iconography:Thea Fenchel

“As for Thea, sometimes she looked more barbarous than they did in spite of the civilized lipstick and conventional shape of the jodhpurs she wore.”  

Okay so it has taken me quite some time to get my act together and talk about my third and final Augie March love, Thea Fenchel. but that’s because she’s the one I really felt I had to get right, my possible favourite of the lot. The main love interest of the novel, Thea is a real textual focal point, and Bellow fleshes out her personality in vivid technicolour. I loved her.

Bellow’s women are far from one-dimensional narrative figurines, but Thea is a huge bundle of contradictions in terms, and she is wonderful for it. He makes her sound like the original fashionista, mixing high and low end items in her everyday look:

“She was cuckoo about dime stores, where she bought cosmetics and pins and combs. After we locked the expensive purchases in the station wagon we went into McCory’s or Kresge’s and were there by the hour, up and down the aisles with the multitude, mostly of women, and in the loud-played love music. Some things Thea liked to buy cheaply, they maybe gave her the best sense of the innermost relations of pennies and nickels and explained the real depth of money. I don’t know. But I didn’t think myself too good to be wandering in the dime store with her. I went where and as she said and did whatever she wanted because I was threaded to her as if through the skin. So that any trifling object she took pleasure in could become important to me at once; anything at all, a comb or hairpin or piece of line, a compass inside a tin ring that she bought with great satisfaction, or a green billed baseball cap for the road, or the kitten she kept in the apartment – she would never be anywhere without an animal.” 

She manages to be many contradictory things at once. An heiress and a huntress, strong and fragile, tame and wild. Shes been married, and has a past populated with lovers and scandal, and after Augie, she goes on to have more love affairs, yett while she is with Augie she has him completely in her thrall. She takes him to Mexico, to finalize her divorce, and while they’re there she trains an eagle, with which she plans to hunt giant iguanas and sell the stories to Time Magazine. She surrounds herself with animals, also cultivating a collection of snakes in the conservatory of the Mexico house, and she is bitterly disappointed when she realizes their eagle, Caligula, turns out to be ‘chicken’, preferring the prepared meat they give them to having to hunt his own prey, and actually afraid of the giant iguanas. Thea likes to tame things, but not to the point where they cannot fend for themselves.

We see this in her relationship with Augie. Initially she hunts him down, remembering him from an adolescent holiday in which he fell in love with her sister. She thrusts herself upon him and tells him how she feels and for how long she’s been looking. But eventually she becomes disappointed in him when she realizes all it takes to ensnare him is flattery, so she moves on to another lover, and wants nothing more to do with him.

“Here in the city she had gilded her nails. They shone. And she had put on a velvet dress, this soft red one, which was heavy. The buttons were in the form of seashells.”

saul bellow's the adventures of augie march: thea fenchel
Thea Fenchel essentials: leather gilet for throwing on over dresses to go hunting (£200, topshop), big tough boots for finding snakes in the grass (£145, office), gilded nails for in the city, (£6, topshop), civilizing lipstick even for eagle hunting (£36, Tom Ford at Selfridges), beaded bag for toting loads of stuff all over Mexico, (£86, mango)

She is alternately portrayed as fierce and fragile, and despite being outdoorsy and wearing big boots and jackets, always contrasts it with something soft and delicate. Her fearlessness and determination are never said to compromise her femininity, and we see her through Augie’s adoring eyes, as the most wonderful, unique, woman in the world. She’s dynamic, always the centre of attention and always doing something; Thea ricochets between missions rapidly, when the Caligula project fails she moves on to snake hunting in the Mexican wilds within the blink of an eye, and has no patience for anybody not ready to move straight on with her. She drives, drinks tequila, smokes, and makes no bones about telling people in society exactly what she thinks of them. She adopts an almost masculine, Pygmalion style role with Augie, dressing him, giving him an allowance, almost ‘creating’ her man, and is possessed of tremendous authority.

And she’s wonderfully eccentric. she keeps her cash in the refrigerator, and makes elaborate cluttered nests of every suite she inhabits. She never stays in one place long, and tires of people very quickly. For a love interest, she is allowed much more force of will than is typical; and it is this that I fell in love with as a reader. her force of will means she can never be contained, and is ultimately what leads her out of Augie’s life, but it is a beautiful, powerful, and awe inspiring thing, and left me in admiration long after I finished the book.

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