Creon, King of Thebes, is Antigone’s uncle. He decrees that her brother should not, as a rebel, receive the proper rites of burial. In Sophocles’s Antigone, the heroine ignores his edict and secretly buries her brother. Creon sentences her to be buried alive. Antigone kills herself soon after she has been interred in a cave, and Creon’s son (Antigone’s fiancé) and wife follow suit soon after.
There are plenty of these perfidious male relatives in Shakespeare (try As You Like It or The Tempest) but Hamlet father’s brother takes the biscuit. He pours hemlock in King Hamlet’s ear and then swiftly marries his own sister-in-law. He even makes a bid for our sympathy by praying for forgiveness – but he is out to kill the Prince of Denmark.
Another dodgy monarch who has deposed his brother and now looks to get rid of his inconvenient nephew. In CS Lewis’s Prince Caspian, the rightful heir is on the run from nasty uncle Miraz, who has exiled all the talking beasts to the wilds of Narnia. But young Caspian has the Pevensie children to help him.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped tells of the machinations of David Balfour’s evil uncle Ebenezer, who has cheated him of his rightful inheritance. After attempting to arrange his “accidental” death, David’s uncle has him bound and gagged and shipped off to be a slave in the Carolinas.
In Dickens’s youthful novel, Nicholas Nickleby’s rich uncle Ralph is a thoughtful villain, whose “mental soliloquies” are always wound up “by arriving at the conclusion, that there was nothing like money”. He is the evil genius of the novel, determined to ruin Nicholas, and made more villainous by his soft spot for his nephew’s sister . . .
In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Rachel Verrinder inherits the eponymous jewel, a huge diamond, from her nasty uncle, the Colonel. Unknown to her, he stole it from an Indian shrine after murdering the priests who guarded it. So a curse and a good deal of trouble are attached.
Heiress Maud Ruthyn goes to live with her uncle Silas, a former rake and gambler who is now apparently reformed. Slowly she becomes aware that he is plotting to get at her fortune by marrying her to his dissolute son. The eponymous villain of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel is an opium addict to boot.
Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith is modelled on the Victorian “sensation novels” of the likes of Collins and Le Fanu, so it naturally has an heiress called Maud and an evil uncle, who is also her guardian. His wickedness expresses itself through his obsession with pornography, which he forces Maud to collate. She escapes him, but falls into the clutches of even greater villains.
“My Wicked Uncle”
In this poem, Derek Mahon recalls his uncle at his funeral. “The narrative he dispensed was mostly / Wicked avuncular fantasy – / He went in for waistcoats and haircream”. But he is roguishly alluring compared with the coming generation. “His teenage kids are growing horns and claws – / More wicked already than ever my uncle was”.
Linda Grant’s The Clothes on their Backs features an uncle who is based on the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman. In 1970s London, Vivien Kovaks, the child of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, rediscovers her uncle and (without telling her parents) works as his secretary. She learns the story of his life and the reasons for his supposed wickedness.