So maids when you're young never wed an old man
When he went to sleep, hey ding-doorum down
When he went to sleep, me being young
When he went to sleep, out of bed I did creep
Into the arms of a handsome young man
The Mal Mariée (French for "badly married") is a young woman unhappily married to a much older man. Merely being a bit older isn't enough and there has to be a significant age difference. She is almost always innocent and beautiful, and was likely married against her will. He is probably ugly, probably cruel, and definitely obsessively jealous; he often keeps her imprisoned (most iconically, in a tower) to avoid her interacting with other men.
This never works. The more he tries to keep her for his own, the less she wants to do with him — and sooner or later some handsome young knight, poet, student or fairy will find a way to romance her.
The older spouse is highly protective and tends to be aggressive towards any other character who even so much as hints at interest in their spouse. He is also often harsh and cruel towards his young wife because he constantly thinks she's cheating. If she's not cheating, she very often will eventually because he suspects her anyway and his jealousy is disgusting. Or he can be absolutely clueless. The story may end with the young wife outsmarting her husband and being happy with her lover, but it can also end in long suffering or tragedy.
Sub-Trope of Sympathetic Adulterer. Frequently this trope follows from an Arranged Marriage or a Marriage of Convenience. Contrast Age-Gap Romance and MayDecember Romance, which is for couples with a major age difference who form a functional, loving relationship.
Very common in medieval literature, particularly in troubadour and trouvere poetry and the lais of Marie de France. A Forgotten Trope now, though it may get nods in stories with medieval or medieval-inspired settings. The trope is however subconsciously recognized by the audience who feel uncomfortable with predatory old men who romantically pursue and exploit very young women.
- The Punisher MAX: The Barracuda arc has Harry's Trophy Wife who gleefully sleeps with her Corrupt Corporate Executive husband's Number Two. Oddly enough, the husband is apparently impotent so he forgives her (although the jealousy manifests when he has her one-night-stands murdered), he's completely oblivious to her latest affair, and actually commits suicide when he finds out. The wife and her lover are eaten by sharks.
- One folk tale has the old husband so jealous that he claims to leave on a trip, but comes back in various disguises: as a priest, a minstrel and a soldier, and seduces his wife in the guise of each. When he comes back (as himself), he demands to know if she's been faithful, and she admits she slept with three men. But then she adds she only did so because she recognized him, and therefore was not committing adultery.
- Adventure under the Bed (a TV adaptation of Dostoyevsky's short story): Nadia is a 17-year-old girl married to an ugly, senile and very, very old man. Two men accidentally come into their flat (both looked for the flat in the top floor, and failed to notice there was another staircase). They hide under the bed, fearing they hear her husband coming and thinking he will deduce they are her lovers. Nadia's old husband knew her as a little girl and she was forced to marry him because her father owed him money. He's somewhat affectionate, but keeps apologizing for hurting her and wants to see her scars he's responsible for. He keeps drinking vodka during the evening and gets very lecherous and more and more repulsive. She's embarrassed by his behavior because of the witnesses under the bed. At the end of the movie, it's revealed that Nadia's actual young lover was hidden in a wardrobe.
- Eden in The Handmaid's Tale is a 15-year-old girl forcibly assigned to marry Nick Blaine, an Eye of Gilead serving at Commander Waterford's household. Nick is in love with June, who serves as a Handmaid for Waterford and his Wife. Both Nick and June are in their thirties. Eden tries to make the marriage work, but Nick's not interested in her, which she takes hard. She soon falls in love with guardian Isaac who is about her age. In a twist, she's exasperated that Nick is not jealous at all and angry that he doesn't even care she kissed another man. After chatting with June, who advises her to grab whatever chance at happiness she has in their crapsack world, Eden and Isaac run away. They are caught and executed — Eden for infidelity, Isaac for desertion.
- Murdoch Mysteries, "Marked Twain": A solution to the murder case of the week lies in this trope. A rich old guy has a pretty young wife who cheats on him with a bartender from his club. The bartender is about her age and the husband kills him out of jealousy.
- Vikings: Earl Haraldson's young daughter Thyri is married off to an old man, Earl Bjarni. Both Thyri and her mother Siggy are dissatisfied with this decision. Earl Bjarni tells Thyri about their wedding, the sons he expects from her and promises her gifts, but she is visibly repulsed. During their wedding night, the fat, old and drunk earl passes out before he can consummate the marriage. In "Burial of the Dead", he complains about Thyri's lack of enthusiasm in bed and threatens to beat her for disobeying. Later, after Haraldson is defeated by Ragnar Lothbrok, Thyri is saved from her horrible marriage by her mother Siggy who kills Earl Bjarni in front of everyone. Thyri looks beyond grateful.
