When 29-year-old Kathryn George-Harries discovered her lover was having an affair, she let herself into his house and destroyed the contents. She smashed his bottles of expensive wine, cut up his shoes and glued them to the floor, ripped his cloth es to shreds, smeared moisturiser over his four- poster bed, and - in what she deemed an apt symbolic gesture - scattered porridge oats on the sticky white mess. Kathryn, a trainee lawyer, received a six-month prison sentence for causing £18,500 of crimi nal damage.
Four years on, men remain petrified of Kathryn while women see her as a heroine, particularly those braving a rough patch with their partners. "I wish I had the guts to do what you did," they tell her, "I wish I had your courage." But Kathrynsees her vindictive rampage as a desperate act that stripped her of all dignity. And however much we might marvel at her reckless passion, many of us would agree that violent retribution is the primitive recourse of - as Kathryn admits - a "rather adolescent" mind.
Once upon a time, wreaking revenge on your enemies was a noble act. Today, it is more often viewed as pathetic. Judging by recent cases, our attitude towards avengers ranges from condescending amusement to disgust and fear. The exploits of Lady Sarah Graham-Moon - who slashed the suits of her philandering husband and distributed his precious Chateau Latour around their neighbours' doorsteps - were greeted with patronising relish: what a scream that a meek, middle-aged, upper-class housewife should freakout and give us all a laugh.
It was agreed that Lady Sarah had demeaned herself, but scored a moral victory. And what could be more demeaning that tamely standing by while your husband had an affair? Even so, her behaviour was seen as that of a weak and vulnerable person unable to express her feelings in a civilised manner. Lady Sarah admitted: "Some people think that what I did was undignified. But dignity is a very cold bedfellow." She was duly passed around television studios as a fascinating exhibit.
The vengeance of one Ken Campbell, however, was judged beneath contempt. When his ex-wife Yvonne - residing in the United Arab Emirates - moved in with another man, Ken reported her to the local religious police. As a result she and her two young children sweltered for two days in an Arab jail. The British tabloid press branded Ken "the most disgusting man on earth". We look down on people whose spite overcomes their moral judgement.
In the 16th century it was quite proper for men and women to respond violently to a slight against their personal honour. Keith Wrightson, Reader in English social history at Jesus College, Cambridge, says social attitudes towards the violent avenger began to shift in the aftermath of the Reformation, when the notion of honour was gradually replaced with the ideal of restrained gentlemanly behaviour. "The model Renaissance humanist was sober, earnest, disciplined, rather than the Hell's Angel on horseback of the 15th century," he says. Civility remained an essential cultural value into the 18th century. "The 18th-century gentleman should have been able to turn away an insult with an elegant riposte."
Dr Wrightson sees a natural progression from there to our 20th-century distaste for wild justice. Not that the rest of us are saints; we're just petty offenders. Who hasn't trodden heavily on a fellow commuter's toe because the oaf accidentally knocked you with his briefcase? Tit for tat is common; it's the monstrous affronts we're likely to leave uncountered. Even if one is roused to settle a score, there are boundaries that the majority wouldn't cross. Kathryn did, and regrets it.
"No man is worth going to prison for," she says. "No man is worth dirtying your clothes for. You let yourself down. The best revenge is to walk away from the situation and make a success of your life. I learned a lot. Through a lot of aggro and pain, there was growth. But nobody is worth that much grief: nobody. You might feel very bitter, but you walk away. The wheel of life will sort things out without you giving it a push." Maybe, but that illicit push is alluring, because it it gives someone who is feeling weak a transitory sensation of power.
Psychologists believe revenge is essentially borne of unsatisfied anger. "It is a very aggressive act," says Brian Thomas-Peter, director of psychological services at the Reaside clinic for mentally disturbed offenders in Birmingham. "But it usually happens in a furtive way, so that the avenger doesn't have to deal with confrontation. Excessive revenge reveals a person's limited resources." The inference is that the humiliated but sophisticated can recoup their loss of self-esteem without stooping to venomous subterfuge.
The trouble is that on occasion, acts of violence just feel good. Avengers say that the instant of savagery provides a cathartic release of tension. Guilt and remorse may set in later, but the moment of revenge is sweet. "At the time I felt absolutely marvellous, totally and utterly justified and vindicated," Kathryn recalls. Joan Francis, 36, who was a battered wife for 10 years, derived exquisite pleasure from sneakily causing her (now divorced) husband misery. Depending upon his crime, she would smash his car windscreen or lace his boxer shorts with itching-powder. "My revenge kept me sane.," she says defiantly. "I found it spiritually uplifting."
Yet she was beaten for a decade. Wasn't she playing a loser's game? "I had no choice," she says. "I hadn't got enough money to run to the courts. If I had gone to a solicitor I would have got another bashing. Taking revenge is not cowardice. It takes guts when you know that if you got caught you could be seriously hurt."
Many of the male population see it differently. "Women are supposed to be passive," says Joan. "If women take revenge they are regarded as devious and untrustworthy by society If men take revenge that's seen as natural because men are natural aggressors,and they've learned that it's manly to hit back."
Although violent revenge is more commonly perpetrated by men, double standards are rife not only in the pubs but also in the law of the land. Kathryn declares it "sexist from top to bottom". Joan cites Sara Thornton,who stabbed her husband to death aftersuffering 20 years of domestic violence. She was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. "A day later, Joseph McGrail, who battered his common-law wife to death because she moved a pepper-pot on the table, got a two-year suspended sentence.The judge said that she was a woman who would have tried the patience of a saint".
All the same, you can bet that McGrail is not greatly popular with the locals. The overriding attitudes towards the modern-day avenger are disapproval and fear. Their unpredictability scares us, and we prefer to think they're unbalanced. We regard the likes of Lady Graham-Moon, Ken Campbell and Kathryn George-Harries with varying degrees of pity and loathing. Revenge in the 1990s is not a dish best eaten cold; it is best excluded from the menu altogether.
l A "Cutting Edge" documentary, Revenge, will be shown at 9pm tomorrow on Channel 4.
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