Deborah Lutz | The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects | W.W. Norton | May 2015 | 42 minutes (6,865 words)

Below is an excerpt from the book The Brontë Cabinet, by Deborah Lutz, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers.

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Long neglect has worn away

Half the sweet enchanting smile

Time has turned the bloom to grey

Mould and damp the face defile

But that lock of silky hair

Still beneath the picture twined

Tells what once those features were

Paints their image on the mind.

—Emily Brontë, Untitled Poem

If the Brontës’ things feel haunted in some way, like Emily’s desk and its contents, then the amethyst bracelet made from the entwined hair of Emily and Anne is positively ghost-ridden. Over time the colors have faded, the strands grown stiff and brittle. Charlotte may have asked Emily and Anne for the locks as a gesture of sisterly affection. Or, the tresses were cut from one or both of their corpses, an ordinary step in preparing the dead for burial in an era when mourning jewelry with hair became part of the grieving process. Charlotte must have either mailed the hair to a jeweler or “hairworker” (a title for makers of hair jewelry) or brought it to her in person. Then she probably wore it, carrying on her body a physical link to her sisters, continuing to touch them wherever they were.

Charlotte Brontë's amethyst hair bracelet, Photo credit: Hair bracelet, Brontë Parsonage Museum, J14, © The Bronte Society
Charlotte Brontë’s amethyst hair bracelet, Photo credit: Brontë Parsonage Museum, J14, © The Bronte Society

Illness had started in the parsonage earlier in the year of 1848. Branwell Brontë rallied for a time after his forced exile from the woman he loved had led him to drink heavily, applying for jobs on newly opened rail lines and returning to writing poetry, even starting a novel. Then Mr. Robinson died in May 1846. At first Branwell was elated: now he could be with his beloved, who would be free to marry him after a period of mourning. But Mrs. Robinson had higher ambitions than the former tutor of her children, now unemployed, penniless, and steadily becoming a drunk. She devised various stratagems to keep him away but at the same time to pacify him so he wouldn’t cause a scandal. She sent her servants to him with excuses and often even with money. Branwell became emotionally overwrought. He stopped eating and sleeping for days, “too wretched to live,” he exclaimed. When the fact that he would never be with her sunk in—she soon married a wealthy relative—he turned drinking-himself-to-ruin into a full-time job. He only slowed when he ran out of money. While his sisters busied themselves with bringing out their poems and completing their novels, he was killing himself. As he undermined his health and his sanity, suffered fainting fits, delirium tremens, and hallucinations, he caused dangerous accidents, such as one night when he set his bed on fire. Anne, passing his room at the right moment and seeing the fire, rushed in and tried to put it out. Not succeeding, she fetched Emily, who hauled him out of bed and into a corner, dragged the bedclothes into the middle of the room, and doused them with water from the kitchen (a mishap possibly reworked for Jane Eyre, with Emily becoming Jane, and Branwell, Rochester). In his last surviving letter, Branwell begged his friend John Brown to oblige him by contriving “to get me Five pence worth of Gin in proper measure.”

At some point in 1848, Branwell contracted tuberculosis, which made quick work of his weakened constitution. His death caught everyone by surprise. At the very end, he seemed to repent of his “godless” ways, Charlotte felt, “praying softly in his dying moment.” After the terrible death struggle, in which he flinched and jerked so violently he was almost on his feet, he fell back into his father’s arms, and his face took on a “marble calm.” He died on Sunday morning, September 24, 1848, just thirty-one years old. “I felt as I had never felt before that there was peace of forgiveness for him in Heaven,” Charlotte found, looking upon his countenance. Charlotte hardly regretted his death, since he was now “at rest,” but Patrick was inconsolable, calling out, “My son! My son!”

Branwell Brontë’s self caricature of his death. via Wikimedia Commons

Rather surprisingly, given that he didn’t die in a particularly holy way, Charlotte interpreted Branwell’s demise as a “good death,” an idea that Protestant evangelicals like the Brontës had borrowed from Catholic tradition, and one that had become widespread since evangelical revivals in the late eighteenth century. If God called away the chosen one to a more peaceful place—a paradise full of rewards—then death should be seen as a happy event. Emily put such ideas into the head of the servant Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, an average Victorian evangelical and believer in the “goodness” of death. Catherine Earnshaw died “as quietly as a lamb!” Nelly exclaims. “She drew a sigh, and stretched herself, like a child reviving, and sinking again to sleep.”

