Today Vicky Pryce and her ex-husband Chris Huhne will be sentenced. She is likely to go down for agreeing to take his speeding points and he for getting her to do so, then denying the offence for months. In court, before the case was heard, he finally pleaded guilty. Pryce claimed marital coercion but failed to convince the jury, which convicted her.
And so it ends, a marriage between two brilliant and ambitious people who once loved and respected each other, had children, and probably never anticipated this seismic family convulsion and aftershock, the sorry tale of betrayal and rage, felony and vengeance.
Much has been written about the couple, most of it hideously sexist and finding a thousand ways to blame, chastise, further hurt and debase Pryce, the abandoned wife. She is Greek, and so has been further damned as a modern Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra is the wicked queen in the ancient Greek legend who took another lover, killed her husband Agamemnon and destroyed her family. ( No, I can’t see the comparison either.)
For male writers, Pryce is a woman scorned and hellish. A handful of female columnists have felt for her, but the rest have been marauding hyenas, biting and ripping at her flesh. The most brutal was Carol Sarler, a woman who can be relied on to bring down other women with her sharp teeth. Huhne, meanwhile, is slated, but only for being full of himself and breaking the law. Not for breaking the hearts of his ex-wife and children.
I have to declare an interest here, or two. I know and like Pryce and feel for her. Of course she made some dreadful mistakes and should have been more chary, but I recognise her pain because long ago I felt it too, when my ex-husband walked out on me and our son. Like Pryce, I deeply loved the man, believed in my marriage and felt my entire inner-self collapsing into a heap of rubble when he said he was leaving me for a younger woman. I was buried in, demented with grief for many months, perhaps years. What made it worse was the expectation in this society that men do such things and that it falls upon the wife to be “dignified”, to keep the family going, not to express the rage and sorrow she feels.
One of the most moving and authentic responses to the Pryce/Huhne breakup has come from Margaret Cook. She herself was dumped by the Labour politician Robin Cook and then relentlessly accused of being a vengeful wife because she didn’t quietly, dutifully disappear from public view but spoke up again and again about what Cook had done. She writes: “Pryce has not done herself any favours by being explicit in seeking revenge... This is the misogynist male world’s worst nightmare, the ‘hell hath no fury’ vision. It is a terrible label to apply to a deserted, grieving wife, and yet goes along with the brutal tendency to demonise such women and imply that being deserted was their own fault”.
What such political wives must do is smile, pretend to be OK, not make a fuss, tell the kids their dad is a great guy who just needs other women to find himself. Does anyone remember Judith, the first wife of David Mellor, chucked as if she was worthless trash? And Helen, forgiving wife of the late Piers Merchant, the flamboyant womaniser? Or Diane, married to Tim Yeo and her stoicism when she discovered his mistress had a child by her husband? Even worse is the guilt-tripping of the wives. For the sake of their children, they have to suffer in silence and not make life hard for the men who had shattered their dreams.
Rarely, if ever, do commentators ask men not to stray for the sake of their children. Who hurt the children first, Huhne or Pryce? It is a given that many husbands cannot but follow the impulses stirring in their underpants, that male lust is an entitlement. Such men want it all and must have it all – the second or third more exciting partner, ex-wives who remain their friends and handmaidens, the complete love of their first lot of children, societal respect and even sneaking admiration for, yes, getting it all.
If they don’t get their way, the ex-wife is invariably blamed. The most shameless even boast about how they are better husbands and fathers the second time around without ever considering how this must wound their first wives and children. And they are never castigated for any of this.
In his newly published heartbreaking and truthful memoir, I Know You’re Going To Be Happy, the journalist Rupert Christiansen describes his father, ex-editor of the Daily Mirror, who took up with another woman and quickly forgot his first family. Every day, everywhere, this story is repeated and the men get away with it.
I discussed these monstrous double standards at an event celebrating women at the Royal Festival Hall and the audience totally and loudly agreed that it’s still a man’s world. Even the modern man, who changes nappies and cooks, reverts to old expectations as soon as he moves on to the new model lover. Wives have to bear the burden and the blame and never act up. Pryce couldn’t accept that and nor could I.