Character Studies: Lady Brett Ashley
July 19, 2012 | by Stephanie LaCava
“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.)
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.
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