Johns Hopkins University Press
  • "I Twisted the Two, and Enclosed Them Together":Hairwork, Touch, and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights

The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!

—Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

In emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847), it seems that death, rather than life, animates objects. A deathliness hangs over the possessions of the deceased and suffuses them with vitality. Objects left behind sentimentally or quasi-spiritually become something more—more present, persistent, and alive—by virtue of their possessor's absence. Touched by "a glowing patina of memory," in Deborah Lutz's terms, they seem to hold "little histories of intimacy" (Relics of Death 53), as though invisibly animated by a once-animate presence. My concern in this article, however, is with the physical imprints left on matter by living bodies: the dents, kinks, knots, frayed edges, and scratched surfaces. Just as Lockwood is roused by the "writing scratched on the paint" of Catherine's windowsill (Wuthering Heights 15), leading him to open and consider the mildewed pile of books on its ledge, it is the visible marks of objects that precede and guide my entry into the text. What can be found throughout Brontë's novel, and among her family's possessions collected in the Brontë Parsonage Museum (hereafter BPM), are objects with tangible signs of use and wear. It is much more than an imagined engagement, the idea that these things were touched by living bodies, that lends them a vitality. The visible tears and repairs that can be observed on articles of well-worn homeware attest to the touch—the movements and mishaps—of the people who owned them.

A red tablecloth (D162) is described by the BPM catalogue as "poor, torn, patched, stained, faded," featuring "[t]ears, holes, burn mark in centre, stains."1 The asyndetic listing of these terms of deterioration inadvertently imitates the accumulation of marks that conjure the back story of this piece of Brontë memorabilia. Each stain marks a point in time—a drop of ink or gravy, the fallout of a private moment or social occasion, a spillage at work or play—the faded colours of the cloth charting the passing of time since its first use. The cloth captures the literal collisions of daily life, food, and [End Page 31] thought, bleached by the sun and burned by candlelight as the family sat around the table to eat and entertain, to work and write. It is this kind of marked materiality that hairwork so vividly evokes. Hairwork—the art of crafting decorative objects, such as jewellery, from human hair—produces a uniquely tactile token of the body.2 It is hair made to bear the marks of exchange and possession. While locks of hair may be cut, exchanged, and kept as mementos of family, friends, or lovers, hairwork codifies the dynamics of these relationships in a way that unworked hair does not. The way hair is carefully plaited or coiled and tied becomes a metaphoric anchor for complex and sometimes contrary meanings and ideas, identities and alliances. Hairwork makes manifest touch, labour, creativity, and the desire to beautify and preserve in anticipation of distance or death. In this way, hairwork is a product not only of the body from which it was taken but also of the body that works and wears it. Each time hair passes between hands, to be cut and exchanged, to be worked and worn, it is impressed to some degree by its contact with the body. Sometimes barely touched and sometimes transformed, it is continuously crafted from the point at which it is cut.

Turning away from the eighteenth-century fashion for concealing hair within jewellery, the mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of a new kind of hairwork: jewellery composed of hair rather than enclosing it. The method of "table work" involves arranging a bundle of hair into strands around a circular table with a hollow centre, securing the strands with weights at either end, and crossing them over one another to form a braid. This technique preserved hair in a way that meant it could be openly seen and touched. Hair was no longer pressed behind a glass barrier or enclosed within a metal compartment; it formed the chains and beads of jewellery rather than its obscure centre. The woven bands of this form of hairwork give shape to the idea that hair can readily connect one to the absent or departed body from which it came. The number of advertisements for professional hairwork rose in the late 1840s, with jewellers such as B. and J. Lee and George Dewdney offering their services in the Lady's Newspaper from 1847 onward, although printed instructions for amateurs were published in the following decade.3 Many articles of hairwork in the BPM collection were made in the early to mid-nineteenth century, some using the table work method and some elaborately plaited into other kinds of "open work." Because of the exposure of the hair in these forms, many of the pieces have been visibly worn and splintered by the family and, perhaps, their subsequent owners. There is an obvious difference between these two kinds of crafting—the deliberate working of material into an ornament and the unintentional wearing of the object over time and by accident—but, while distinct, both attest to the body's interaction with hairwork, to its being touched. This is one factor that distinguishes hairwork from other kinds of hair tokens. Hairwork necessitates the hair being gripped between the fingers to be smoothed down, divided into strands, pulled taut, twisted, [End Page 32] plaited, woven, or in some other way manipulated with dexterity and purpose. Therefore, hairwork codifies touch in a way that unworked hair does not. As Heather Tilley explains, to craft is to "self-reflexively judge the correct 'force of the hand'. … Touch is the force which masters, as well as in turn requires mastering" (20). While hair may be touched without being crafted as such, unworked locks do not manifest that touch visibly as purposefully crafted plaits, chains, and tubes, which have in turn been frayed, bent, and broken by another "force of the hand."