- Tristan and Iseult: Young and beautiful Irish princess Iseult is engaged to an old Cornish king Mark. Love Potion is prepared for Iseult and Mark to make their Arranged Marriage work out. Tristan, King Mark's young nephew, drinks it with Iseult by mistake. They fall madly in love and sleep together, and they continue to commit adultery after Iseult and Mark's wedding.
- Marie de France:
- "Guigemar": Guigemar is a knight who mortally wounds a white hind, but is injured as well. The hind leaves a curse he can only be healed if a woman suffers for love of him while he suffers as much for her. He gets to a land where the lord has imprisoned his his young, beautiful lady wife out of jealousy. Worried she might cuckold him, he keeps her trapped in an enclosure with one entry that is guarded, but the place can also be approached from the sea, which is how wounded Guigemar gets there. Guigemar and the lady fall in love. Assured that their feelings are mutual, they consummate their love and spend some time in bliss. They are discovered and the lord forces Guigemar to return to his country. The lady is imprisoned within a marble tower and keeps longing for her love. She manages to escape and considers drowning herself in the sea. She then spots the same mysterious ship that had taken Guigemar away long ago and the ship brings her to Brittany, where she is taken captive by a Lord. She is eventually saved and gets together with Guigemar.
- "Laustic": There are two knights who live nearby one another in St. Malo. The first knight is older and has a beautiful, refined wife, and the other knight is known for his bravery and adventures. The young man is in love with his neighbour's wife and thanks to both his persistence and reputation, she gives in to his entreaties and falls in love with him. They are never able to meet because of her husband, but they are able to speak through windows over the courtyard and they toss presents to one another. One summer, the lovers rise at night, wanting to adore each other through the windows. The lady's husband gets angry because she's constantly out of their bed. She tells him she gets up to listen to the nightingale's beautiful song. The spiteful husband plans to capture and kill the bird. He does, throws the nightingale at her, staining her dress with its blood. The lady knows she can no longer rise to look at her beloved, and is worried he will not understand her absence. She sends her servant with the bird to the knight. The servant complies, and her beloved understands the message. He puts the bird in a small coffin, and carries it around with him from that day forever.
- The Canterbury Tales:
- In "The Miller's Tale", Alisoun is young, attractive, amorous and lustful, and a reputed beauty. John the carpenter is Alisoun's much older husband and he's constantly afraid that she'll cheat on him. The narrator says he's extremely jealous and very protective of her, but he's also very stupid and doesn't act like the obsessed, jealous spouse. He willingly takes young male boarders like Nicholas into his home, and he seems very devoted to his wife and concerned for her safety. Young Nicholas becomes Alisoun's lover and she is also courted by Absolom. When John hears Absolon serenading Alisoun outside their window in the middle of night, he only asks if she hears it, too. Poor stupid John ends up cheated on, tricked by his wife and humiliated in front of the entire town. It doesn't turn out that well for the other men involved either; Nicholas does get to have sex with Alisoun, but also gets a red hot bar of iron in the backside, and Absolom unwittingly kisses Alisoun's "nether eye" (and gets farted on). Alisoun is really the only person who comes out of it a clear winner.
- "The Merchant's Tale": Old Januarie is deceived by his young wife May and her lover Damyan after Januarie suddenly goes blind. Januarie is over sixty and May not yet twenty. Both names are very symbolic: Januarie is as bare and unfruitful as the winter month, and May is youthful and fresh and associated with spring. Januarie marries May largely out of lust. It is not known why May accepts his offer; however, he is a rich man and above her social class. Damyan, a squire of Janiarie's court, falls in love with May and she reciprocates. Januarie loses his sight, and his blindness increases his possessiveness and jealousy toward his young wife May. The lovers manage to sneak up to the branches of a pear tree in May's garden and begin to make love right above her husband's head. An enraged god Pluto restores Januarie's sight, but goddess Proserpina allows May to outwit him by explaining that she was merely struggling with Damyan in the tree because she had been told that it would magically restore Januarie's sight. The fooled Januarie and May continue to live together, and quite happily. May tells Januarie that he may be mistaken on more occasions, indicating her infidelity will go on.