The heavenly realm could even be seen on the countenance of one going there, or having recently arrived there, many believed. Nelly finds in Catherine’s corpse “perfect peace,” an “untroubled image of divine rest . . . a repose that neither earth nor hell can break.” Gazing on the dead body leads her to “feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter.” A radiance or holy light emanated from the faces of the dying and came directly, many were convinced, from the place of light where the dead had gone. Deathbed scenes with such signs became favorite devices of Victorian novelists, especially Dickens, whose little Paul Dombey, in Dombey and Son, dies illuminated by a “golden light,” which seems at first to come streaming through the window, but then shines on his head from the face of his mother, who is already in heaven. The remains of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop appear “fresh from the hand of god,” and when children die in Oliver Twist the cares of a cruel world pass of the face and “leave heaven’s surface clear.” To catch such evidence of grace, families watched at the side of their dying, kept diaries that detailed final days and moments, and listened for last words of wisdom. Some of these accounts were published, such as the celebrated Clear Shining Light, a diary of Sophia Leakey’s death from tuberculosis in 1858, written by her sisters. “Surprise and rapture” suffused her face just before death, and she exclaimed, “Yes, it is heaven . . . it is lovely, glorious!”

Charlotte interpreted Branwell’s demise as a ‘good death,’ an idea that Protestant evangelicals like the Brontës had borrowed from Catholic tradition.

Postmortem art thrived. In the corpse, the faithful found consolation that a vitality still flickered somewhere, evidence that needed fixing, copying. The ancient practice of recording the deceased’s appearance in drawings, paintings, or death masks went through a renaissance in the nineteenth century. Branwell sketched his aunt’s head just after her death, with her cap neat and her face at rest. The Brontës had no death (or life) masks made of themselves, but other authors of the time had their features documented after their deaths, to be fashioned into masks or busts. When Dickens died on June 9, 1870, his daughter Katey watched his face smooth and then radiate a “beauty and pathos.” The artists John Everett Millais and Thomas Woolner traveled out to Dickens’s estate together the next morning. Millais made a pencil sketch of the still features; Woolner spread an oily mixture over the face, then covered it in a thin layer of soft plaster, which conformed to all the crevices and grooves that a worried life had written there. When the cast had dried, he lifted it of and used it to shape a bust. Ordinary Victorians had masks made of their loved ones too, then hung them on the wall of a bedroom or parlor, or displayed them in boxes with glass tops. Locks of hair had a special status as souvenirs, since they were “the very things themselves,” as Elizabeth Gaskell puts it in a story about a woman who looks through miniatures of the dead but finds touching their hair more poignant because it is “a part of some beloved body which she might never touch and caress again, but which lay beneath the turf, all faded and disfigured, except, perhaps, the very hair, from which the lock she held had been dissevered.”

Portrait of Emily Brontë, by Patrick Branwell Brontë

Emily died a few months after Branwell—possibly catching his consumption—and just a year after the publication of Wuthering Heights. Her death looked nothing like her character Catherine Earnshaw’s “escape into that glorious world.” It started in October 1848, with the east wind “blowing wild and keen over our cold hills,” and with Emily plagued by a persistent cough and an obstinate pain in her chest. “She looks very, very thin and pale,” Charlotte fretted to Ellen. Emily irritably refused sympathy or even any mention of her illness. She continued all of her daily work, spent no extra time in bed, and was fully resolved to deal unflinchingly with her own suffering. She worsened as autumn grew on, becoming feverish and short of breath. Charlotte demanded repeatedly that Emily see the local physician, but this only made Emily angry. She wouldn’t let any “poisoning doctor” come near her. Charlotte and Anne often paused in their sewing or writing to listen to Emily’s step fail as she climbed the staircase, to hear her labored breath forcing frequent pauses. They couldn’t discuss it in her presence, let alone assist her; her usual wall of reserve was now strengthened by stoicism. Becoming more “piteously wasted,” as the days went by, she struggled to draw breath. Charlotte “incurred her displeasure” by again urging the necessity of calling in a doctor, but Emily, intractable, insisted that “Nature shall be left to take her own course.”

