Saturday, 17 August 2013

Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F Scott Fitzgerald

published 1920








[Bernice has been staying with her cousin Marjorie for the summer]

When she had undressed for the night the door opened and Marjorie came in.

"Bernice," she said, "I'm awfully sorry about the Deyo dance. I'll give you my word of honor I'd forgotten all about it."

"'Sall right," said Bernice shortly. Standing before the mirror she passed her comb slowly through her short hair.

"I'll take you down-town to-morrow," continued Marjorie, "and the hairdresser'll fix it so you'll look slick. I didn't imagine you'd go through with it. I'm really mighty sorry."

"Oh, 'sall right!"

"Still it's your last night, so I suppose it won't matter much."

Then Bernice winced as Marjorie tossed her own hair over her shoulders and began to twist it slowly into two long blond braids until in her cream-colored negligée she looked like a delicate painting of some Saxon princess. Fascinated, Bernice watched the braids grow. Heavy and luxurious they were, moving under the supple fingers like restive snakes--and to Bernice remained this relic and the curling-iron and a to-morrow full of eyes.



observations: A mention of shingled hair in a 1930 novel last week provoked some discussion in the comments section (scroll down below the entry) as to what was a bob, a shingle or a bingle.

Bob: hair cut short to the same length all round. Shingle: hair cut to taper into the neck and - thank you, @Lucy Fisher -
cropped quite short so that it looked like a shingled roof…a bingle was a bob/shingle cross. Short at the back, with "wings" of hair to stick out from under your cloche hat. "Madam says you've completely bungled her bingle!" (Old Punch joke)

But the thing is, it means short hair, and it was the fast girls, the uptodate modern fashionable ones, who got their hair bobbed. This short story takes the matter just as seriously as it deserves, and shows that Mean Girls, jealousy and bullying were not all invented with the internet. The most famous bob (both then and now) was probably blog favourite Louise Brooks - this picture used for this entry:






Bernice is staying with Marjorie, but is dull and unattractive. Marjorie gives her a makeover (and no, it does NOT involve cutting her hair, merely threatening to) and suddenly Cinderella is getting all the attention, and Marjorie is put out. So she provokes/dares Bernice to go through with it and get her hair bobbed, with sad results (didn’t the same thing happen on Friends, with Rachel and Bonnie?): she is no longer attractive, and she is seen as fast. (Note: that is bad.)

It is unusual in the fiction of the time for the bob not to be seen as attractive and liberating, but FSF makes it clear that her hair lies in ‘lank lifeless blocks’, and is ‘ugly as sin’. (These are Bernice’s thoughts, but this is no modern, unreliable view of a young girl’s lack of self-esteem – it is clear that everyone shares her horror at what she has done.)

But Bernice is going to get her revenge: well may we all stare at Marjorie’s braids. For the moment.

The picture, from the Library of Congress, is of soprano Stella Carol, who was discovered singing Christmas carols in the street in London, and was due to have a remarkable career. But she was travelling on a White Star liner, the Arabic, torpedoed in 1915. There are reports of her keeping up passengers’ spirits by singing in a lifeboat, but I was unable to ascertain whether she made dry land again – she certainly seems to have disappeared from history at that point.

For F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, click on the label below.

10 comments:

  1. Moira, I hope I haven't already told you that my husband is obsessed with Louise Brooks and especially loves her hairdo. (Obsessed may be too strong, but it seems that way to me.)

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    1. No you haven't said that before - I'm a bit that way myself, I could just gaze and gaze at her, and I love reading about her. Your husband has good taste!

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  2. Moira - Oh, I am so glad you posted about this story. I remember so well my feelings of catharsis about the end of it. And I think it really does highlight the fact that bobbing one's hair was absolutely not taken lightly at the time. I liked the descriptions, I liked the interplay among the characters, and yes, it does show that bullying is not a recent invention...

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    1. I love the way he is a very serious, classic writer, but he absolutely understands that apparently trivial things, like haircuts, are actually very important.

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  3. The mention of Mean Girls has me thinking about the teenage movie starring Lindsay Lohan (unless it was Hilary Duff?)- something I've had to sit through many times with my two girls. I do enjoy it though!

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    1. The lovely Lindsay I think - yes we liked that one. We forced my single, childless, academic brother to watch it too, and we all had a great time.

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  4. Hey, I wore a bingle for years without even knowing it!

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    1. There you go Sara! I once saw a photo of my mother in the 1930s, and asked if her hair was styled in the then-very-fashionable bob. No, she said, that was the cut you got when my grandfather sat you on a chair on the kitchen table and took the household scissors to your hair. Still looked good though!

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  5. What a coincidence, I was also in my prime in the 1930s. Or Saskatchewan. One of those.
    I used to get my hair cut by a lovely silver-haired gentleman named Mervin whom I think had perfected what he called a "swing bob" in the 60s.

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    1. A swing bob, how lovely. It's a toss-up with hair, I think - finding the right person is a lottery, not depending on how much you pay, how modern they are, how they cut anyone else's hair. Sometimes you just get lucky.

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