Author Archives: Sophie

Fictional Blondes

fictional Blonde La Dolce Vita Mastroianni and EkbergA recent lecture on La Dolce Vita started me thinking about the variety of fictional blondes I have come across in my life. For there is something special about The Blonde. She grabs our attention the moment she appears. Indeed, in twentieth century western culture she became almost an icon.

Yet at the same time she has as many aspects as a Greek goddess, positive, negative and sometimes just plain loopy. And we all know them.

Fictional Blonde“Having a blonde moment,” my friend, author Sarah Mallory, will say, as she discovers the sunglasses she has been searching for are lodged securely on the top of her head.

She’s channelling the Airhead Blonde — charming, disorganised, sometimes a little naïve, sociable, and so good-hearted that you forgive her any amount of stuff that would irritate the hell out of you in a grey-haired matron or a sultry brunette.

Forgive her and maybe even love her. We pay to go and see movies about her. That shows you!

And the Airhead, I suggest, is Fictional Blonde who appears for the very first time in the twentieth century, with Anita Loos’ masterpiece (see below) and is still going surprisingly strong. But more of that later.

MEDIAEVAL FICTIONAL BLONDES

Sappho wrote an ode hailing Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, as golden-haired, and it looks like a popular belief. Indeed statues of Aphrodite frequently sported marble curls coated with gold leaf.

Fictional Blondes - Chretien de TroyesBy the Middle Ages the heroines of all those chivalric stories of Courtly Love are regularly endowed with long blonde hair. Tristan’s Isolde is even called Iseult le Blonde by Super Troubadour, Chrétien de Troyes. Many, many female saints have the same attribute.

Fictional Blondes Rapunzel

 

Blonde, then, is the epitome of female beauty — and the lady in question is generally unattainable by our hero. Indeed, his Christian duty is to serve her, without question, and to protect her at all times.

Hold that thought. I will come back to it.

So thence to the fairy story and the eternal princess with golden hair. Only by now she’s not just the inspiration but also the the prize for courage and gallantry.

VICTORIAN FICTIONAL BLONDES

I admit I couldn’t recall the physical appearance of any Jane Austen heroine — and refused to go and look, because if it didn’t make an impact, then it’s no use to me as evidence. Lizzie Bennett has fine eyes and Anne Elliot has lost her bloom. But their hair colour? Not a clue.

Fictional Blondes Jenny WrenDickens, on the other hand, stuffs his books with golden-haired angels who [see above] need rescue and/or protection. Gentle Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. Tragic, courageous Jenny Wren, the dolls’ dressmaker in Our Mutual Friend.

Neither of them is, by any stretch of the imagination, an Airhead. But they have this in common with their twentieth century cousin: they make a man feel protective. And that makes him feel big and strong — and superior.

fictional Blondes George EliotIt was left to George Eliot (whose father considered her so plain that he had better have her educated because she would never marry) to give vent to the dark side of Fictional Blondes. And she does it magnificently with that imperious terminal narcissist, Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch.  The woman seems pliant and charming — and, of course, looks just beautiful — but she is capricious and has a will of iron.

Women see through her, mostly. Men? Not so much.

GENTLEMEN PREFER…?

Fictional Blondes Jean HarlowMy personal theory is that the Blonde, as we now think of her, is largely a creation of the cinema, specifically black and white movies. Pre-colour film, with its attendant dramatic lighting, made spectacular effects with blonde hair, especially as dyes improved and lighting systems were refined in the thirties.  Jean Harlow is the archetypal Hollywood blonde of that era. Her nickname was even the Blonde Bombshell.

Two books, twenty-five years apart, brought the blonde story out of fairytale and legends of chivalry and into the present day.

Fictional Blonde Gentlemen Prefer BlondesThe first, of course, was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Anita Loos, its author, had spent years writing scripts for Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks.

Like Bridget Jones, Lorelei, the eponymous preferred blonde, emerged in a series of articles in Harper’s Bazaar and she was funny. She also quadrupled the magazine’s circulation overnight. She was a dashing flapper, a practical woman with a brisk attitude to sex. She was also a lot more successful at hanging onto the man of the moment than Bridget. Her objective was always, like it says in the song, diamonds.

Published in 1925, the book became a surprise best-seller and was soon adapted for the stage.

