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Character Studies: Lady Brett Ashley

July 19, 2012 | by

Ava Gardner as Ladt Brett

“Damned good-looking” is how Ernest Hemingway—or, rather, his antihero Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises—describes Lady Brett Ashley when she appears at a Parisian club with a mob of pretty boys. “Damned good-looking” is better than pretty. It’s better than the colloquial “hot,” better than beautiful, even.

Damned good-looking, it is.

Imagine Hemingway, the great economist of words, deciding just how he would introduce perhaps his most enduring siren. Original drafts of the novel open with the character Ashley (better known as Brett), though she would eventually come to play a smaller role. Hemingway was bewitched, at the time of writing, by the self-possession of the real-life Lady Duff Twysden, and she—rather than his wife, Hadley—would serve as the partial inspiration for The Sun Also Rises’s heroine. (Indeed, he would dedicate later editions of the novel to her.)

Hemingway, Harold Loeb, Lady Duff Twysden, Hadley Hemingway, Don Stewart, Pat Guthrie

Poor Hadley would be left out again when her husband took up with Lady Brett’s other progenitor, Pauline Pfeiffer, who in 1926 came to France to assist Mainbocher at Vogue. In addition to being a fashion writer, Pfeiffer was an accomplished journalist, an intellectual who fit easily into Hemingway’s Paris crew. It seems Hemingway’s rigid conception of a professional, globe-trotting man’s man—a fan of hunting, boxing and bullfighting—shouldn’t settle for pretty; he’d want damn good-looking. “Damn good-looking”—Hemingway’s highest female accolade—is also, in the form of Lady Brett, damn witty, damn intelligent, and damn good in bed.

It’s also, not incidentally, damn good style. Take, as example, Brett’s arrival in the first scene of The Sun Also Rises: She’s wearing a thin crewneck sweater, described as a tight-fitting wool jersey. It shows off her “curves like the hull of a racing yacht”—a man’s oversized toy. Brett’s paired this top with a tweed skirt—nothing breezy or delicate—and a man’s felt hat (although at one point she switches it for a Basque beret). In a later chapter, it’s noted that she doesn’t wear any stockings, as she perches on a high stool.

Twenties fashion had brought its own kind of loose freedom: bobbed hair, dropped waists, shortened skirts and rolled stockings. Curves became more visible under less structured clothes. There was the magic of Molyneux, Chanel’s sleek silhouettes, and, later in the decade, Schiaparelli’s Surrealist designs.

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway

Brett takes all this further. Her hair is an androgynous style “brushed back like a boy.” (Later in the novel, her lover, the bullfighter Romero, asks her to grow her hair long—which she refuses.) Brett abandons the standard cloche in favor of a more masculine hat, shows off her body beneath her sweater, and, rather than rolling them down, wears no stockings at all as she dances and drinks in public.

When I was thirteen and first met Brett, I was bewitched by her insouciance. Her seductive powers were obvious, but she also bucked authority and social mores of the time. How heavenly to not worry what anyone thought, to engage in the forbidden pleasures of alcohol and sex. As I grew older, I was charmed by another side of Brett. She was a thirty-four-year-old patrician divorcée with the gall to sleep with a bullfighter fifteen years her junior. Brett could have taken up with Robert Cohn, with his Ivy league degree, literary success, and unerring devotion, but she’s a self-sufficient woman who unabashedly partakes in pleasure-seeking. She doesn’t settle; not even her love of the impotent Barnes is enough for her to yield to her carnal desires.

Subconsciously, perhaps, Brett’s appeal also lies in that her true allure, her charm and sexual confidence, can be channeled by anyone, even those of us who don’t feel conventionally attractive. (That said, Ava Gardner—nothing if not beautiful—not only played Brett in the film adaptation, but channeled her, taking up with a bullfighter while filming.) She’s not blond or brunette, green- or blue-eyed. As Brett and Jake ride along in a taxi, her hat comes off and the streetlights illuminate her face, and we are treated to the book’s only description of her features. “Brett’s face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares.” That’s it. For all the reader knows, Brett may not even be classically beautiful—rather, perhaps she’s a jolie-laide who lures men with her charm. When her beauty’s complimented, she counters, “Beautiful. With this nose?” The universal appeal of Brett’s look is that it’s more about insouciance and style. But what makes Brett’s odd gamine-bombshell hybrid most alluring isn’t simply the clothes, but her attitude ... and also that a man—Hemingway, at that—imagined her.

On some level, perhaps it is reassuring to know that the ultimate man’s man embraced such a nuanced ideal. However complicated his legacy, Hemingway did define a certain hypermasculinity. “Damn good-looking” might not have resonated quite the same coming from, say, Gertrude Stein.