Touch offers, then, a way to understand hairwork as an intrinsically haptic form of memento. Lutz considers a still intact Brontë bracelet, made of Anne's and Emily's hair and owned by Charlotte (HAOBP: J14), imagining how "she probably wore it, carrying on her body a physical link to her sisters, continuing to touch them wherever they were" ("Death Made Material"). I take from Lutz this intriguing possibility of the desire for and experience of "continuing" touch that is facilitated by hairwork, and a cue to think further on the interactions that might shape its meaning. My aim here is not to interweave the hairwork of the Brontës with their lives or to infer its biographical consequence, as Lutz has done.4 Nor do I wish to use their hairwork as a springboard for an exploration of its place in mourning culture, its use as a literary trope, or even, in any detail, the historical trajectory of hairwork.5 Rather, I wish to delve deeper into the complexities and contrarieties of touch suggested by hairwork in its worn or broken state. Through touch, hairwork offers its wearer or handler a means of physical and figurative connection, as well as a means of memorializing a person and relationship. Indeed, there is an inherent craftiness in the idea of "connection" since it derives from the Latin connexionem, "a binding or joining together," which itself comes from conectere, composed of com, meaning "together," and nectere, "to bind or tie" ("Connection"). Hairwork makes sense of connection as a material manifestation of bodies joined together, whether through the binding together of several people's hair into one piece or the tying of one's hair on or around another's body as jewellery. When its hairs are broken or pulled apart by an excess of touch, there arises, I argue, an anxiety that this token of connection might actually evoke or effect disconnection.

Through this focus on touch, I aim to demonstrate the fruitful connections that may be made by reading Emily Brontë's novel alongside her family's hairwork, as well as by placing Victorian texts alongside objects more broadly. The wealth of surviving Brontë personal effects provides an opportunity not only to illuminate Victorian literature using objects and their cultural histories as a point of departure, as Elaine Freedgood, Deborah Lutz, Talia Schaffer, and others have done, but to evaluate Victorian objects through a parallel study of their literary representation.6 This raises an important question for my study of hairwork associated with an author—how do we figure an author's possessions in relation to their writing? In studying Brontë's hairwork, my aim is not, as Hermione Lee warns against, to [End Page 33] conjure "a whole figure out of body parts" or to speculate on her life (8). Rather, hairwork acts in this article as a peculiarly suggestive body-object that helps to illuminate the relationship between experienced and represented materialities. Reading texts against objects raises a different set of issues from that posed by dealing with texts alone, not least because it involves a degree of lateral thinking. I am conscious that the modes of analysis transferred from texts to objects often, and perhaps unfairly, privilege sight in a way that neglects the tactile and associative dimensions that are so crucial to hairwork as a medium. With this in mind, I approach hairwork with greater haptic awareness, trying to feel as well as think through touch. The embodied experience of the researcher analyzing these artifacts brings out some of the tensions and contradictions of hairwork: the apparent vitality of dead matter, the presence of the past, the denial of touch (whether by a locket or archival gloves), and the inscrutability of the deeply personal.7 Still, physical proximity and touch can illuminate more about an artifact than only reading about it can. The scale, texture, opacity or translucency, lightness or heaviness, and fragility or sturdiness of hairwork are qualities that need to be defined if we are to understand something of the affective power it held for the Brontës.8 Handling and examining hairwork—seeing the way locks want to uncurl and escape from envelopes and regarding the light-reflecting litheness of woven hair bracelets two hundred years on—makes sense of its capacity to evoke complex identities, relationships, and affects.

