Molière’s ladies’ man, based on the legendary figure of Don Juan, scorns religion and morality and celebrates only “variety” in the pursuit of love. In the company of his often appalled valet, Sganarelle, he ruthlessly follows his desires, often getting his girls with mock marriages. As in Mozart’s later version, Hell awaits him.
The aptly named protagonist of William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife spreads the (false) news that a disastrous treatment for venereal disease has left him impotent. Gleeful but gullible husbands are then happy for him to keep company with their wives, with predictable consequences. The plot was adapted for the film Shampoo, with Warren Beatty.
Widely believed by contemporaries to be based on the infamous libertine John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the sexually accomplished anti-hero of Sir George Etherege’s The Man of Mode has three women on the go and is after a fourth. He is rewarded for his taste rather than punished for his infidelity.
he character who gave a name to all these dedicated seducers starred in the early 18th-century tragedy The Fair Penitent by Nicholas Rowe. Lothario is a heartless and boastful gallant who seduces the fair Calista and then abandons her after a night of “Extasies too fierce to last forever”.
The villain of Samuel Richardson’s massive tragic novel Clarissa became (to its author’s alarm) a favourite character of many female readers. He dedicates himself to the seduction of Clarissa, the most virtuous woman in existence (“My charmer! My frost-piece!”). His letters detail his devilish plotting, but also his awakening conscience. Clarissa is so good and lovely that she almost converts him. Almost.
Even more Satanic than Lovelace, whom he clearly imitates, the Vicomte de Valmont, in Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, is a dedicated sensualist who sets out to seduce the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, whose husband is away on a court case. Everyone ends up corrupted.
Foolish Emma Bovary falls for this practised seducer in Flaubert’s novel. For the provincial doctor’s frustrated wife, wealthy, stylish Rodolphe Boulanger is Prince Charming. For him, pretty Emma is just the latest in a long line of conquests. He gets bored and dumps her.
The Lothario in Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan is the father of the teenage protagonist, Cécile. Spending a summer with him and his latest mistress, Elsa, she reflects on the string of such young women who have entered and exited his life. Things get worse for her, however, when Raymond looks as though he will marry a nice middle-aged lady, and Cécile intervenes . . .
One of the latest in a long line of superannuated libertines (see Nabokov, Updike, Kingsley Amis), the anti-hero of Adam Thirlwell’s The Escape is a septuagenarian Brit who had travelled to an Alpine spa in an effort to reclaim property stolen by the Nazis – but also to chase women. He now finds that satisfaction can be gained from watching others at it.
Beryl Bainbridge’s cautionary novel Sweet William takes its title from the ironical nickname given to philandering playwright William McCluskey by his thespian friends. William charms his way into the beds of a string of women, convincing each of them that she has found true love. The latest is self-deluding Ann, who dumps devoted but stodgy fiancé Gerald for the bohemian seducer.