Friday 22 August 2014

Literary Clichés

The heroine in a non-tragic Victorian novel always has one rebellious curl escaping from her careful hair-do. Even respectable writers do this (e.g. Trollope, The Warden). (JL)

In historical novels, her eyes are too wide apart, her mouth too wide, her nose too snub – ie she conforms to mid-20th century standards of beauty.

In romantic fiction, when a man compliments a woman, she drops an “ironic” curtsey and says “Thank you, kind sir!”

She looked down at herself complacently.” In romantic novels of the 60s, heroines do this to give the author a chance to describe their appearance. Have you ever seen anybody do this? And couldn’t they look in the mirror?

In girls’ school stories, the girls are always setting booby traps, playing wizard japes on Matron, and being rather cruel to somebody called “Mademoiselle”.

In novels of 50-75 years ago, middle-class women under stress always “drag a comb” through their hair (which is probably short and permed).

All novels of the early 20th century have to include this line: “He opened his mouth to speak – but decided against it.” (Sometimes just “He opened his mouth – but thought better of it.”)

Slight sibilance” was code for something: being Jewish, being gay, or just coming from Dagenham.

People's faces "work" with emotion - do they grimace painfully while their lips tremble?

There’s a woman of about 35 who people initially think is plain, but who turns out to have beautiful hazel eyes and a warmly attractive voice. She seems to dress drably but actually wears beautifully cut tailor-mades (rather than a lot of makeup and flashy clothes).

Working-class people have corns, and say “What a coincidence!” Also “Fancy that!”, “onst” for once, “Eh, what?” and “Ever so!” They also “suck their teeth”, whatever this means. Constantly say “tsk, tsk”? Or make the “Ffffff! It’ll cost yer!” noise? Their rooms are always “stuffy”. Sometimes “cold but stuffy”.

Lower middle-class women call clothes “sweetly pretty”.

Men turn up the collars of their jackets against the wet or cold. (In the 30s, when collars were wide, this might have made some difference.)

A feisty and glamorous older lady “suddenly looked a very tired old woman” after a shock, or when the truth about her son/family has come out.

Tidemarks (of dirt) round the neck, or a dirty neck was a signifier for “working class or untrustworthy”. Did it mean that the character washed her face and nothing else? Or did she lie in the bath acquiring a tidemark round her neck that she failed to wash off? Beatnik girls had “dirty faces”. They didn’t wear make-up, so perhaps their natural skin looked dirty to a generation used to powdered faces.

Common, vulgar characters wear too many rings (their hands are “beringed”).

A vulgar woman in E. Phillips Oppenheim’s Aaron Rodd, Diviner exposes “at least 12 inches of silk-clad limbs” and wears loudly squeaking patent shoes. Probably with too-high heels.

Dubious male characters “hold up a perfectly manicured hand”. (“Laverton-West held up a well-manicured hand.” Agatha Christie)

A female character bursts into tears and rushes from the room. Another female character asks, “Should I go to her?” (Never “Should I go after her?” Like “Come!” for “Come in!” in films and TV, which people never say in real life.)

There’s a scene where a man holds both wrists of a hysterical woman in one hand and slaps her face with the other. Is this possible?

In moments of emotion, middle-class characters speak “thickly” – ie huskily.

Shifty or pathetic characters “pull at” their lip, or underlip.

“Those words of Shelley’s came into her mind, ‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass etc’.” The author shows off her erudition, and the reader is flattered. (This kind of book is full of: "'Large women shouldn't wear all-over patterns', she thought.")

Mad characters always refer to themselves in the third person.

Chess-playing robots end up killing their creators. (Dave Langford)

“Even Maugham, though, can't resist that favourite male author trope of the dress that looks simple but is not. Has anyone ever actually seen any such dress?” (Clothes in Books)

When 30s writers said a woman was wearing “Cuban heels” they meant Louis heels – old-fashioned, frumpy and déclassé.

Golden Age detective clichés
The detective, though uneducated, instinctively recognises the worth of modernist buildings, impressionist paintings, classical music etc.

Artists sit on the floor and eat kippers to show how bohemian they are.

The detective and his sidekick refer to female suspects they don’t like as “the Smithson”, or whatever their name is.

Common people say they “don’t want to get mixed up with the police”. Middle-class suspects moan about the “publicity” and have a morbid fear of getting their picture in the papers.

There’s a character with a “rafeened” accent who says “quate” for “quite”.

And an elderly, abrasive male character who has a surprisingly sweet, shy smile.

Middle-class characters remark that the working classes are “ghouls” about illness and death, and enjoy funerals. And “There’s nothing that class can’t remember if it tries.” (Agatha Christie)

Drug addicts have either pinpoint or dilated pupils.

The murderer escapes but then holes up in a seaside B and B or seedy rented room and takes her own life. (Somebody probably says “You see, she just had nowhere to go.”)

Why did policemen lick their pencils before writing in a notebook? Was there some kind that only worked when wet? Police constables also bent their knees and rose on their toes (may have been a music-hall joke). (Bobbies on the beat really were told to do both to avoid fainting, deep vein thrombosis etc.)

The writer uses the “the slightly affected quasi-Chestertonian style”. (Steerforth, Age of Uncertainty)

My Memoirs
As she planned her autobiography, dancer Isadora Duncan told writer Sewell Stokes that in any book there had to be “a little old woman in rusty black” somewhere.

I sent back the beef carpaccio because it was underdone. Grammar school boy makes it to Oxford; toff friend invites him to dinner and says “we’re dressing up” (meaning black tie); he turns up in gorilla costume.

My father beat me/brother bullied me/stepfather haunted the family until I told him to stop/punched him on the nose/told him to get lost – and he never did it again/I never saw him again. (I hope all these stories are true.)

More dramatic clichés here.

More literary clichés here.


  1. Oh I enjoyed these, and thanks for quoting me. I have been noticing the detective story trope of the penniless young man, probably wanting to be a writer or journo, who lives in a very messy cottage, with a woman who 'does' (but doesn't live in so can't give him an alibi). Dirty clothes and piles of books and a typewriter in the corner. I'm sure he eats kippers just like the artist above...

  2. Cute cottages were cold, insanitary, damp and inaccessible in them days!