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.
“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.
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.
The 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.
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…
Ah, that Chandler line…the man was educated at the same school as P G Wodehouse. Did they have the same English teacher?
You’re thinking along the same lines as I did, Liz. I don’t know about their English masters, I admit. But there’s no doubt that they were both taught by a classicist, Phillip Hope, whose classes sound amazing. And I gather that Chandler continued to correspond with him, even sending him food parcels from America during the War.
I covered it in this piece, some years ago. http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2010/03/writers-choice-252-jenny-haddon.html
Indeed, I have sometimes wondered – Marlowe was allegedly a tip of his hat to Kit of that ilk. What if Phillip…
!!!!! Have just discovered that Hope then became Headmaster of a crammer’s in Southwold called Craighurst where Orwell [then Eric Blair] was sent to prepare for his entrance examinations for the Indian Police Service. – Chapter 4 of ORWELL, THE LIFE, by D J Taylor.
What are the chances of one teacher crossing the path of three such uniquely stylish writers in his career? The man must have been a phenomenon!
Extraordinary. I think I heard a piece about P G and Chandler being taught by the same man on R4, but Blair as well? He must have been inspirational.
Your post reminded me of the painting by Frederic Leighton, the Fisherman and the Syren. She is definitely blonde, but more a fatal female than an airhead! It depicts the mermaid from Goethe’s poem of the same name, who complained to the fisherman that he was luring her “children” to their deaths. He, of course, fell desperately in love with the “dripping mermaid fair” – “half drew she him, half sank he, and ne’er again was seen” (I have to admit a “dripping mermaid” is perhaps more appealing to the Victorian mind than a modern day audience, we probably prefer the iconic image of Ursula Andress walking (dripping) from the sea in Dr No (1962)
I half remember the poem but the picture’s a new one on me. Must hunt it down.
Your comment inspired me to look at the painting and then to seek out the original Goethe poem. Have to say the “dripping mermaid fair” is not a literal translation of what Goethe wrote. He doesn’t use the word “mermaid” at all. His woman is described just once in the ballad, and his words are: “ein feuchtes Weib” which translates, literally, as “a wet woman” 😉
But I can see that “dripping mermaid fair” could suit the ballad metre. Blame the Victorians, indeed.
PS For anyone who’s interested, the original German ballad is here. It’s short; only 4 stanzas.
Thanks for the clarification on the Goethe, Joanna. My German isn’t up to reading an 18th century poem, so I cheated and used a translation! And to be fair “a wet woman” doesn’t sound that good, does it? 🙂
Oh that’s interesting, Joanna. I fell over it as one of 3 or 4 “compare and contrast” poems to consider with Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Night is my Sister”. I don’t remember the translation but I’m fairly sure it didn’t include a mermaid.
Four lines of the EVM poem have always stayed with me however:
Small chance, however, in a storm so black,
A man will leave his cozy fire and snug
for a drowning woman’s sake, and bring her back
To drip and scatter shells upon the rug.
Equally interesting, Sophie. In the German version of Wikipedia, where I found the Goethe poem, it also includes an excerpt from his comments where he says, about this ballad “It is merely an expression of the feeling of the graceful waters that entice us to bathe in summer; there’s nothing more in it.” So if we see something about men and female attraction, it’s not what Goethe [says he] intended.
Bet Freud would have had something to say about that!
…and I still lose my sunglasses. Regularly 🙂
Oh, me too. And I really need them at this time of year when the sun’s so low. Otherwise I walk along my High Street with tears flowing down my cheeks and kind ladies ask if I’d like a cup of coffee and to talk about it. So Hunt The Sunglasses is a regular game here at the moment.
They are on your head…. 🙂
So far only once.
I hesitate to say anything about this post in case I spoil the next one…
Um – well, there’s a good slug of more Chandler to come, if you’re thinking of “spoilers”, Lesley. But otherwise, I don’t see that you would ever spoil any of our blogs. Your comments are always spot on.
Very kind of you to say, m’m. I love this blog because you, Joanna and now Liz and all the commentors (commenters? Commentators (!)?) all seem to be on the same wavelength.
Fascinating. I’ve never envied blondes, funnily enough. Originally so dark-haired as to be almost black (not that you’d believe it with the grey fuzz now!), I desperately wanted to be a Pre-Raphaelite red-head. Though I do have a wonderful Rapunzel figurine with the most gorgeous long blonde flyaway locks. Now that style of blonde hair grabs me. I guess it’s the length I envy more than the colour. My hair never grew below my shoulder blades. Maddening.
I think blonde might be a state of mind. A (temporarily) besotted swain once said everyone would envy him because I was a green-eyed blonde. Didn’t recognise myself at all. And then he deconstructed it and, technically, he was probably right at the time. Still feels wrong though.