Ever since I was a little girl and was captivated by the descriptions of Cinderella’s ballgowns in my Ladybird book, I’ve loved to imagine what my favourite fictional characters looked and dressed like. (In fact, I credit this now-tattered tome for planting the seeds of my obsession with fashion, which I was eventually able to turn into a career.)
From Clarissa Dalloway’s elegant 1920s party finery to Anne of Green Gables’ much-desired puffed sleeves, descriptions of characters' clothing help me imagine their personalities more fully – you are what you wear, to a great extent.
New York-based fashion illustrator Samantha Hahn obviously shares my enthusiasm for fashion in fiction as she’s produced Well-Read Women - a beautiful book of 50 colour portraits of some of literature’s most fascinating women, from Elizabeth Bennett to Anna Karenina.
The book itself is a beautiful thing – hardback, with a silk-screened cloth spine and each character is represented in a watercolour with a handwritten quotation from the novel that they feature in alongside. It would make a beautiful gift for anyone who loves reading, fashion and women in literature - just imagine curling up in an armchair with a mug or glass of something delicious on a rainy Sunday afternoon, leafing through these lovely pages.
What I love is that this selection of 50 women is purely personal to Hahn – they’re her 50 and she’s chosen them because of aspects of their characters that intrigue, irritate or inspire her. My 50 would be different again (wherefore art thou, Miss Marple?) and that’s what makes this such a fascinating read – because we’re gaining an insight into someone else’s literary life.
Another admirable aspect is the amazing attention to detail – Hahn has clearly enjoyed herself picking out outfits for the characters which best sum them up, and ensuring historical accuracy in the clothes. But it's not just their clothes, as she explains in her introduction:
"Beyond the surface details, it was essential to me to capture the feeling of each character, to visually interpret her through my emotional lens, to portray her as I see her in my mind's eye. From Edna Pontellier's despondent eyes to Wendy Darling's warm smile, I set out to convey the essence of each one as we feel her through the author's description of her and her world."
So often when a much-loved novel is adapted into a film or TV series, we feel personally affronted when the heroine doesn’t look like we imagined she would (I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly is the best/worst example of this for me, while Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett was a triumph).
But somehow it’s different when you see these women in illustrative form – they have a dream-like, fluid quality which is flexible enough to still remain open to interpretation – these images are clearly how Hahn sees her favourite fictional heroines, but her painting style allows you to feel that something of the character is still there for you to imagine.
Now, because my bookshelves are groaning, I am oh-so-generously offering this gorgeous book to one of you lot. Just email me your name and address and I'll pick a winner on Friday 27th September. And tell me who your favourite literary heroine is in the comments below!
Well-Read Women, Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines by Samantha Hahn is published by Chronicle Books, £11.99