terms with my inner (and occasionally outer) bitch. I’m not easily shocked. But damn girl, that is mean. Chokin’ on my biscuit, slack-jawed and bug-eyed mean. Oh no she didn’t. Oh yes she did. But the question is, why?
Well, sharp wit, well used, can cut through a situation like butter. It gets to the true point, it gets to the marrow. If brevity is the sole of wit then unadulterated stinging bitchiness is wit’s little sister, her eyes flashing whilst she whispers to her weaker friends from behind her pointed little hands. It ain’t big, it is (admittedly) sometimes clever, but it always requires some agreement to be valid. In short, successful bitchiness requires collusion. When reading, this colluder is you.
It’s a powerful thing to be drawn into a story as a collaborator, and there are few better ways of ensuring loyalty than bitching about the same people behind their backs - I actually remember being told at school that the existence of a communal bitching target is the surest indication of girls becoming friends (this is not generally true of men). Maybe this is why Nancy Mitford is considered a very feminine novelist (aside from all the love and fashion talk)? Anyway, if we perceive someone to be our superior because they are succinct, unafraid and say exactly what everyone else might be thinking, it makes sense that we’d fall under their influence in a way and want to be around them. Maybe part of this is fear; who’d want to leave themselves vulnerable to becoming the target? If you don’t agree, does that make you a ‘fearful Counter-Hon’ too?
‘‘All the same, I don’t see how you can saddle the poor thing with a name like Moira, it’s too unkind.’
‘Not really, if you think. It’ll have to grow up a Moira if the Kroesigs are to like it (people always grow up to their names I’ve noticed) and they might as well like it because frankly, I don’t.’
‘Linda, how can you be so naughty, and, anyway, you can’t possibly tell whether you like her or not, yet.’
‘Oh, yes I can. I can always tell if I like a person from the start, and I don’t like Moira, that’s all. She’s a fearful Counter-Hon, wait till you see her.’
Yes, this example shows her taking it a bit too far (in this conversation, the character Linda is talking about her in-laws, the Kroesigs, and Moira, her child) but maybe that’s another part of the attractiveness of the bitchy person, in life and in literature. Seeing as she (clearly) has no boundaries, there’s no way of telling what she’ll say next. Or do next. Or want next. It makes a character unpredictable in the most stimulating way. Bitchiness is, after all, the energy on which a thousand telenovelas and gossip magazines are run past all reasonable expectation.
The same goes for real life: who could resist standing next to Nancy Mitford and her ilk at a party of people you weren’t keen on, waiting to see who they ripped to shreds next? Even if you could only stand it for a moment before you had to leave to repent or shower or something, would you forget what she’d said about so-and-so in the so-and-so? I don’t think, girlfriend.
So give it a try. Your character’s probably not real and the person you’re basing them on probably won’t realise. So let rip. After all, the bitchy comment that pins a person down in a sentence will cut a swathe through your word count and will burn itself onto the collective memory of your readers. Readers who will then want to become your friends…