i. don't touch: encountering hair work in the museum

The capacity for the Brontës' hairwork to be read must be considered in the context of the embodied experience of viewing these objects in the Brontë Parsonage Museum. If we are to uncover and understand the more intimate and tactile aspects of hairwork, we also need, as Sandra H. Dudley urges, to move beyond visual appearances in order to fully consider the materiality of "real stuff and its three-dimensionality, weight, texture, surface temperature, smell, taste and spatio-temporal presence" (6). Within each archive box, the objects are individually enclosed in plastic envelopes and layered up to the brim. Unlike a stack of papers, these objects are encountered in an order determined by their material properties—size, weight, fragility, angularity—rather than the logic behind their cataloguing. As each item is lifted from the box, plastic envelopes deny touch. Even in the BPM library, objects are to be seen—and only seen—through a glassy barrier. Still, there is a sense of circularity at play in the archival packaging that (incidentally) imitates the packaging of the hairwork it encloses. The clear envelopes recall the glass cases, frames, and locket compartments surrounding the curled and woven locks, and acid-free tissue paper does not look out of place alongside crinkly old envelopes holding loose hair. As I take each item out of its envelope with gloved hands, the fine texture of the hair bracelets and the cold, smooth [End Page 34] metal and glass of the brooches is still to be observed rather than felt. The short, broken hairs along braided chains and flat, woven braids appear itchy, if only to the eye. Small tubular bands look springy, but this springiness is not to be tested. Some artifacts folded in tissue can be held up to the light to glean the shadow of their contents: wisps of dark hair (J71: 3–SB: 1609). Other locks tucked inside thick envelopes deny sight as well as touch. In this way, these articles of hair and their coverings constantly remind the viewer of their own materiality as a body capable of feeling but also damaging the objects and of the reciprocity of touch: that they are equally not allowed to touch you.9

One hair bracelet in the BPM collection composed of six plaits of light brown hair is unattributed, but its shade is most like that in Anne's named pieces (J30-SB: 2704). While the tight and coiled braids of other bracelets mean that they would stand away somewhat from the wrist, this set of light plaits would brush against the skin. If hair is preserved as hairwork not only to retain a visual reminder of those absent but also to form a touchable point of connection for the wearer, then this bracelet best facilitates that desire. The fine splinters along the length of each plait are barely visible but may be felt, and were perhaps created by the bracelet rubbing up against a sleeve. This bracelet effects in its roughened texture a reciprocal touch, as the owner wears their own touch into the hair with use and time. There is, however, one broken strand that stands away from the rest, splaying out like the tail of a plait. The loose portion of frizzy hair freed from the plait maintains in its crimped state an impression, a palimpsest, of the hand that worked it. While there is no clear evidence that the sisters made the hairwork in their possession, when purchased by the BPM along with "black sateen evening pumps with fur insole" and "cream kid gloves," this particular hair bracelet was given as belonging to Charlotte ("Gifts and Other Additions" 177). The textural and synonymic resonances between these items of fur, leather, and hair, respectively, align them. Soft, warm, pliant. Pelt, skin, hair. They wrap the extremities in borrowed coverings. Perhaps Charlotte's hands and feet animated these trappings of the dead, feeling the presence of an absent sister through her preserved hair. Or, just as likely, a fan of the family, wanting to try on something that had actually been "touched" by a Brontë, desired to feel this connection but, in the act, broke the strand.

As hair and as fine, unruly stuff, stray strands have a tendency to escape from their paper and plastic confines. A lock of Charlotte's hair, tucked inside a tiny black-bordered mourning envelope labelled by Ellen Nussey, spills out from the top of the paper (E.2007.9.3). As a result of being pushed into a plastic envelope, the stray hairs point in the direction of the opening, with four or five of them poking out. Touching these hairs is almost unavoidable. They are charged with a vitality even if that vitality is only the metaphorical figure of things that seem to resist enclosure, to reach out, to want to be touched. This enveloped lock transgresses its textual binding, [End Page 35] the mourning envelope, and exceeds the sum of its text, the words of Ellen Nussey written on its front.10 It resists the confines of the museum, too, in transgressing, if only by a few strands of hair, the boundaries put in place in order to protect and preserve. Like Graham Bretton's sealed and buried letters in Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853), which Lucy Snowe imagines as a corpse with "hair, still golden, and living," this envelope holds the same sense of being a "tomb unquiet" (371). Charlotte's hair pushes out from the papers of the past, from her friend's attempt to "bury a grief" (304) by physically containing it, as though it too has "obtruded through coffin chinks" (371). One of the heavy tissue-wrapped items at the bottom of the archive box appears to be a translucent brown pillbox. Unsure if this also contains hair, I pull the halves apart. Thick coiled strands start to unfurl. It is too precarious to pause on this ringlet, even to note down the catalogue number sitting within the spiral. The lock is tucked inside and the lid quickly snapped back into place. It is fitting that this material should become a memento of the departed body. It lingers with the living as an (in)animate matter that unfurls and unfolds before the viewer with, at times, surprising readiness.

