Hair extensions may be more frequently associated with The Only Way is Essex than Far From the Madding Crowd, but rendering complex and voluminous nineteenth-century hairstyles couldn’t always rely on women’s natural hair – and often didn’t. In 1873 over 100 tons of hair were sold in France alone. And then, as now, the human hair trade was one which raised difficult ethical issues, with connotations of exploitation and the commercialisation of the female body.
In Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887) this question of buying and selling hair is considered on a localised level, with the poor Marty South opening the novel by selling her hair, under duress, to the wealthy landowner Mrs Charmond. Marty’s hair is intrinsically tied to her femininity. Her initial plea, ‘Why can’t the lady send to some other girl who don’t value her hair – not to me!’, is a fruitless and ridiculous one – as the wig-maker will push her anyway, and hair is shown to be central to all women’s sexual worth.
|An elaborate Victorian hairstyle|
Giving up her hair is akin to being seduced. When the deed is done the passage reads:
‘She would not turn again to the little looking-glass, out of humanity to herself, knowing what a deflowered visage would look back at her and almost break her heart; she dreaded it as much as did her own ancestral goddess the reflection in the pool after the rape of her locks by Loke the Malicious.’ [emphasis mine]
The wig-maker places temptation in Marty’s way, leaving her with the sovereigns, so that she compares him to ‘the Devil to Dr Faustus in the penny book’. He also casts her desire to keep her hair as indicative of her sexual desires, effectively shaming her into submission: “Marty South,’ he said with deliberate emphasis, “you’ve got a lover yourself; and that’s why you won’t let it go!”
When Marty chooses to cut off her own hair she does so upon realising Winterborne’s indifference to her, turning on herself in a manner close to self harm:
‘With a preoccupied countenance, and with tears in her eyes, she got a pair of scissors and began mercilessly cutting off the long locks of hair, arranging and tying them with their points all one way.’
Marty’s organisation as she cuts, remembering to bind the locks as she has been instructed, sits in stark contrast to the self-hating emotions which prompt her final decision. What makes the affair even crueller is that Marty only receives attention from Winterborne after she has lost her hair – the source of her sexual attractiveness. He tells her: ‘Why, Marty – whatever has happened to your head. Lord, it has shrunk to nothing – it looks like an apple upon a gate-post.’
|Fontaine loses her hair (and sells her body) in Les Miserables|
Winterborne is oblivious to the role he has unwittingly played in Marty’s sale of her hair, and their next exchange is revealing. She tells him: ‘I’ve made myself ugly - and hateful’. His response is kind but untrue: ‘You’ve only cut your hair – I see that now’. But Giles Winterborne never sees clearly, and can never look at Marty in a sexual light or recognise her affection for him. He judges the women in his life – Marty and Grace – by appearance, and hair is a vital part of this assessment.
But what of the woman on the other end of this exploitative exchange? Felice Charmond, who buys Marty’s hair? Hardy casts her as selfish and culpable, especially because her vanity is at play even in church where she firsts spots Marty’s hair:
‘You sat in front of her in church the other day; and she noticed how exactly your hair matches her own. Ever since then she’s been hankering for it.’
But Felice is a victim too – of the untenable standards for female beauty. Mrs Charmond’s sense of self worth is bond up with her attractiveness even more than Marty’s. She is only thirty but fears ageing and feels threatened by the teenaged Grace. Her desire for Marty’s hair may seem frivolous but this act of hair cutting and purchase comes to stand for the tragedy of both women’s lives.
Do you know any other Victorian novels which deal with the sale of women’s hair? Let me know below, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!