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Smoothies and ice maidens - the literary figures that enthral us all

Asked to choose the smoothest heroes and iciest heroines in literature, John Sutherland found a mixture of fascination and fear.

The language we use to describe our literary response is always interesting. Most interesting are “sense impression” words. They are very subjective and alter over time. It was the critic Josephine Miles who pointed out that Queen Gertrude’s farewell to the drowned Ophelia over her grave, as she throws flowers on the girl’s coffin:

“Sweets to the sweet, farewell”

This did not mean to a Jacobean audience what it means to us. “Sweet” was then a word associated entirely with smell: not taste. When Edmund Spenser wrote:

“Sweet Thames, flow softly till I end my song”

he meant the river water smelled fresh, not that it tasted good.

Whether it’s the nose, the taste buds or the finger tips, it was in the Renaissance, and particularly in the Romantic period, that sense-impression words began to be widely used for literary response. What they indicate is that increasingly people reacted to literature not with their minds, but with their whole body. “Somatically”. Unsurprisingly the cult of “literary taste” rose at the same period.

Del Monte, makers of the smoothie range of iced lollies, were curious on the subject and have commissioned me to research who is the smoothest hero and who the iciest heroine in literature, with my long list being put to the public vote.

It’s a fascinating exercise. Ask someone what their favourite novel or who is their fictional character and they’ll fire back a pre-packaged answer. Ask them the smoothest / iciest question and they have to think about how they, personally, relate to the words they see on the page, or the images they see on the screen.

There are some surprises in the two polls (Lolita, for example) but one can draw general conclusions. “Smooth” collocates with “sinister”, or with class distinction (Bond belongs to the best clubs, Dracula is a Count, etc). Instinctively we are charmed by “smooth” but nervous about it. “smoothness” is often the means by which dastardly villains such as Dracula and Hannibal Lecter manage to achieve their levels of villainy.

Ice kills. The icy heroines are, almost without exception, man killers: Venus flytraps. What is the last we see of Cathy in Wuthering Heights ? In a graveyard, alongside the two men she has destroyed.

Some, like Estella, are trained like homicidal athletes (by Miss Havisham in Estella’s case) to destroy men. Even Lolita turns the table on her evil seducer, Humbert Humbert. If we are fascinated by (male) smooth, but are wont to distrust it, we are fascinated by (female) ice, but fear it. How would any man like to cuddle up to Lady Macbeth of a night?