Fictional Blonde Red Headed Woman posterSadly, it also brought on acute jealousy and contrived illness on the part of her writing collaborator, John Emerson, with whom she maintained a difficult personal partnership for many years. Looking back on it later, she wrote, “I had set my sights on a man of brains, to whom I could look up but what a terrible let down it would be to find out that I was smarter than he was.”

She did, however, go back to Hollywood to write the script of the blockbuster Jean Harlow movie about another smart girl on the make. It was called, ironically, Red-Headed Woman.

FICTIONAL BLONDES — THE FEMME FATALE

Which brings me to the expert on fictional blondesAnd to some extent on Hollywood, come to think of it. The narrator of a series of spare, stylish, hard-boiled Californian detective novels, written by an Englishman, oddly enough.

He, or rather his 1st person narrator, introduces a new arrival in Farewell, My Lovely thus: “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” 

Ah. Now if I could write just one sentence (and a half) like that, I would die a happy woman.

Fictional Blondes Bogart and Bacall in The Big Sleep

Bogart as Phillip Marlowe with Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, 1946

Meet Raymond Chandler

and his creation,

preux chevalier

Phillip Marlowe.

 

 

In the character of Marlowe, the chivalrous knight of the Courts of Love shakes hands with the post-Depression survivor. Marlowe knows his criminals, his tough guys, his con-men. He has no illusions about humanity. He doesn’t judge his fellow man or woman, though sometimes they sadden him. But he has his own code.

fictional Blonde Femme Fatale Farewell My Lovely

Dick Powell and Claire Trevor in 1944 film adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely

Chandler memorably described his detective’s role in the stories: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

And the Blonde is his antithesis — incomplete, sometimes completely fractured, uncommon and yet absolutely true to type.

Chandler, Phillip Marlowe and the hypothetical bishop had, between them, given birth to the blonde Femme Fatale and Hollywood’s flirtation with bleak, brutal and stylish — Film Noir.

To be continued…

Sophie Weston Author

Sophie

La Dolce Vita and Blonde

La Dolce Vita Movie poster, blondeThis Monday I was lucky enough to go to a lecture on La Dolce Vita by Professor Richard Dyer. I say lucky advisedly. It was pure chance that I went.

I never enjoyed this 1960 movie very much and, apart from its iconic status, remember little about it. But one of my best friends invited me. I wanted to see my friend. And so I went – and got so much more than I expected.

La Dolce Vita by Richard DyerProfessor Dyer is the sort of enthusiast I could listen to for ever. Moreover, he loves La Dolce Vita. Not uncritically, you understand. He wrote the British Film Institute’s guide to the movie – which I immediately ordered – and he clearly continues to research its creation and ponder its message(s). Above all he is just wonderful on the gossip that surrounds the movie.

Indeed, a major part of his thesis is that the movie is precisely about that gossip: how it arises, how it is delivered, how it is received. Continue reading

Medium Fiction

No, this blog is not about a new modestly priced genre for the  middle-aged, middle-gendered, middle-brow reader. This blog is about stories built around the figure of the professional medium. Because I’ve just read a cracking good one, and realised that it’s a subject I bump my nose on every few years. I don’t always like them, as you will see, but they often give me that little kick of electricity which means I never quite forget them.

Medium in All That Was LostThe Book that started this is All that Was Lost, by Alison May, published last Thursday.

The main character is, indeed, a professional medium. Very professional. One doesn’t entirely trust her but there is something oddly reassuring about her, though she clearly has some well-buried issues. She grows in stature throughout the book. Indeed, as in so many relationships, the reader alternately engages and retreats. I was 100% on her side by the end, though.

I found this a page-turner, intriguing and consistently engaging – and quite unlike anything else I have read this year. A refreshment to the jaded palate indeed. Continue reading

My First Library And What it Taught Me

writer's cat with booksThe fantastic experience of visiting the 250-year-old Leeds Library started me thinking about how my life has been marked out in libraries and, specifically, my first library. It was a small, very definitely a suburban sub-branch. But its great virtue was that it was at the end of the road. Ten minutes walk from home, tops!

And it had a visiting cat.

(No, not this one. This is my own TK. My own books too, come to think of it.)