On the morning of her death, Emily got up and dressed herself, with “the rattle in her throat” and “dying all the while.” Attempting to untangle her hair, she dropped her bone comb in the fire. She watched it burn, too weak to retrieve it. A servant, Martha Brown, came into the room and pulled it out, a few of its teeth having been consumed by the fire. Emily then went downstairs and attempted to sew while Charlotte, who had no inkling Emily would die that day, sat writing to Ellen that “moments so dark as these I have never known.” As noon came on, a terrible change approached. Charlotte finally understood what was imminent when, after a long hunt on the moors for a spray of heather, she presented the flower, Emily’s favorite, to her, but Emily no longer recognized it. Collapsing on the black, horsehair-stuffed sofa in the parlor, Emily whispered to Charlotte, in between gasps, “If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now.” Dr. Wheelhouse was called in, but it was no use. After a “short, hard conflict,” Emily, aged thirty, was “torn from conscious, panting, reluctant.” She died at two o’clock on December 19, of tuberculosis.

Charlotte, who had no inkling Emily would die that day, sat writing to Ellen that ‘moments so dark as these I have never known.’

The day after the funeral, Charlotte wrote to Ellen on mourning stationery, with a black seal, her handwriting rough with emotional distress and desolation: “There is no Emily in Time or on Earth now . . . She has died in a time of promise—we saw her torn from life in its prime.” A postscript scribbled at the top of the letter, an afterthought written just as she was sealing it up, pleads with raw emotion: “Try to come—I never so much needed the consolation of a friend’s presence.” In other letters she rang the changes on this belief that Emily was “torn”: “from us in the fullness of our attachment, rooted up in the prime of her own days in the promise of her powers . . . like a tree in full bearing—struck at the root.” She asked with great bitterness, in another letter, “And where is she now? Out of my reach—out of my world, torn from me.”

When Charlotte looked at Emily’s face in death, did she believe in an afterlife written there? Her question about Emily’s posthumous location—“And where is she now?”—implies that she had doubts. In fact, Charlotte’s words held a touch of heresy. Heaven, as pictured by sermons and consolation letters of the time, contained loved ones waiting for those still down below, in a place so familiar it varied little from a middle-class suburb. The dead maintained an active existence— growing, continuing good works in their physical selves, and watching over the living. Charlotte wrote such letters herself, at times able to imagine such a place. “Certainly she is happy where she is gone,” Charlotte consoled Ellen when Ellen’s sister Sarah died, using characteristic language of the day, “far happier than she was here—when the first days of mourning are past you will see that you have reason rather to rejoice at her removal.” Charlotte’s publisher William Smith Williams wrote to her of Emily’s state of existence just after her death as pure and exalted. She looked down with “heavenly serenity” at those who mourned her, he wanted Charlotte to believe. Patrick often aired such ideas in letters, such as one to the mother of a little girl who “closed her eyes, on time, and open’d them in eternity, I doubt not in an Eternity of glory and bliss.” When his own wife died, her “soul took its flight to the mansions of glory,” he told a friend.

We don’t have Anne’s reaction to her siblings’ deaths, but she was the most devout of the Brontë children and believed in the doctrine of universal salvation—that everyone would be elevated eventually to heaven, even if some had to spend a little time in purgatorial fires. She grew ill not long after Emily’s death, with the same symptoms, but was as patient and tractable with doctors and their remedies as Emily was unyielding. She drank loads of cod-liver oil and carbonate of iron, which made her nauseous, then she agreed to be treated by hydropathy (dousing in cold water) and with Godbold’s Vegetable Balsam. She wore the cork innersoles that Ellen sent, to keep of the cold of the parsonage’s flagstone floors. By March, Anne was clearly dying. Insisting on traveling to the seaside in May, she convinced Charlotte and Ellen Nussey to take her to Scarborough. Here her life rapidly ebbed. On the day she died, she asked if they might be able to get home if they started right away. But there was no possibility of reaching Haworth in time. She died in Scarborough, on May 28, 1849, aged twenty-eight. And that is where Charlotte buried her, making her the only family member not interred in the vaults under the floors of the Haworth church.

