Going for the chop: My Favourite Literary Haircuts

There’s a significant moment in ‘The Lowlands’ when Gauri cuts her hair, symbolising (amongst other things) her determined dissociation from her Indian past. It made me realise how much I love a good literary hair-cut – that photo-op moment for so many heroines over the years. Anyway, it got me thinking and here is my (far from complete)list of top hair-cuts through literary history.

imageAs a massive romantic I personally tend to only re-read the end of ‘The Mill on the Floss’ (book 6, ‘The Great Temptation’ will always be a defining romantic read from my teenage years). Still I can’t deny the force of young Maggie’s actions when with ‘one delicious grinding snip, and then another and another, and the hinderlocks fell heavily on the floor, and Maggie stood cropped in a jagged uneven manner, but with a sense of clearness and freedom, as if she had emerged from a wood into the open plain.’

imageFor proper Victorian sentimentality, you can’t beat ‘Little Women’ and Jo March is next on my list for her heroic and self-denying haircut – all to help her family. The tomboy Jo admits that ‘it almost seemed as if I’d an arm or leg off‘ but she does at least get the kind of dramatic reaction that a serious new hair style deserves (though maybe with a bit more horrified pity than is entirely flattering).

imgres-1Number 3 on the list, and last of the nineteenth century novels, is Anna Karenina. Short hair is never a good thing in this period. For Maggie it symbolised rebellion, for Jo it was poverty. For Anna, most depressingly of all, it’s illness. After a drastic near-death experience she recovers to find her beautiful hair cut short. There may be other, equally interesting things happening in the book during these sections, but I personally love all of the references to her beautiful short curls as her hair grows back.

image Short hair really came into its own in the twentieth century and in this wonderful short story F Scott Fitzgerald has a ball with the exciting new social possibilities it posed.  This short story (which is included in ‘Flappers and Philosophers’) is a huge amount of fun and contains some of Fitzgerald’s best female creations.  Oh, and it also has the kind of perfect title very few stories could ever live up to.  Trust me, this one does.

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Very few ‘best of’ lists can be completed without including an E. F. Benson novel.  I adore ‘Lucia in London’, a novel which takes the reader right to the fashionable heights of Edwardian London.  Lucia is determined to fit in and conquer the town and the first step is to shingle her hair.  At her stylish best, a picture of her draws in the crowds: ‘There was not much of her face to be seen, for she was talking into a telephone, but her skirt was very short, and so was her hair.’  Personally, I think it’s all about the hair.

imageThe last of this batch of hair-cuts has to come from the spawling self-conscious fun that is Angela Carter’s ‘Wise Children’.  On re-reading I can see that the key scene is really hair dying rather than the cutting (which happens twenty pages earlier).  Still, I love and am going to include the moment when the twins Dora and Nora dye their bobbed hair a startling black: ‘When it dried out and we’d given it a good brush, we didn’t know ourselves.  Half a yard of black satin that turned into our cheeks like commas.  It was the turning point.’

image There are so many things to love in ‘Middlesex’, but for obvious reasons I’m going to focus on the fact that it does something very new and different with that traditional female change-of-hairstyle, change-of-identity idea.  There are lots of descriptions of beauty and hair throughout the book and when the crucial hair-cut happens I found it just so satisfying.  This is especially after the descriptions of long dirty hair had started to make my scalp crawl.

There we are, a whistle stop tour through my favourite literary coiffures (and a chance to stop by some of my top book recommendations).  I realise there are lots that I’ve missed out but I’m also hoping to discover some new ones in the years to come.  Lahiri and Eugenides have shown that, while times change, the power of a good new hair-cut endures.

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On a personal note, I had very long hair until the age of 30.  As my avatar image shows, it’s now cut short and I can’t stop smiling.

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17 Responses to Going for the chop: My Favourite Literary Haircuts

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I instantly thought Mill on the Floss too – perhaps because I did something similar as a child, although before I read it (so not inspired by it). Great post, really enjoyed this recap!

    • I’m not hugely into biographical readings of texts, but George Eliot had her own moment with a dramatic self-inflicted hair cut as a child and the force of that passage just shines through the book. Even if I hadn’t been ordering things chonologically, Mill on the Floss would still have gone in at number one!

  2. A brilliant idea for a post! A literary haircut made me cry as a child: Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

    There was an article in this weekend’s Guardian magazine about hair, with women talking about all their hair represents – Emma Jane Unsworth, Grace Jones, Deborah Orr, among others – proving you are absolutely right, the power of a haircut is timeless.

    • Of course! How could I forget! (Plus it puts a nicely gendered twist on the character of Aslan, or maybe I’m reading too much into this).
      I’ll check out that magazine article – there’s clearly something in the air this week 🙂

  3. Sarah says:

    Fantastic post! It makes me want to go straight out and get bobbed. I loved ‘Wise Children’ and the transformation that a blunt cut and a box of dye wrought, and you’re absolutely right, Scott Fitzgerald’s short story is a real gem!

    • They’re the literary moments that stick with you aren’t they! And Bernice Bobs her Hair is so underrated (not that Gatsby isn’t great, but people forget to rave about his other incredible short stories)

  4. roughghosts says:

    Thanks for this list, I will have to pass it on to my daughter who is a hairdresser. As for myself I have so little hair left that a razor twice a week does the trick. Like many guys I fretted about becoming bald but I’ll tell you there can’t be any easier option to care for!

  5. What a great post! Do you know Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell? Ruth comes to live with the Bensons as an unmarried pregnant teenager. The Bensons pass her off as a young widow for the sake of social decency. Their servant Sally sees through the story and cuts off Ruth’s hair very savagely so that she can complete the disguise with a widow’s cap. It’s a powerful scene. There’s probably potential for a whole book on literary hair cutting here 🙂

    • Thank you so much for the addition! I knew that I had missed some out crucial scenes. Also, while I re-read ‘North and South’ and ‘Cranford, I have neglected ‘Ruth’ for many years….it’s back on the to-be-re-read list!

  6. FictionFan says:

    Great post, and I’m so impressed by your memory! Since Little Women got in, I’m going to give a shout out for Anne of Green Gables – after dyeing her hair green (by accident!) she had to have it all cut off, and when it grew back suddenly her carrotty locks had turned auburn – and the duckling turned into a swan…

    • Of course – I remembered the hair-dying scene, but not the subsequent cutting. On the subject of children’s literature, I’m sure there’s a dramatic Jacqueline Wilson hair cutting scene in at least one of her novels…

  7. There’s a wonderful book by Michelle Lovric, The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters. Hair is central!!

  8. Stefanie says:

    This was most excellent fun! I’ve done long, really short, really long, short, kind of long and currently I’m at long and thinking I might want to go short again. Decisions decisions! Sometimes I wish I could be like my husband and just keep my hair shaved super short.

    • It’s been bugging me all week, because I’m sure there are some good dramatic hair shaving moments in literature, but all I can’t think of any. The closest I can get is ‘V for Vendetta’, but I think that’s cheating as I’ve only seen the film, not yet read the graphic novel…

  9. Pingback: Going for the chop part II: My Favourite Men’s Literary Hair Styling Moments | Shoshi's Book Blog

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