Revenge of the wronged wives:

When Rachel Royce's husband ran off with a younger woman she struck back in the most visible way, detailing his failings in a series of articles. Rod Liddle was then forced to write about his life as a love rat. Laura Tennant explains why increasing numbers of women are seeking to get even with "slappers" and "philanderers" by humiliating them in public

18 July 2004

'Rod is great company, funny, clever, wacky and exciting. I just wish he wasn't also a liar." Last week's most publicised wronged wife, Rachel Royce, is talking about Rod Liddle, the kind of man who gives men a bad name. The story so far, for those whose attention has been elsewhere, is as follows: shaggy-haired, heavy-drinking Liddle, 44, marries Royce, 42, the mother of his two small children, in a romantic Malaysian wedding ceremony (cost: £20,000) after 11 years of cohabitation. Claiming work commitments, he then cuts his honeymoon a week short, but Royce discovers he's gone back to London to resume his affair with a 22-year-old called Alicia Monckton (whom he is convinced looks like Keira Knightley).

Who cares? Rod Liddle is only a former editor of the Today programme who has been on telly a few times and written the odd sharp paragraph. Middle-aged men run off with young women all the time, and their wives get mad then try to get even. But we seldom hear all the delicious details, laid out with such vindictive care. Gossiping about the neighbours is a basic human instinct; it's how we understand and define who we are. And it becomes a lot easier when the wronged wife chooses to play her media-friendly hubby at his own game and take revenge in the most public way possible.

Rather than stew about the activities of her media-courting ex-lover, Rachel Royce accepted £5,000 from the Daily Mail for a piece on her betrayal. It's a compelling read, recording Liddle's earlier infidelities, his lies, and the consummate display of tactlessness with which he moved his new girlfriend into the village where his wife still lives. Her "divorce diary" has now become a column. Yesterday Liddle complained at length about being the subject of an old-fashioned media feeding-frenzy. He did so in print. The pair have entered the realm of public love wars usually dominated by true stars such as the French actress Isabelle Adjani, who recently used her massive celebrity at home to tell her fiancé, the musician Jean-Michel Jarre, that his infidelity had been discovered and their engagement was off. He read it - as did the rest of France - on the cover of Paris Match. Great entertainment, but is it great therapy?

According to Christine Gallagher, author of The Woman's Book of Revenge, "Revenge is a healthy natural impulse - a lost art that needs to be mastered by every modern woman. It's far healthier than wolfing down an entire chocolate cake and far more affordable than blabbing to a therapist. Devising a creative act of revenge can be the first step on the road to recovery."

Yet it's a dish best eaten cold, which is perhaps why Royce's "day of revenge" - which culminated in having 10 sacks of manure delivered to the workplace shared by Liddle and Monckton, The Spectator magazine, left her feeling "deflated and upset".

Her literary revenge, by contrast, will be preserved in the electronic cuttings library for eternity, to be accessed by eager hacks whenever Liddle's name comes up.

Women, for whom expressing emotion is a virtue, don't see the point in dignified silence. For millennia, men have been trading in their wives for younger models and rewriting the history of the previous marriage. Yasmin Alabhai-Brown's book No Place Like Home describes how her husband, a lecturer, ran off with one of his students, destroying what she had believed to be an "incredibly happy" marriage. "I wrote it about five years after we separated and I've never, ever regretted it," she says. "When someone leaves, fables start to spring up about how unfulfilled they'd been, and how nothing good had ever happened, because that justifies the infidelity. To me that is such a violation, and it was important for me to be able to reclaim my own history and record for my son the good things about the marriage."

Women's superior emotional intelligence means that when we want to carry out a character assassination, total annihilation is assured. Kathryn Flett's Heart-Shaped Bullet chronicled her husband's emotional socio- pathology; Margaret Cook's book about Robin revealed that he was both sex-obsessed and impotent; Mia Farrow's book on Woody Allen accused him of abusing his own children. "You know, he has never said sorry to me in a meaningful way," Norman Mailer's ex-wife Adele explained when her devastating memoirs were published. 'He's very sadistic like that, and I'm only human. I want him to say sorry. He has prospered while I've just wasted away."