Even more than with Branwell’s death, Anne’s affirmed Charlotte’s sometimes troubled faith in an afterlife. Charlotte shared the view, common among friends and family, that Anne was a sort of saint going to paradise. Anne sank “resigned—trusting in God . . . deeply assured that a better existence lay before her.” Anne’s quiet, Christian demise struck Charlotte as the opposite of Emily’s stern end, and she even developed a narrative about how Anne, from childhood, seemed always prepared for an early death, whereas Emily turned “her dying eyes reluctantly from the pleasant sun.” Ellen’s description of Anne’s dying moments made concrete her saintliness and closeness to God: Anne “without a sigh passed from the temporal to the Eternal. So still, so hallowed, were her last hours and moments it was more like a translation than a death.”[ad]

Unlike Anne’s, Emily’s religious beliefs will always remain a mystery. Perhaps she constructed her own faith out of the philosophy and spiritual thought picked up in her reading. A small clue might be found in Emily’s reaction to Mary Taylor, Charlotte’s freethinking friend. Mary, on a visit to Haworth, mentioned that someone had asked about her religion and she had replied tartly, “That is between God and me.” When Emily, lying on the hearthrug, heard this, she exclaimed, “That’s right.”

Wuthering Heights is full of characters who believe in different kinds of postmortem lives, from Nelly’s conventional heaven to Catherine’s dream about being kicked out of heaven and landing, to her delight, on the paradise of the earthly moors. Country folk report seeing the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff. A young shepherd claims his sheep refuse to be guided because the dead lovers flit across the road. Others “swear on the Bible” that Heathcliff “walks.” Catherine promises Heathcliff that “they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me; but I won’t rest till you are with me—I never will!” He believes her, having always had a “strong faith in ghosts.”

The strangest notion about death in the novel gives the corpse itself a value, as if in the afterlife the body still mattered. When Heathcliff slips into Catherine’s room to see her body, he finds the curl of Linton’s light hair in the locket around her neck. He throws it to the floor, replacing it with a hank from his own black head. Many who sent tokens down into the grave with a loved one imagined a sort of life down there, as if the dead might be able to see or care about such things. John Callcott Horsley, a popular Victorian painter, wrote in his diary about a little red-velvet bag he hung around his wife Elvira’s neck after her death in 1852. It contained locks of his and all their children’s hair, which she had cut herself when she found out she was dying, labeling each with the person’s name and the date it was snipped. Like Horsley and his family, both Edgar Linton and Heathcliff want a synecdochic fragment of their bodies to persevere in the place where Catherine is going. They dearly hope that their hair will act as tenuous filaments stretching across the permeable boundary between life and death.

Many still believed in grave goods—belongings included with the corpse in case they might be needed on the other side—a mixture of early Christian and even earlier pagan ideas that still lingered. Pennies, combs, jewelry, and medicine bottles were nestled next to bodies. Confusions about what happened to the body in the afterlife—whether the soul stayed in the grave with the body until judgment day, for instance, or was judged right at death and then reunited in heaven with the body—led many to feel that the dead body must be as whole as possible upon burial. The ancient custom of holding onto lost teeth and including them with one’s corpse, to have a full set after death, survived well into the mid-nineteenth century. Violent protests against human dissection grew, in part, out of this thinking that the body would be raised to heaven.

Cathy with a lock of hair in Andrea Arnold's 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Credit OscilloscopeRecords)
Cathy with a lock of hair in Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Oscilloscope

Catherine’s corpse, buried with his hair in her locket, has, for Heathcliff, a secret life on which he dwells longingly. Finally needing to press his flesh against hers, he digs up her grave, not once but twice. When her husband, Edgar Linton, dies and his grave next to Catherine is being dug, Heathcliff gets the sexton to remove earth of of her coffin lid so he can open it. Preserved in the peaty soil, her face is yet hers, and Heathcliff thinks he’ll stay there with her for good. The sexton has “hard work” to stir him, but tells him her face would “change if the air blew on it.” So, instead, Heathcliff strikes one side of the coffin loose and bribes the sexton “to pull it away, when I am laid there, and slide mine out too . . . by the time Linton gets to us, he’ll not know which is which!” His yearning for Catherine even after her death includes her body; he wants to find her “resting her darling head on the same pillow as she did when a child,” and it doesn’t matter if his heart is “stopped and my cheek frozen against hers.” What he unearths are not so much “remains” as Catherine herself, and what he desires most is not that their spirits meet in heaven, as a good evangelical would, but that their bodies dissolve into each other, in the earth.

