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.
As 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.’
For 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).
Number 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.
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. ‘Bernice Bobs her Hair’ (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.
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.
The last of this batch of hair-cuts has to come from the sprawling 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.’
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.
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.