An (Ongoing) Taxonomy of the Sad Rich Girls of Literature

(Spoilers follow.)

Some readers love thrillers, others love mysteries—my idea of a page-turner is a Sad Rich Girl novel. Show me a discontented daughter of privilege who wiles away her days agonizing over how dull life is, complaining about nepobaby accusations, or—most deliciously—wishing she were poor so there was some damn romance in her life, and I’ll read late into the night. I love nothing more than a protagonist who has so much free time she can ponder the meaninglessness of existence.

I’m a champion for SRG literature because at its core, SRG lit is about what motivates The Culture. Rich girls have what most of us are trying to get—so shouldn’t we educate ourselves about what’s on the far side of our goals? What is the greener grass really like? SRG lit by and large exists to show us that, in Thackeray’s famous words, “Everybody is striving for what is not worth the having!” SRG books tell us that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure can foment unhappiness. Most SRGs realize that wealth has something to do with their misery—but they can’t walk away. Don’t you feel compelled to examine what is so desirable (or powerful) that if you had it, and despised it, you still wouldn’t give it up?

An SRG’s wealth is never her own—and family money comes with a lot of strings attached. Balancing her own desires and the expectations of a controlling family has the effect of steamrolling SRG individuality. Their identities are flattened by the same powers that accord their families status.

Of course, SRGs are not a monolith. Some get happy endings (a few are even redeemed), but most sink deeper and deeper into the gilded quicksand. SRGs exhibit admirable creativity in their ability to engineer an unhappy ending out of blessed circumstances. Classifying them is a hobby I’ve documented in this spreadsheet (I will continue refining and adding to it) where I’ve identified the three main genuses of SRG. Let’s dive in.

Type 1: The Social Climbers
Must SRGs be born? Can they be made? I’d argue, yes. One can become an SRG. With the right balance of unscrupulousness and disregard for others, any young woman can become a Becky Sharp.

I was devastated when Apple axed Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country because the anti-heroine, Undine Spragg, was too unlikeable. Yes, Undine is a monster—and I love that for her. Undine marries up three times (successively wealthier, more status-y husbands) and is left hollow when the thing she swears will bring her fulfillment and inner peace (for her husband to be an ambassador) is denied because the title is not available to husbands of women who have been divorced. She did it to herself.

Only when she is securely situated in the monied set, can the Social Climber experience the proprietary sadness of SRGdom. It’s a special breed of sadness rooted in emptiness and it can only be achieved after realizing that everyone up there—in the wealthy, rarified world—has been pretending all along. The only thing that briefly inspired the Social Climber was her ambition to get to the top and now that she is safely ensconced in society, all purpose has been sucked out of her life. Now, she is a true SRG.

The Social Climber’s feral pursuit of money and status must be successful in order for her to be considered an SRG. (A failed social climber is just a failed social climber.) Madame Bovary, for instance, wouldn’t be considered an SRG because she’s convinced that if she had more money she’d be happy. Nor would Rosamund Vincy of Middlemarch because her sadness is rooted in the fact that she is formerly-rich and now-poor.

A meddling, social climbing mother (à la Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet) can facilitate a Type 1 SRG, which is how Mildred Bevel/Helen Rask of Hernan Diaz’s Trust ends up a shell of herself. Bevel is so rich and so sad that she experiences the apex of SRGdom: A Swiss Sanatorium. The Swiss Sanatorium is practically apotheosis for SRGs (real-life SRG Zelda Fitzgerald’s letters from Les Rives de Prangins are published): Being driven to madness by the gilded cage in which you’ve entrapped yourself is, often, the logical end.

In Susie Yang’s White Ivy, Ivy Lin feels minimal chemistry with her too-good-to-be-true suitor but marries him anyway. In the final scene, right before their wedding, she suddenly realizes he is closeted. She confronts his older sister Sylvia, who matchmade the couple. Sylvia denies nothing, saying what amounts to, “So what? You still would’ve married him even if you knew.” And Sylvia is right. And the wedding continues.

Knowingness is a quality endemic to Type 1s—they make their tradeoffs with eyes wide open. Ivy isn’t upset that her husband is gay, but that she got played by his sister. She would’ve unflinchingly accepted the same terms had she been clued in earlier. There’s a ruthlessness in a Type 1’s self-sacrifice: they’re willing to throw themselves under the bus in pursuit of status. Their knowingness makes them the architects of their own torture, without it they might be happy rich girls.

While the Type 1 SRG might experience titillating ups & downs in fortune, her story is less about the drama and more about the dissatisfied state she finds herself in when she reaches the position she dreamt of. It’s never how she thought it would be and reckoning with that disappointment—Why hasn’t all this plenty made me happy?—is when she truly steps into SRG status.

Type 2: The Glimmer of Hope SRG
SRGs are hate-able as a group. That’s why so many of them fall into the “unlikable women” category that Apple deemed not sufficiently monetizable (they are dead wrong—unfortunately, people love to hate unlikable women much more than they enjoy liking likable women). But every so often an author elects to draw a promising SRG: One who is not just pitiable, but actively sympathetic.

Being driven to madness by the gilded cage in which you’ve entrapped yourself is, often, the logical end.