Finding a measure of eroticism in bodies—or parts of bodies— joined in the grave wasn’t new to the Victorians. The seventeenth-century poet John Donne, for instance, wrote two poems about corpses wearing their lovers’ hair as bracelets, emblems of the two being, at last, together. In “The Relic,” the speaker fears that a gravedigger will disturb the “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” that might allow the lovers to “meet at this grave, and make a little stay.” Victorians also saw the appeal of the grave as a kind of marriage bed. In Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 “Locksley Hall” (which Emily knew well, as she did Donne’s poems) the speaker thinks it “Better thou wert dead before me . . . Better thou and I were lying, hidden from the heart’s disgrace, / Roll’d in one another’s arms, and silent in a last embrace.” The Victorian writer Algernon Charles Swinburne says in a poem that he (or an alter ego) wishes he were dead with his lover today, “Lost sight of, hidden away out of sight, / Clasped and clothed in the cloven clay . . . Made one with death, filled full of the night.”

Emily, alert to intensities of longing, created Heathcliff with these desires in mind. He pines for his body to meet Catherine’s in the grave and make just such a little stay. But she also has a presence above ground, he believes, which draws so near that he can’t sleep or eat from yearning for her. When he tries to sleep in her box bed in order to find her, he is “beaten out of” it, for the moment he closes his eyes, she is “either outside the window, or sliding back the panels, or entering the room . . . and I must open my lids to see.” He finds her in all things, especially those everyday objects around the house, as if her spirit has infused ordinary matter. “I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flag!” Inanimate things seem to come alive, to gain a certain strangeness, because they feed on an afterlife. There is not only the fir branch knocking on the window that becomes Catherine’s girlish hand, but also the windows that “reflected a score of glittering moons” and two old balls in a cupboard, one marked “C” and the other “H,” with the bran having fallen out of the latter. Through such things, Catherine begins drawing Heathcliff into death, which he comes to believe is a place just a few feet away. He has to remind himself to breathe, his heart to beat, he is so devoured by anticipation. This desire is fatal: he quickens to death. His corpse, which Nelly finds in Catherine’s box bed, works as a sort of parody of the “good” death, on his face a “frightful, life-like gaze of exultation” and a sneer on his lips. The servant Joseph interprets this as proof that the devil has made of with his soul.

This belief that an afterlife shimmered through objects (and animals) was another holdover from ancient folk customs. When death approached, furniture and other possessions might respond. Clocks stopped at the moment of their owner’s death, and mirrors needed to be covered in case evil spirits came to reside in the reflected image. Things nearby had to be manipulated so that all would go well: windows and doors would be left open so that the spirit or soul could easily slip out. Black hangings and clothing protected the living from evil forces let loose by death’s presence. Related worries haunt Catherine Earnshaw when her mind is weakened by illness at the end of her life, such as her confusion at seeing her face in a mirror, which she takes as her double, traditionally a sign of one’s imminent death. Finding pigeon feathers as she picks apart her pillow, she remembers that they prevent an easy death, according to tradition. “No wonder I couldn’t die!” Among these charmed tokens—clocks, mirrors, feathers—the hair of the dead held a special place. Enlivened by the spirit world too, the hair of others worn on the body strengthened the connection between the living and the dead.[ad]

Part of the body yet easy to separate from it, hair retained its luster long after the rest of the person decayed. Portable, with a shine like certain gems or metals, hair moved easily from being an ornamental feature of the body to being an ornament worn by others. By the 1840s, hair jewelry had become so fashionable that advertisements for hair artisans, designers, and hairworkers ran in newspapers, and magazines printed a sea of articles on the minute particulars of the fad. The London jeweler Antoni Forrer, a well-known professional hairworker in the 1840s, had fifty workers fully employed at his Regent Street store. At the Great Exhibition, around eleven displays of the art garnered glowing reviews, including pictures embroidered in hair of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, and the Hamburgh Exchange. A tall vase “composed entirely of human hair” and a “horn filled with artificial flowers in human hair, representing the horn of plenty,” were other impressive exhibits. Hairwork kept women’s hands busy at home, another one of those many domestic arts, like needlework, quilling, shellwork, and taxidermy. Fashion magazines discussed the homecraft of hairworking and included jewelry patterns, instructions, and tips. Hair wreaths, set into shadow boxes or under glass domes, also had their day, as did the use of hair in drawing and painting. One industrious woman copied a Rembrandt using only hair in a cross-stitch. Charlotte brought the device of a “cambric handkerchief with a coronet wrought upon it in black hair” into more than one early story, a means of signaling that the male owner has a secret lover who embroidered it with her own hair.

