Molly McCloskey: Why women still pay for adultery

Women might not be killed for their desires in novels any more, but infidelity remains a potent theme in fiction

It was only when someone who read a draft of my novel, about a woman who has an adulterous affair in the 1990s, remarked on my heroine’s “lack of shame” that I began to think more consciously about how other adulterous heroines had felt and fared. I thought: why would she be ashamed of desire? Bad behaviour, maybe, but desire?

I was well acquainted with the first (long) phase of female adultery in western literature: the phase in which this most private of acts was – particularly for women – utterly public, a threat to the social order that required a correspondingly communal punishment. I had on my shelf La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – the first novel of female adultery that had ever bewitched me – but I’d discovered it at ...