Rich girl with a heart of gold is the second type of SRG I’ve identified. Sometimes she’s a little lost (like Austen’s titular Emma) and just needs to find her moral footing. Other times she inherits her wealth later in life, so her goodness is already established before the contaminating effects of serious money can infect her.

Since the Type 2 SRG nice girl is (no offense) inherently boring (see Becky Sharp’s foil, Amelia Sedley), what makes Type 2 SRG stories sparkle are the dastardly antagonists (Count Olaf-esque) who try to swindle these too-trusting, too-kind-hearted, not-cynical-enough SRGs out of their fortunes.

Watching E.M. Forster’s Margaret Schlegel—who never wanted to be bequeathed the Howards End property—get put through the wringer and treated like a conniving monster is stomach-wrenching. What seems like a windfall immediately warps into a nightmare. Though Margaret receives the property in the end, she does not emerge unscathed, and you wonder if her victory is of the Pyrrhic sort. Money corrupts, infects, and deprives those in its reach of humanity. See also: Isabel Archer of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.

When a surprise inheritance transforms her life, Isabel is not as lucky as Forster’s Margaret. She is courted by a man who, unbeknownst to her, is being guided by Isabel’s so-called friend, Madame Merle who manipulates Isabel into marrying him because he and Merle have an illegitimate daughter together. Isabel, like most Type 2 SRGs, is a victim of her own good fortune.

Though type 2 SRGs have kind hearts, those kind hearts are liabilities, and they are punished (rather than vindicated) for being a decent people. Take another James heroine: Catherine Sloper of Washington Square, daughter to a wealthy physician. When a less-than-wealthy man courts Catherine, her father refuses to sanction the relationship. Even when the engagement is broken off by the suitor, Dad writes Catherine out of his will. He argues Catherine will marry the poor man after he dies if he leaves her an inheritance. It’s a lose-lose for Catherine—her family’s money provides no sense of freedom or security, just shackles and suspicion.

Type 3: Own Worst Enemy SRG
These are the Sad Rich Girls who cannot get out of their own way—the Daisy Buchanans who shield their eyes from epiphanies and bury their heads in the sands of privilege and proxy power. Type 3s are smart (and might actually be fulfilled under different circumstances), but they misuse that intelligence to lie to themselves. This genus of SRG convinces herself that she has no agency, has been forced into a Good Marriage, and must have beautiful fool daughters. But the dirty truth is that the Type 3 possesses the key to let herself out of the gilded cage, she just refuses to.

Consider how hard it would be to walk away from a life that everyone tells you is the life everyone else wants.

A Type 3’s misery is rooted in the fact that she, on some level, recognizes she is the progenitor of her own unhappiness. She is too scared to renounce the privilege she was born into, and the price for staying is the horrible knowledge that she could’ve done something but chose not to. This woman’s agency may be limited but it exists. When Daisy seems ready to socially transgress and leave Tom for Gatsby, it’s a false step. When the going gets tough, she retreats to Tom because Tom provides a type of safety (not happiness, but security) that Gatsby’s new money cannot.

The Type 3 SRGs biggest enemy (besides herself) is ennui. Kay Thompson’s Eloise was the first literary SRG of this breed that I ever encountered. The six year old’s ennui is padded with adorable illustrations and cheeky narration, but there’s no doubt that it’s gestating (“charge it please / Thank you very much”). Likewise, Massie Block of Lisi Harrison’s The Clique middle grade series. To have everything one could want materially and, at the same time, be desperately unhappy is a mindfuck.

Consider how hard it would be to walk away from a life that everyone tells you is the life everyone else wants. Mathilde de la Mole of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is “persuaded that, because of all her advantages of birth, of fortune, etc., she ought to be happier than most people”—not just happy, but happier than most people—despite her potent malaise.

The dissonance between Type 3s reality (filthy rich) and their state of mind (miserable) leads to crippling self-doubt: Am I really as miserable as I think I am? And if the SRG doubts her unhappiness, she cannot escape because she’s not confident that she’s even imprisoned. How do you escape a cell you suspect you are imagining?

Some SRGs do leave. Mathilde is excited to ruin herself. She relishes self-sabotaging not to prove she is above wealth, but because she’s so fucking bored. Mathilde, who is expected to be a duchess, marries her father’s assistant (a peasant by birth, Julien), gets pregnant, and stays with him, even though Julien is devoted to another woman. Mathilde is obsessed with the bloody romance of martyring herself because reading Dumas’ La Reine Margot is the only time she feels alive. It’s not a surprise that the novel ends with Mathilde re-enacting the gruesome love story (decapitation is involved) in her renunciation of aristocratic life (but she is still not happy.)

I find the Type 3 struggle-against-self so compelling that it inspired my campus novel, To Have and Have More, wherein my SRG despises not only how predictable her life is, but also how inevitable it is. And that’s the darkest thing about Type 3s: They identify the source of their suffocation and choose to remain strangled. It makes them ripe for skewering and the perfect subjects for dark comedy, which is the preferred framing of many modern SRG authors (Lexi Freiman’s The Book of Ayn, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and Leigh Stein’s Self Care).

The function of SRG stories is to show the manifold ways women suffer because of money, not from lack of it. That money doesn’t buy happiness is a hard truth to internalize and—no matter how many Catherine Slopers and Daisy Buchanans enter the canon—the message warrants repeating.

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