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The jewelers’ book of patterns in hair work, via Smithsonian Libraries

The hairwork process—involving boiling the hair to clean it, then weaving it on specially designed round tables (which could be mail ordered) with a series of weights that were attached to the strands of hair—was described in instructional manuals, such as Mark Campbell’s popular 1865 Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work. The tight weave of the bracelet with Anne’s and Emily’s hair, pictured at the start of this chapter, was likely achieved this way, although in this case probably by a professional, who then attached the ends of the hair to the metal. A bracelet made of Anne’s hair, from locks given to Ellen Nussey by Charlotte after Anne’s death, has a slightly different weave, and Ellen may have made it herself. By the time Ellen died, she had at least three hair bracelets, four hair brooches, a hair ring, and a couple of loose locks, much of it hair from the Brontë family.

A coil of hair stowed in the case at the back of a watch was an easy aide-mémoire. Sergeant Troy, in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, tucks away Fanny Robin’s golden plait, then marries Bathsheba Everdene. She witnesses, with much misgiving and jealousy, Troy steal a look at the forbidden cutting in his gold timepiece. Jewelers of this time added compartments to jewelry, in the front or back of a ring or brooch, for instance, to hide hair. The locket containing hair, a staple in the Brontës’ writing, also usually represented stormy love. A cross with gems, “the centre stone of which was a locket enclosing a ringlet of dark-brown hair,” is worn by a beautiful lady in an early story by Charlotte, to profess her love for a duke who, though married to someone else, gave her his hair. In a poem by Emily, someone’s dual loves are encased in a “locket fair / Where rival curls of silken hair / Sable and brown revealed to me / A tale of doubtful constancy.” Another locket tells the same tale, in Wuthering Heights, when the servant Nelly Dean finds Edgar Linton’s wisp of light hair on the floor where Catherine’s body is laid out. She opens the locket and entwines it with Heathcliff’s black curl. The Brontës themselves possessed a number of jewelry pieces with compartments that snapped open, such as a tiny locket with one glass side, making visible an anonymous circle of hair. Simple jewelry like this was increasingly mass-produced by the end of the 1850s, becoming affordable to most Victorians, who individualized the ornament by adding a curl. A brooch of Charlotte’s containing Anne’s hair has this inexpensive, standardized quality.

Forming tendrils of endearment among the living, the hair in the lovers’ lockets and the tress Charlotte begged from Ellen had nothing to do with death. In truth, the amethyst bracelet pictured at the head of this chapter doesn’t have the hallmarks of a mourning piece. Mourning jewelry is usually enameled in black or fashioned of black material such as jet, and often has engravings like epitaphs, such as a gold brooch at the Victoria and Albert Museum that has two interleaved curls of different colors and textures and is inscribed, “Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, Died Decr 1849. Aged 80. Sophia Brunel, Died Jany 1855, Aged 79.” Symbols of death, like weeping willows or women in classical robes grieving over urns or tombstones, also appeared on mourning pieces, with parts of the scene—the willow branches or clouds in the sky— sometimes made of tiny cuttings of hair. The elderly ladies in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, for instance, prove the hold on them of their dead friends and relatives by their many brooches decorated “with mausoleums and weeping-willows mostly executed in hair.” Such jewels seemed themselves like little tombs, the hair standing in for the corpse. When discovered today at an antique shop, a piece of anonymous hair jewelry can feel like an unmarked, but still visible, grave. Whose bodily shred lies here? Who treasured it enough to encase it?[ad]

In corners of the Brontë archives, hair marking all sorts of relationships can be found—close to fifty curls or hairwork associated with the family are deposited in various libraries and museums in Europe and the United States. One especially strange, poignant work created initially out of a sense of devotion to the living became, all too soon, a collection of fragments of the dead. Attached to a dark velvet–covered backdrop are seven snippets of hair, some taped and others sewn, each labeled by hand with the name of a member of the Brontë family and the date it was cut (see color photograph). Reputedly gathered by Sarah Garrs, one of the Brontës’ nursemaids, when she left their employ, all the locks are dated 1824, except Patrick’s. Dated 1860, his hair was probably sent to Garrs when they were in touch toward the end of his life. The cuttings represent all of the family members—including their sister Maria and their mother—but one. The hair of their sister Elizabeth seems never to have been collected, for reasons unknown.