- In the story of Paolo and Francesca in canto V of the The Divine Comedy's Inferno, Francesca was wedded for political reason to Giovanni Malatesta (also called Gianciotto or "Giovanni the Lame"). While in Rimini, she fell in love with Giovanni's younger and handsome brother, Paolo, who was married as well. They managed to carry on an affair for some ten years, until Giovanni ultimately surprised them in Francesca's bedroom, killing them both.
- In Sugawara Akitada, Count Tanibata's wife is much younger than him (he is in his sixties, she isn't even twenty) and it is heavily implied that he isn't capable of... more than acting like an overprotective fatherly figure. Which eventually leads to his demise at the hands of her lover or herself.
- Mansfield Park: Mary Crawford's friend Mrs Fraser (her maiden name is Janet Ross) married an old man for money and status, and Edmund writes in a letter to Fanny that she places her disappointment [in her marriage] not to faults of judgement, or temper, or disproportion of age, but to her being less affluent than many of her acquaintance.
Mary: And yet it was a most desirable match for Janet at the time. We were all delighted. She could not do otherwise than accept him, for he was rich, and she had nothing; but he turns out ill-tempered and exigeant, and wants a young woman, a beautiful young woman of five-and-twenty, to be as steady as himself. And my friend does not manage him well; she does not seem to know how to make the best of it. There is a spirit of irritation which, to say nothing worse, is certainly very ill-bred.
- In Middlemarch, Dorothea marries the elderly Reverend Casaubon after falling in love with his scholarly works, only to realize that he's boring, jealous, and actively discouraging of intellectual pursuits for women. Luckily for her, Casaubon dies shortly after she falls in mutual love with his kind, adventurous nephew Will. Unluckily, Casaubon was bitter enough to write in his will that Will and Dorothea would have to give up all of his inherited fortune if they ever married, thus setting up the main Star-Crossed Lovers plot of the novel.
- Some of Jean De La Fontaine's adult-oriented poems use this trope as the plot:
- "The Cudgelled And Contented Cuckold": The wife tells her husband their falconer has been making advances towards her and convinces her husband to go catch the lover in the act while Disguised in Drag. Naturally, the falconer shows up and they find ways to occupy themselves while the husband is out in ambush. Finally the lover pretends to come upon the "wife", and loudly declares that he was only testing the wife's virtue, and having found her entirely undeserving of so noble a man as her husband, proceeds to thrash the poor dupe, who cries tears of joy at the proof of such a faithful wife and devoted servant.
- "The Ring of Hans Carvel" has the paranoid husband dream that he's visited by the Devil, who gives him a ring that will prevent his being cuckolded as long as he wears it. He wakes up to find that he's jammed his finger up his wife's nethers.
- "The Jealous Husband": The husband has his wife shadowed by a Matron Chaperone to ensure no young gallants can get at her. The young lady passes under a window while the occupant is dumping the trash in the street and sends the chaperone to get her some clean clothes (allowing a handsome young man to keep the wife entertained while she's gone). The husband immediately recognizes what's happening, but is powerless to stop it.
- Effi Briest: Zig Zagged Trope. Effie Briest, a 17-year-old girl, is married off to a 40-year-old guy who was once romantically interested in her mother, Baron von Instetten. She feels neglected by her constantly busy husband and frowned upon by the local gentry; and worse, the unsettling house where they live is allegedly haunted by the ghost of a Chinese Man, and not even the birth of a daughter improves her spirit. Her husband is never downright abusive and feels in his own way fond of her. She starts having an affair with Major Crampas, but she can't stand that she has to lie. She's relieved when her husband is transferred to Berlin, giving her a chance to break off the affair. Six years later she seems to be finally happy with her family but her affair with Crampas is discovered by Instetten who, despite still loving her and not being angry with Crampas, feels obliged to respect the codes of society: he divorces her and prevents her from seeing their daughter and kills Crampas in a duel. Effi lives her final years alone and gravely ill until her death.
- Brother Cadfael: In "The Rose Rent", the wife of a wealthy and aged wool merchant takes lovers while her oblivious husband is away on business. But when one of said lovers tries to use her as an alibi (he's innocent of that particular crime, but was engaging in other illegal activity nearby), she laughs in his face and makes it clear she has no intention of giving up the position and money her marriage gives her for him.
- Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novella The Room in the Dragon Volant: Richard Beckett, a wealthy young Englishman travelling to Paris, makes the acquaintance of the elderly Comte de St. Alyre and his strikingly beautiful young wife Eugenie. As he is increasingly enamoured by Eugenie, he learns that the Comte (who is not much to look at) is a mean old miser who only married Eugenie for her inheritance, which he wants in order to pay his gambling debts. Determined to deliver Eugenie from her unhappy marriage to a miserly old tyrant, Beckett resolves to elope with her. Subverted, as only then does he find out harshly that the Comte and his wife are in league with each other and confidence tricksters who have been setting him up to be robbed and murdered for his money.
- A Song of Ice and Fire: Lady Lysa Tully is married off to elderly Lord Jon Arryn, a man decades older than her. Their marriage forges a useful alliance during the war and Lord Arryn needs a young woman to give him an heir. They have a loveless marriage because Lord Arryn is distant, Lysa has had many failed pregnancies and stillbirths, and she has never stopped loving her first love Petyr Baelish who was her father's ward. Later at court, Lysa and Petyr begin a secret affair (though he doesn't love her back) and Petyr even convinces her to poison her husband.
- The traditional song "Maids When You're Young" plays this trope for laughs. The refrain repeats a line "maids, when you're young, never wed an old man". It's a piece of advice for other young women. The girl's old husband's got no faloorum as he's lost his ding-doorum. When they went to bed, he lay like he was dead. When they went to sleep, she crept out of bed into the arms of a handsome young man. And she found his faloorum, he's got her ding-doorum...
- The Eagles song "Lyin' Eyes" has a modern spin on this trope as part of the story. Young city girls marry rich old guys to have an easier life... but they pay an ugly price.
City girls just seem to find out early,
How to open doors with just a smile,
A rich old man and she won't have to worry,
She'll dress up all in lace and go in style.
Late at night a big old house gets lonely,
I guess every form of refuge has its price,
And it breaks her heart to think her love is only,
Given to a man with hands as cold as ice.
- The 1900 torch song "A Bird In a Gilded Cage" is about a sad life of a beautiful woman who has married an old guy for money instead of for love and actually left someone young she loved.
'Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age,
And her beauty was sold,
For an old man's gold,
She's a bird in a gilded cage.
- Emilie Autumn's "Marry Me": The girl/singer, sold by her father, is stuck in a horrifically unhappy marriage to an old man she doesn't love and whom she finds repulsive (he has rotten teeth and bad breath). She tries to fight in a passive-aggressive way against her lot in life: she spends money on dresses and accessories and hair, she drinks wine, she parties and has affairs. She feels victorious that she'll never bear her husband's children — they'll be her lover's instead. She is still a deeply unhappy woman because she is not free. It's implied her husband is king because she thinks she'll be beheaded for her infidelity.
When I'm beheaded at least I was wedded
And when I am buried at least I was married
I'll hide my behaviour with wine as my saviour
But, oh, what beautiful things I'll wear
What beautiful dresses and hair
I'm lucky to share his bed
Especially since I'll soon be dead
Marry me, he said, god, he's ugly, but fortune is ours
Running in the gardens enjoying men, women, and flowers (...)
My life is arranged but this union's deranged
So I'll fuck who I choose for I've nothing to lose
And when master's displeased I'll be down on my knees again
- Marysha: A young sensitive country girl Marysha is forced by her parents to marry Vavra, a rich widower with three children who's in his forties. She pleads with him to be reasonable when her parents are not, and asks him whether he's not afraid that people will laugh at him for pursuing a young girl. Vavra also knows she loves her peer Francek, but marries her anyway for her beauty and especially her dowry. Marysha's unhappy because Vavra drinks and beats her. Her father then wants her to leave her abusive husband and asks her to return home, but she refuses. When Vavra threatens to murder Francek, desperate Marysha decides to poison her husband.
- La Mandragola, Niccolò Machiavelli's raunchy sex comedy, revolves around Callimaco, a wealthy playboy, and his desire to seduce Lucrezia, the beautiful young wife of Nicia, an elderly citizen of Florence who fancies himself a scholar but is really a conceited fool who (for whatever reason) is also unable to get Lucrezia pregnant. While Lucrezia's virtue is a serious hindrance to Callimaco's desire at first, eventually she is persuaded to sleep with him under pretense that this is necessary to cure her of infertility. Even though Callimaco confesses that the "cure" was a scam, her first night with Callimaco changes Lucrezia's mind and she takes an active role in fooling Nicia so she can enjoy her adulterous relationship with Callimaco.