Most acts of "spiterature" are a "terrible idea", argues Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. "Royce's piece is not going to change her emotional state, and it may damage her children. After a break-up, the most therapeutic thing you can do is express anger, but to the person concerned, not the general public."

But for women, talking obsessively about an ex is a hallmark of those Chardonnay-fuelled debriefings with sympathetic girlfriends. Publishing those feelings is only a more efficient way of spreading the message. "The trouble is that it calls one's own judgement into question," points out a friend. "If he was such a bastard, what on earth was I doing with him?"

Denise Knowles of the marriage counselling service Relate agrees. "The problem with airing private things in a public arena is that you are expressing feelings that you have at that moment in time, but which will very likely change. And of course if you change your mind after six months and decide you want your ex back, you'll have to convince everyone that he's not quite such a bastard after all."

Lady Alice Douglas, daughter of the Marquess of Queensberry, attracted great media interest nine years ago when she married Simon Melia while he was in prison for armed robbery. He was a heroin addict who told her she was fat and a bad wife then sold a precious piece of family jewellery. Then he ran off with the Polish au pair. She wrote about it all last year, in painful detail, saying she could never forgive him. The couple are now back together, but she doesn't regret telling her story.

"Writing it helped me identify issues in the marriage, and why it had gone wrong," she says. "I think if you can express something you can bounce back. The only thing I regret is that I wrote about his controlling, dominant, aggressive side, but I didn't say that he also has an utterly charming, sunny side and is a fantastic father. Sometimes when it's brought up I think, I don't want people to read that again."

If fighting for your man seems not to be worth the candle, there is some consolation: fabulous, fit and newly single 40-year-olds get to have sex with hard-bodied manual labourers and still keep the moral high ground. And the best revenge of all? You know the struggles your rival will face once the novelty has worn off. As Rachel Royce put it: "The Slapper? She's welcome to him, really."


Isabelle Adjani

The French film star enjoyed two years with the musician Jean-Michel Jarre before she discovered his infidelity. She used the cover of Paris Match magazine to announce to the world (and her boyfriend) that the wedding due this August was off.

Plonk one on him

Lady Sarah Graham-Moon was offended by the "discourtesy" of her husband, Sir Peter, moving in with his girlfriend before their divorce was finalised. So she raided his wine cellar and left bottles of vintage plonk on doorsteps around their Berkshire village.

Lorena Bobbit

"Doing a Bobbit" entered the language - and men's nightmares - when Mrs Bobbit cut off the penis of her cheating husband John Wayne in 1993 and flung it from a moving car. In court, she blamed "temporary insanity" and was found not guilty.

Knickers to that man

Valerie Thorne was horrified when she found her husband collected kinky knickers. So she hung them from a tree in the front garden of their house in Nelson, Lancashire, with a sign saying: "Goodbye Wolfram and your Dirty Knicker Collection".

Margaret Cook

When Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, cheated on his wife Margaret in 1997, she decided silence might be golden but talking was worth a fortune. It took her a newspaper column and two books even to begin to catalogue his faults.

Hit him where it hurts

Imagine a husband's delight when his rich wife offered a trip to meet her in Mexico. Imagine his horror when he "temporarily" covered the cost only to find she was not there. The unidentified woman eventually asked him, "So was it worth cheating on me?"

Queen Isabella

Despite being a philanderer herself, Queen Isabella wasn't keen on her husband Edward II's catamites. So she and Roger Mortimer bumped off Edward's boyfriend, imprisoned her husband and arranged for his death - by the insertion of a red-hot poker into his anus.

Thai the scoundrel down

Mary Coop was expecting a proposal when her partner took her to Thailand. Instead, she discovered him being intimate on the beach with a waitress. His passport and house keys ended up in the sea, leaving him stranded while she flew home.

Olivia Goldsmith

Taking Ivana Trump's motto, "Don't get mad, get everything", as her mantra, Olivia Goldsmith turned her divorce into a blockbuster novel and film: The First Wives Club, starring Goldie Hawn. The author died a millionaire, but never remarried.

The shellfish bitch

Before ex-hubby can move his new bride into the former family home, the wronged wife pushes prawns inside the curtain linings. The newlyweds cannot trace the smell, and are forced to move. The removal men bring the curtains too. Or so runs the urban myth.