Victorian hair jewelry radiated similar powers for many, carrying the foundational safeguard of love, often so strong it could outlast the grave. Some thought hair had an animal magnetism, an invisible fluid permeating the world and allowing bodies and objects to interact even when far apart. Hair could draw the absent donor’s “fluid” or presence toward the possessor of the curl, creating a link between the two beings. In an early story, Charlotte has “two locks of soft, curly hair, shining like burnished gold,” magically lead her character out of the “land of the grave” and back to where he most yearns to be: with the two young princes who gave him the hair. In another story, a coffin is opened, a lock of hair is cut from the corpse, and “with magic ceremonies,” which involve throwing it into a fire, it is formed into “a little locket or brooch in which a small portion of hair appeared under a very rich diamond.” This talisman protects the son of the dead man from all misfortune: the loving hand of the father hovers around his strands of hair. In Villette, Paulina calls the locket she wears containing the hair of her father and husband intertwined an “amulet,” which she believes will “ ‘keep you two always friends. You can never quarrel so long as I wear this.’ ”

Strewn liberally across novel plots of the day, hairwork meant all sorts of things, like in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton when the dying prostitute Esther is redeemed after she kisses a locket containing her dead daughter’s hair just before she herself expires. Men’s (and sometimes women’s) watch fobs made of hair became so ubiquitous they marked middle-class respectability, such as the “hair guard” Bradley Headstone in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend wears, a means for this working- class man to establish his middle-class credibility. Helen, the heroine of Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, has a small gold watch with a “hair chain,” a conventional touch establishing her steady character, leading the reader to trust her despite her status as a runaway wife. Contrarily and a little scandalously, Charlotte writes in “Caroline Vernon” of an illicit love affair made material by the man going to the theater wearing a “watchguard” composed of his lover’s “long streaming tress,” “the black braid across his chest,” prominently displayed for all to see. Romantic intrigue blossoms through other hair jewelry, like Edward Ferrars’s ring in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility “with a plait of hair in the center.” Edward claims it is the hair of his sister, Fanny, but Elinor Dashwood (in love with Edward) and her sister Marianne think it might be Elinor’s hair, a secret profession of Edward’s love for her. When they discover it belongs to the love of Edward’s youth, the vulgar and obnoxious Lucy Steele, all hope of romance seems to be ruined.

Deep drama in Victorian tales springs from coils of hair: they provide clues to identity, stand at the heart of mysteries. The first hint to the orphaned Oliver Twist’s parentage in Charles Dickens’s novel comes from a “little gold locket, in which were two locks of hair and a plain gold wedding ring” engraved with the name “Agnes,” with a blank space for the surname and the date of Oliver’s birth. In Charlotte’s story “The Secret,” a lady orders a ring from a jeweler “with a crystal stone” for “a little braided chestnut-coloured hair.” Central to a complicated blackmail plot, the ring is made in order to replace the authentic one, originally given by a wife to her husband when he left to fight in a war. The wife later marries a wealthy aristocrat after hearing of her husband’s death by shipwreck, but she keeps her first marriage secret. Imposters use the fraudulent ring to try to blackmail her by claiming her first husband is still among the living.

Charlotte craftily preyed here on an anxiety that one’s mourning jewelry might not contain the hair of the loved one. Rumors and scandals about unscrupulous makers of mourning ornaments replacing hair mailed to them with someone else’s hair of the same color were discussed at length in women’s craft and fashion magazines of the day. Women sold their hair for such purposes—also for wigs and hairpieces—and hairworkers found this bought hair easier to work with because it was usually thicker, longer, and healthier. The “false” piece of jewelry took on the qualities of a disturbingly anonymous “grave” if the fraud was detected or even merely suspected. “Why should we confide to others the precious locks or tress we prize,” a writer for the magazine Family Friend asks, “risking its being lost, and the hair of some other person being substituted for it, when we may ourselves weave it into the ornament we desire?” 29