Stephanie LaCava is a writer working in New York City and Paris whose work has appeared in Vogue, T: The New YorkTimes Style Magazine, and other publications. Her literary debut, An
Extraordinary Theory of Objects (HarperCollins) will be released this
December.

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14 COMMENTS

8 Comments

  1. Tom May | July 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    “Damned good-looking” means words fail.

  2. Tom McLean | July 19, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    It’s always seemed to me like she’s not a careful insightful portrait of femininity, she’s a boy thinly disguised. Yes, Hemingway [insert anti-gay seal here].

  3. Brian Tschiegg | July 20, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Sometimes you find that beauty isn’t necessarily encaptured in looks and physical stature. Sometimes beauty is encapsulated in the way a woman carries herself and projects around other people. Confidence can be more damned good-looking than traditional beauty. Hemingway points out what a lot of men’s men already know.

  4. Xavier Salisbury | July 23, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    Is it necessary that every female character be a ‘careful insightful portrait of femininity’? Brett Ashley is a marvel of a character, a character in motion, a living, dynamic rendition of heartbreak and festering desire. I’m not offended if you prefer to deflate Hemingway’s hypermasculinity with accusations of homoeroticism, but please don’t reduce one of American literature’s most beautiful characters to a literary Freudian slip in pursuit of that agenda.

    And not for nothing, Jake Barnes — the first-person protagonist whose life and circumstances invited a number of comparisons to Hemingway himself — was impotent. I’d say it takes a particularly secure individual to offer that up to the canon.

  5. J. Howard Rosier | July 24, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    This is a good interpretation, but I feel the most insightful snippet is the nuanced ideal–though not in the way that the author intended. It’s too easy to portray Brett as a feminist hero bucking sexual mores; like virtually every character in The Sun Also Rises, she is reacting to being hurt.

    The reason why Brett shacks up with and eventually abandons the bullfighter and Robert Cohn is because, in her previous marriage, she was abused. Her confidence is a mask; even though she comes off as carefree, her previous experience has left her unable to love (with the exception of Jake, of course, whose war wound has left him unable to love in the manner that Brett expects).

    Lady Brett Ashley, therefore, is a trailblazer in her place and time not because of principle–or at least not completely–but rather because the traditional alternative proved dangerous and unsatisfying. And it is this, if anything, that reverberates into our time–much more so than her nonclassical fashion sense and proto-cougar sensibility.

  6. Anthony Martin | July 25, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I agree that this “nuanced ideal” of Hemingway’s is reassuring. I found the Lady Brett to be at times an ethereal, transitory presence on the page that beckoned me beyond superficial ideals about women. Her mystique was to me far more enticing than stockings and a long hair, much like a woman with soul and intellect is far more enticing to me than heels and expensive hairdos today (though I admit that the former and the latter aren’t always mutually exclusive).

  7. dude | December 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    I wrote my masters’ thesis on The Sun Also Rises, and after much reading and analysis, have come to really love the anomaly that is Brett Ashley. She is a true woman at times, tender and almost dainty in Jake’s arms, but outside of Jake’s control she is more masculine than all the men in the story. Whether Hemingway liked it or not, he created and defined the modern woman in all of her glory without realizing that it would take 60-70 years for Brett to materialize in the populace. It is also no wonder that Hemingway dropped Hadley for Pauline, a woman who looked exactly like Brett Ashley (or Duff Twysden).

  8. Jasmine | July 11, 2013 at 6:27 am

    Tom not at all
    “Damned good-looking” means that her beauy was that strong that gave here more troubles than blish.
    Like Helen of Troy…

6 Pingbacks

  1. [...] larger context.) My middle name, Brett, was chosen by my father, also after a character in a novel: Brett Ashley, from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. (Here, I’ll gloss over the remark my father once made to me about Brett Ashley being a whore. I [...]

  2. [...] context.) My middle name, Brett, was chosen by my father, also after a personality in a singular: Brett Ashley, from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. (Here, I’ll gloss over the remark my father once made to me about Brett Ashley being a whore. I [...]

  3. [...] larger context.) My middle name, Brett, was chosen by my father, also after a character in a novel: Brett Ashley, from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. (Here, I’ll gloss over the remark my father once made to me about Brett Ashley being a [...]

  4. […] Woolrich woolen mill. The contrasting pin stripe (not pictured) is a perfect menswear touch (so Lady Bretty Ashley to forgo the Cloche for the masculine style). Pair with a crew neck sweater, a dropped waist skirt […]

  5. […] one word, it would be: drunk. Granted, given that Hemingway based this novel on true events and real people, maybe I should be surprised that alcohol, spirits, revelry, and/or general imbibification aren’t […]

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