A 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.
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.
By 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.
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.
Dickens, 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.
It 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.
My 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.
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.
Sadly, 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 blondes. And 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.
and his creation,
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.
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…