Scraps of hair and other remnants of the dead showed up in ghost stories, a subgenre dear to Victorians. Following other writers of the time—especially Dickens, whose characters are often haunted by the past, like his Ebenezer Scrooge—Emily and Charlotte built plots around the haunting of houses. Read in a certain way, Wuthering Heights is a traditional ghost story, the entire narrative unfurling in response to the question, posed at the beginning of the novel: Who is the girl-waif who torments Lockwood in his nightmare in the strange box bed? Wuthering Heights, “swarming with ghosts and goblins,” influenced Thornfield Hall, in Jane Eyre, which also seems to be troubled by some demon or goblin that lights fires, rips wedding veils, and bites flesh in the dead of night. In Villette, Lucy believes she sees the specter of the long-dead nun, supposedly buried at the foot of the pear tree, glide past her numerous times. While these apparitions are explained away in both of Charlotte’s stories, others remain supernatural, such as in the passage when Jane at Moor House hears Rochester call out to her from hundreds of miles away, an instance of something akin to animal magnetism or romantic telepathy. Unlike her sisters with their gothic proclivities, Anne, the steady realist, didn’t write about ghosts; her houses are troubled only by human cads, flirts, and abusive husbands.

Title page from first edition of Wuthering Heights Lowell 1238.5 (A), Houghton Library, Harvard Universit
Title page from first edition of Wuthering Heights, Lowell 1238.5 (A), Houghton Library, Harvard University

Charlotte believed in supernatural occurrences and omens, as did many of her contemporaries. Besides her stories being riddled with them, she once told Mary Taylor that she sometimes heard ghostly voices, like when a disembodied voice said one night, “Come, thou high and holy feeling, / Shine o’er mountain, flit o’er wave, / Gleam like light o’er dome and shielding.” Believers theorized that the wispy forms consisted of a kind of “ectoplasm,” a type of mesmeric fluid or force. In the 1870s, the celebrated medium Florence Cook “materialized” a spirit called “Katie King,” who cut of locks of her hair and handed them to audience members as souvenirs from the afterlife. Harriet Beecher Stowe told George Eliot that she spoke with Charlotte Brontë’s spirit during a séance in the 1870s.

Photographers claimed to capture images of ghosts with their cameras, in pictures that usually showed mourners with a white, wispy form floating nearby, like an emanation from their sorrowful thoughts. Some of these “spirit photographs” pictured ectoplasm or other types of fluid, sometimes seeping out of the orifices of mediums. It hardly mattered that these photos and performances were hoaxes; a widespread faith in spirits, which peaked in the 1860s and ’70s, remained unshakable until the beginning of the twentieth century, feeding the collecting of relics and souvenirs. One Thomas Wilmot claimed in 1894 to catch an image of the “angel” Charlotte Brontë, called up by a medium, in a photograph that pictures a woman reaching toward the viewer.

But all of this was after the Brontë children died. They didn’t take up spiritualism; it barely existed during all but Patrick’s lifetime. Neither did they take up photography, which was invented in the 1830s but not widely available until the 1850s, and even then it was quite expensive and usually required a visit to a photographer’s studio. Patrick was the only family member known to be photographed, although a glass negative that may be of Charlotte in 1854 surfaced in 1984 in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, but its authenticity remains controversial.

Photography would gradually replace memorializing the dead with hair keepsakes. Along with this new technology, many historical changes led to the disappearance of hairwork. But this shift in feeling happened decades after Charlotte died, on March 31, 1855, just before she turned thirty-nine. No photograph was taken of her corpse, another type of death souvenir Victorians favored. The servants Martha Brown and Hannah Dawson (the elderly Tabby Ackroyd had died just before Charlotte) laid out her body in the bedroom that her mother had died in many years before. They cut of a long tress of her dark brown hair to keep. She had promised it to them, they said, during her lifetime. Later, when Charlotte’s husband was despondent because he had forgotten to gather some hair on her deathbed, Martha and Hannah split the tress with him.

Ellen Nussey arrived soon after Charlotte’s death, to pay her last respects to her closest friend. She spread evergreen branches and flowers on Charlotte’s “lifeless form.” She, along with Charlotte’s husband, Patrick, and many townsfolk, saw Charlotte’s small coffin interred alongside her mother, aunt, and four of her siblings. Patrick still held onto his faith in heaven despite having lost all of his children. He wrote of his daughter’s demise: “our loss we trust is her gain.”

After the funeral, Ellen went home with a few curls: some she wore in jewelry, others she later gave away to favored friends and Brontë fans, such as John James Stead, who eventually donated his to the British Library. Arthur Nicholls had a gold ring made with his initials, a snippet of Charlotte’s hair tucked away behind a little door.

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Excerpted from The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz. Copyright © 2015 by Deborah Lutz. Published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.