Joining My First Library

Continue reading

Magic of a Georgian Library

The last couple of weeks I have been contemplating the magic of a Georgian Library. As a result I have been researching libraries in general and, in particular, libraries I have known intimately. There are a surprising number of them scattered through my career. My spiritual home, maybe?

Georgian Library

Grand Library at Osterley Park, not like my poor house at all!

Partly this must be due to the novel I am currently editing. It stars a distinctly down-at-heel stately home. Its library was put together in the eighteenth century on the basis of some sketches by the Adam brothers and a certain amount of DIY on the part of the servants and the cash-strapped owner. A classical frieze in the library, indeed, was constructed out of clever paint effects and paper mâché. I’m rather in love with that frieze. Continue reading

World-building

World building fantasy mirrorAt a recent conference I discovered that Georgette Heyer has had a considerable influence on science fiction and fantasy authors.

Huh?

Restrained, witty, convention-conscious Georgette and the Trekkies? Really? How? Above all, why?

Because of her world-building. Continue reading

Georgette Heyer Study Day

Georgette HeyerThis week I spent a day with Georgette Heyer. Billed as The Nonesuch Conference, this was at a hybrid gathering at London University, offering a selection of papers from accredited academics together with reader/writer participation from people labelled in the programme as independent scholars.

Clearly, and heartwarmingly, most of the speakers I heard were also fans.

Georgette Heyer regency invitationIt was preceded by a writing workshop the day before. And there was a Regency Soirée in the evening after the conference, which sounds like a lot of fun.

Sadly, I couldn’t make either of these events. For one thing I’m still convalescent. (My energy gives out unexpectedly, so I didn’t want to push it.) For another, the programme was really full. Academics seemed to be supercharged, cheerily steaming from session to session, enthusiasm still at white heat.

When I read my notes I was astonished at the sheer volume of ideas I had noted down for further consideration. Continue reading

Writer On Holiday

Writer on holiday is  not a natural role for me. I admit it. I’m not good at holidays. We never had them when I was a child and somehow I’ve never really got the knack of it. But sometimes I accompany The Birdwatcher on one of his birding trips. It is a delight.

Well, for me it is a delight. And The Birdwatcher is kind enough to say he enjoys it too, in spite of my not knowing much about either ornithology or birdwatching etiquette.

Holiday Reading

I probably won’t read much but I get uneasy if I haven’t got a book to hand. So I like to take one non-fiction and one novel, both chosen wholly for fun.

Holiday readingThis time my non-fiction was a memoir by Lev ParikianWhy Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? The author’s situation is the reverse of mine. Basically he knows what he is doing in the matter of puffin-bothering and just fell out of the habit when he grew up. Whereas I have been going along with it for a while, without ever getting much better. He decided that he would take it up again for a year.

His book is a thoughtful and very entertaining saunter through his bird pursuits, memories, music, encounters with experts and much else. It’s a charming journey with delicious laugh-out-loud moments and life-enhancing digressions. Continue reading

Writer in Control

writer in control?A writer in control?

I hear hollow laughter from my friends and fellow authors.

And yet only a couple of days ago someone was telling me a story which appeared to demonstrate the exact reverse.

Writer in Control While Lecturing?

The story is this: some time ago a Very Distinguished Author was holding one of those literary Events in an overseas capital. I detect a faint whiff of the British Council. But possibly it was just a simple commercial book tour. At some point the Very Distinguished One invited questions. As they do.

Writer in control - inviting questions

In control? I don’t think so.

Anyway, my interlocutor, a kindly soul, recognised her civic duty. She bit on the bullet, braced up and did, indeed, ask a question of the Very Distinguished Party. Did his characters ever get away from him? Continue reading

Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

demon long distance writerFirst, I don’t know if the loneliness of the long distance Writer is any different from the horrors that come with any other profession. When we close our eyes at night, we are all alone with our demons, after all, from Accountant to Zoo Keeper.

long distance writer despairs

 

But I do wonder if there is something peculiar to the occupation of writing which attracts this shadow companion.

And then chains it to us, hip and thigh, when the going gets tough and the carpet disappears under discarded drafts.

So I thought I would share some thoughts on it. Just in case they may be useful to some writer who thinks he or she is alone in the cold and dark. Continue reading