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Reviews of Inventing the It Girl by Hilary Hallett

Inventing the It Girl

How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood

by Hilary A. Hallett

Inventing the It Girl by Hilary A. Hallett X
Inventing the It Girl by Hilary A. Hallett
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2022, 464 pages

    Apr 2024, 464 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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About this Book

Book Summary

The modern romance novel is elevated to a subject of serious study in this addictively readable biography of pioneering celebrity author Elinor Glyn.

Unlike typical romances, which end with wedding bells, Elinor Glyn's (1864–1943) story really began after her marriage up the social ladder and into the English gentry class in 1892. Born in the Channel Islands, Elinor Sutherland, like most Victorian women, aspired only to a good match. But when her husband, Clayton Glyn, gambled their fortune away, she turned to her pen and boldly challenged the era's sexually straightjacketed literary code with her notorious succes de scandale, Three Weeks (1907). An intensely erotic tale about an unhappily married woman's sexual education of her young lover, the novel got Glyn banished from high society but went on to sell millions, revealing a deep yearning for a fuller account of sexual passion than permitted by the British aristocracy or the Anglo-American literary establishment.

In elegant prose, Hilary A. Hallett traces Glyn's meteoric rise from a depressed society darling to a world-renowned celebrity author who consorted with world leaders from St. Petersburg to Cairo to New York. After reporting from the trenches during World War I, the author was lured by American movie producers from Paris to Los Angeles for her remarkable third act. Weaving together years of deep archival research, Hallett movingly conveys how Glyn, more than any other individual during the Roaring Twenties, crafted early Hollywood's glamorous romantic aesthetic. She taught the screen's greatest leading men to make love in ways that set audiences aflame, and coined the term "It Girl," which turned actress Clara Bow into the symbol of the first sexual revolution.

With Inventing the It Girl, Hallett has done nothing less than elevate the origins of the modern romance genre to a subject of serious study. In doing so, she has also reclaimed the enormous influence of one of Anglo-America's most significant cultural tastemakers while revealing Glyn's life to have been as sensational as any of the characters she created on the page or screen. The result is a groundbreaking portrait of a courageous icon of independence who encouraged future generations to chase their desires wherever they might lead.

30 black-and-white images throughout

Inventing the It Girl

This is an unconventional biography about an unconventional British woman, the late Victorian romance writer and celebrity author Elinor Glyn (1864– 1943) who midwifed much of the sexual ethos of Anglo- American popular culture. When she died peacefully in London, Glyn's obituaries called her "the founder of the modern sex novel" and "originator of the popular term 'It.'" They also recalled that the redheaded writer with cat-green eyes who had "shocked the world of our grandmothers" had "led a life as glamorous as anything in her novels," earning the friendship and respect of the most powerful and creative personalities in Britain, France, and America, through war and peace, over the half century between 1890 and 1940.

Elinor Glyn's life and legacy gives the lie to some of the most enduring assumptions regarding the dynamics involved in the ascent of mass culture. Most believe that the stories and images that took flight in the imaginations of so ...

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BookBrowse Review


Fans of celebrity biography will find much to celebrate here, as many of Nell's remarkable circle of friends and acquaintances — including Rudolf Valentino, Sarah Bernhardt, Daisy Greville and of course Clara Bow — have cameos. And those who value social history more generally will appreciate how Hallett's biography carefully interrogates the ways in which gender, class and geography shaped Nell's options and opportunities, as well as her understanding of how to expand the boundaries of sexuality on page and screen. Inventing the It Girl is both a lively portrait of a memorable figure and a thoughtful chronicle of the times she was shaped by — and how she shaped them in return...continued

Full Review (798 words)

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(Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

Media Reviews

Boston Globe
Hallett's sense of history makes this a biography rich in detail ... . the "It Girl" and her creator had a profound impact on modern attitudes to love and sex — one that echoes today, long after Glyn's name has faded, in a romance novel's eternal promise to sweep the reader away.

New York Times
A new biography of Glyn, Inventing the It Girl, by Hilary A. Hallett, restores her to the pantheon of history with great thoughtfulness and taste.

Shelf Awareness
Inventing the It Girl is rich with history--inevitable, given all that Glyn observed and lived through, including the erosion of Victorian social mores, World War I and Hollywood in its infancy. utterly persuasive regarding the beneficent influence of Glyn.

Wall Street Journal
Highly readable and deeply researched... Writing with the right touch of occasional humor, Ms. Hallett gracefully restores Glyn's dignity, defines her intelligence and tells the full story of her remarkable life. She makes Elinor Glyn matter.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A terrific biography of a revolutionary 19th-century British author and sexual trailblazer...In this appealing follow-up to her first book, Go West, Young Women: The Rise of Early Hollywood, Hallett creates a vivacious, intellectual, and fascinating narrative...A brilliant, thought-provoking portrait of a forgotten 20th-century influencer.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Hallett...a history professor at Columbia University, delivers a page-turning account of the life of Elinor Glyn (1864–1943), a once prominent writer who has been largely lost to history...Hallett is equally at home chronicling the contours of Glyn's life, decaying English aristocracy, and the glamour of Hollywood, easily conjuring her subject and the events and cultural shifts that shaped her. This one brings the goods.

Hallett's biography puts Glyn's glittering influence in its historical context. It's a thoroughly readable chronicling of a woman whose influence spanned generations.

Author Blurb Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
As the rhyme goes, I would 'like to sin with Elinor Glyn', failing that, reading Hilary Hallett's joyous biography is the next best thing. Clever, irreverent, entrepreneurial, and way ahead of her time, Elinor Glyn gave women permission to explore their desires. Inventing the It Girl restores the original Queen of Romance to her rightful place in history.

Author Blurb David Nasaw, author of The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War
Glamorous, sexy, enticing, brilliant, stylish, sophisticated: One quickly runs out of adjectives to describe both Elinor Glyn and the book Hilary Hallett has written about her…Glyn is blessed by having Hallett as her biographer. Her meticulous research, graceful prose, and historical insights grab and hold the reader's interest from first page to last.

Author Blurb Heather Clark, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
In Inventing the It Girl, the 'Tiger Queen' of romance fiction finally gets the serious treatment she deserves.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Fashion Designer Lucy Duff-Gordon

Model wearing black and ivory gown by Lucy Duff-GordonIn the introduction to her biography of Elinor Glyn, author Hilary A. Hallett acknowledges that one of the biggest challenges she faced in writing the book "was not to let [Glyn's] many fascinating friends—and the many places they traveled—carry away the narrative for too long." Among the most intriguing of the secondary characters who populate Glyn's story is her older sister Lucy, later known as Lucy Duff-Gordon following her marriage to her second husband. Most high-born women of the Edwardian period, however, would have known Glyn's sister simply as Lucile, after the high-fashion clothing line she founded as one of the era's most famous couturiers.

According to Hallett's book, Glyn was, in fact, partially responsible for...

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