Revenge is sweet: When 'loving you' becomes 'leaving you', women get tough

Revenge, a sweet dish best served cold. Observe Vicky Pryce, the soon-to-be ex-wife of Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, preparing it with the forensic skill of a Michelin chef.

She spent 26 years supporting him, building up his career, helping him make a fortune while raising five children. Pryce groomed him into the cabinet minister and potential Lib Dem leader he is today, only to be unceremoniously dumped.

Now that the couple are preparing to face up in the divorce courts, she has had enough. Pryce has already revealed that, in 2003, her husband "bullied" her into saying that she was driving the car when it was caught by a speed camera. She took the three points and he avoided losing his licence. Next she plans to flesh out the sticky details of the marriage, and Huhne's affair with press officer Carina Trimingham, in her forthcoming book Thirty Minutes To Kill The Story.

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The title comes from the charming way Huhne told Pryce that the marriage was over. The News of the World rang to tell him the story was about to break. He stated, in the bluntest terms, what was going on and what was needed to save his career. Then he went to the gym.

There is history here. Margaret Cook was abandoned by her husband Robin, then Foreign Secretary, in the VIP lounge of Heathrow Airport. Alastair Campbell called to say that a Sunday paper knew about his relationship with Gaynor Regan and he had to choose between his wife and his secretary-mistress. Cook chose the latter, so the former wrote a newspaper column and two candid memoirs outlining Cook's sexual inadequacies, weight problems and fondness for the bottle.

When Edwina Currie dished the dirt on her secret affair with John Major in her memoirs, it was not because he dumped her. It was because he did not acknowledge her. She got barely a paragraph in his own biography. Big mistake, John. Big, big mistake.

The grand gesture

Not everyone can command a handsome advance for revealing the juicy details of their failed marriage. But, for those without a literary agent, there is always the grand gesture. Humiliation doesn't get more public than the Birmingham chap who compared his lady friend's bottom, unfavourably, to Pippa Middleton's then had to drive around the city with the legend IS PIPPAS (sic] BUM STILL BETTER THAN MINE??? painted in white on his Peugeot 206.

Cars are one of enraged women's favourite targets. Birmingham (is there something in the water?) radio DJ Tim Shaw flirted on air with glamour model Jodie Marsh, offering to leave his wife for her. At home his wife Hayley was listening to every word. She put his Lotus Esprit Turbo, worth 25,000, on eBay for 50p. "I need to get rid of this car immediately," went the listing, "ideally in the next two to three hours before my husband gets home to find it gone and all his belongings in the street."

Abandoned by golfer Nick Faldo, Brenna Cepelak set about his Porsche with a nine iron, racking up 10,000-worth of damage. But words are often preferable to the hefty repair bill: "cheating bastard", "expert liar" "hope she was worth it" and "this man can gamble but he can't pay child support" are just some of the legends women have daubed on cars, vans and pick-up trucks.

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For Lady Sarah Graham-Moon, paint on the BMW was just for starters. She cut the sleeves off 32 of her unfaithful husband's Savile Row suits, then redistributed 70 bottles of his vintage claret around their Berkshire village. Pamela Bordes marked the end of her fling with newspaper editor Andrew Neil by chopping the crotch out of all his trousers.

The urban myths

Has anyone ever really sewn prawns into the curtains? Or put a salmon down the back of a radiator? The theory is that the displaced woman would, before leaving the marital home, deposit something that's hard to find, but easy to smell, to blight the lives of her ex and his new lady. At first everything seems fine. But within days the food starts to rot and the smell is impossible to trace. Eventually the unhappy couple have to move house. In some versions they take the stinky curtains with them.

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Urban myth experts have reported variations of this tale dating back to 1978. Sometimes the fish is placed in a panel in the car.

Another myth is a frank message written in cress seeds on a damp carpet. Or bulbs in the garden. Nothing heralds spring like "Kevin is a cheating scumbag" spelled out in daffodils.

