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In Agatha Christie's short story "The Face of Helen," Mr Satterthwaite sees an extremely beautiful young woman named Gillian West. His first impression is that she ranks with legends such as Cleopatra or Helen of Troy. Later, he realizes that apart from her extraordinary beauty, she is an ordinary girl. Her personality and conversation are commonplace rather than captivating. He reflects ruefully that she is likeable enough, but no enchantress. He still appreciates her good looks, but is no longer bewitched by them. He finds the experience somewhat anticlimactic:

As he was driven through the night, bound on his errand, a curious smile came to Mr Satterthwaite's lips.

He thought: "So that is all it is ... 'The shape of a face, the curve of a jaw!'"

Christie, Agatha. "The Face of Helen." Originally published in periodical format as "The Magic of Mr Quin No. 5," The Story-teller, April 1927. First published in book form in The Mysterious Mr Quin, 1930. Reprinted in A Deadly Affair: Unexpected Love Stories from the Queen of Mystery. New York: HarperCollins, 2022. pp. 22–44. Quotation is on p. 31.

Where does the quoted phrase "the shape of a face, the curve of a jaw" come from? The quotation marks and the italicization make it evident that Mr Satterthwaite is recalling part of a line from somewhere. It seems to have been from a reasonably well-known literary work, as Christie evidently expected her readers to recognize the phrase. However, I have not been able to track down the source.

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The phrase "the shape of a face, the curve of a jaw" appears to be Satterthwaite recalling his own first impressions of seeing Gillian West. When he went to the opera at Covent Garden he spotted her head in the crowd and mused:

"Beauty!" said Mr. Satterthwaite to himself. "There is such a thing. Not charm, nor attraction, nor magnetism, nor any of the things we talk about so glibly ‐‐ just sheer beauty. The shape of a face, the line of an eyebrow, the curve of a jaw." He quoted softly under his breath ‐‐ "The face that launched a thousand ships."

Note that the phrases here are not enclosed in quotation marks or set in italics, so this appears to be a spontaneous invention of Satterthwaite himself. He goes on to quote Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus describing the beauty of Helen of Troy:

“Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”

which fits well with his first description of the girl as "A Greek head... Pure Greek."

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  • Is there a missing quotation mark somewhere? You've got one before There is such a thing, but it doesn't seem to close, and then another one opens before The face that launched a thousand ships.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 23 at 9:21
  • @Randal'Thor There certainly should be a closing mark after "of a jaw", but there isn't one in my copy. Well, I'll put one in anyway. Jan 23 at 10:56
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    The fact that he doesn't quote his observation exactly (instead omitting the middle phrase) seems like additional support for it being original.
    – gidds
    Jan 23 at 15:40

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