Is it a female prerogative?

Michael Ferlik, chief executive of ReputationDefender, a company dedicated to removing dubious Facebook pages and ill-advised videos from the internet, offers an interesting insight. Both sexes, he says, use the web as a tool for vengeance. "It tends to be the case that guys are vicious when it's an unrequited love, whereas women are vicious when there's been a break-up. That's a general rule of thumb."

Women excel at revenge, according to agony aunt Susan Quillam, because "girls are brought up to empathise with other people's emotions. When they are thwarted this knowledge is turned on its head. They are then able to create the most imaginative acts of revenge because they understand what will humiliate their quarry the most."

Or, in the case of their wine cellar or BMW, what they care about most.

The hi-tech opportunities

New technology has created many new ways to inflict pain and humiliation or just show a womanising loser what he is missing. American Taylor Morgan has become an internet sensation by listing her unfaithful ex's clothes on eBay and modelling them herself. Given that she is 26 with a fine rack and very small pants, this has been a highly successful strategy. His dreary sweaters and unremarkable shirts have sold for well over their asking prices and she has made over $1,000 so far.

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Most people turn to blogs, forums or chatrooms for e-venge. Anyone with a vague notion of how Google works can post pictures of their ex, and add derogatory comments. Or make a tasteful montage, with suitable soundtrack, for YouTube. While they have that jpeg to hand, they may also post his photo and contact details on a gay dating website. Anyone who then Googles his name will find out more than they might wish to know.

Facebook is particularly rich in revenge opportunities. Want to contact all your ex's friends and tell them what a piece of work he is, or perhaps send them some interesting photos? Simple. Or, if you know his password, why not change his relationship status to "Moving back in with my parents because my wife caught me on the sofa with Joanne from book group".

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There are entire websites dedicated to dumped women, bruised divorces and just about every potential revenge-seeker. Mumsnetters, as the users of the influential website call themselves, spent many happy hours in 2009 debating how shineoncrazydiamond should respond when she used her new phone to text the guy she was seeing and forgot to put her name. He thought it was a wrong number, started a conversation and asked what he thought was a completely random stranger called Jane, on a date. "Jane" agreed to meet him at the Cotswold Penguin Sanctuary and then enlisted the help of the forum to plot her next move. The thread had to be closed because of the volume of messages. Jane eventually stood him up with this text - written collaboratively with most of Mumsnet: "I'm here! Over here!! I'm the one in the sleek black and white jacket with the yellow eye feathers and sleek red beak. Do you like me?! YOU DON'T! Is it cos I iz black and white? Smell of fish? Huh.* waddles off* I have bigger fish to fry..."

Did the bunny have to die?

Glenn Close, the woman spurned by Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, famously breaks into the family home and puts the family pet in the pot. One of the most famous acts of revenge in popular culture, "bunny boiler" is now shorthand for an obsessive woman unwilling to take no for an answer.

According to Christine Geraghty, professor of film and TV at Glasgow University, Close's character entered the lexicon because "she was so driven. That is the key to vengeful women: they take on male characteristics. All the feminine niceness, nurturing and caring falls away and they have a terrifying focus."

Men also take revenge in films - it is a huge theme in westerns and Mafia thrillers. "For them it's about control and power in the public arena. Who controls these streets, runs this family, shot whose son?" For women, it's all about sex and relationships. "It's about the emotional satisfaction of getting to a particular man."

In fact, revenge has been a popular dramatic theme since Euripides wrote Medea in 431BC. When her husband leaves her for another woman - a royal princess no less - she kills the regal bitch with a poisoned dress and slaughters her own children to punish their father. When the EastEnders script editors talk about making the plot "really Greek", this is the kind of thing they mean. "Within modern drama, revenge can be a very heightened, melodramatic gesture," says Geraghty. "It can be cathartic, expressing pent-up emotion through one perfect action."

Or, if you are Vicky Pryce, one perfectly timed revelation about a speeding car.