ii. emily's broken and twisted strands: hair work and wuthering heights

Among the many locks of Charlotte and Anne's hair in the BPM, there is one long plait named as Emily's dark hair (J51–SB: 1550{1}). The plait was designed to form a loop, but one of the ends has come loose and been tied in a knot around the opposite end of the plait, which now sits tentatively in its fastening, no longer snug. Along its length, the plait is speckled with tiny broken strands and appears ever so slightly bent and uneven in places, signs that it was worn and perhaps not so carefully stored at one point. The loose strands near the base splay out toward a little charm that is not identified by the catalogue: a link of two circles that at one end connects the two ferrules and at the other hangs down, empty. This is unlikely to have been a complete necklace since the charm looks more like the connective links of a chatelaine, key chain, or watch fob.11 If this is the same "[n]ecklace made from Emily Brontë's hair" that was given to the BPM in 1951, then it came along with a "needle case" and "paper knives," another craft object, perhaps another domestic tool ("Recent Gifts" 54). It is not, like the majority of the hairwork in the collection, highly ornamental and fragile in appearance, but looks well-used, chain-like, its empty link and broken connection demonstrating that it has been tugged, weighed upon, and touched too much.

While Emily's plait is not necessarily mourning jewellery, Marcia Pointon's argument for the lock of hair as a double defence against death is pertinent here.12 The lock of hair is seen to be both a disavowal of the death and decay of its donor and a talisman against the death and decay of its keeper. In this [End Page 36] sense, the lock functions as a sacred object, with the pure and incorruptible hair derived from an impure and corruptible body ("Materializing Mourning" 52). The meaning of hair is given even greater resonance, argues Pointon, when worked into jewellery, especially when coiled into circular forms such as necklaces that demonstrate the "repetitious remembrances of mourning" and suggest the "perpetuity" of the relationship between the donor and wearer of the piece (56). This is not precisely the case with Emily's plait. It may certainly be seen as an attempt to create a lasting connection between the living and the dead: the donor, wearer, and, if a third person, the worker of the plait. But, because its hair has been pulled out of place before being crudely retied, the necklace begins and reifies a process of material disintegration and immaterial disconnection despite being designed to keep death and loss at bay.

The anxiety of disconnection that the making of hairwork supposes is a subject that Brontë deals with explicitly in Wuthering Heights. Disconnection is particularly apparent in broken or disturbed hairwork, as effectively dramatized in Catherine Linton's locket and the violent touch it encodes. In Brontë's novel, as in her poetry, the threat of disconnection underlies the crafting of hair precisely because it appears to provide a means of preserving ties and to be a manifestation of connections and affections that defy absence, antagonism, and death.13 Locks are twined together or trapped within frames in a futile attempt to fend off death, discord, and the loss of contact between bodies.14 Hairwork mocks its maker by entertaining the possibility of enduring matter, of connections made material and thereby imperishable, but ultimately fails to affect permanence in any meaningful way for the bodies and relationships it represents.

When Catherine dies shortly after giving birth to her daughter, she is buried wearing a locket enclosing the hair of Heathcliff and Edgar Linton, but this is not the locket's original form. Nelly Dean, on finding that Heathcliff has replaced Edgar's lock of hair with his own, collects and twists the hair of the two men together and places it back inside Catherine's locket. This act has been interpreted by some critics as ambiguous, "reconciliatory or interfering, depending on one's viewpoint" (West 158).15 In the context of hairwork, I argue this hair is reworked simply and spontaneously, without a considered design or great skill, by a peripheral member of the household who, in doing so, disturbs the personal connection enacted by these men in placing their locks singly in Catherine's locket. As with Emily's pendantless plait, the locket is pervaded by an underlying sense of loss, of something missing, because of the displacement and rearrangement of its contents by another's hand. If carefully designed and crafted hairwork tells of the attentive affection of a loving touch, Nelly's twisting of hair codifies the forceful grasp of a violent hand.16 Brontë's real and represented hair demonstrates the susceptibility of hairwork to literal and metaphoric breakage, with Nelly's [End Page 37] twisting of locks to join them a process that counteracts connection and affection rather than realizing them.

I shouldn't have discovered that [Heathcliff] had been there, except for the disarrangement of the drapery about the corpse's face, and for observing on the floor a curl of light hair, fastened with a silver thread; which, on examination, I ascertained to have been taken from a locket hung round Catherine's neck. Heathcliff had opened the trinket and cast out its contents, replacing them by a black lock of his own. I twisted the two, and enclosed them together.

Nelly is the crafter of her household in more ways than one, narrating this scene, acting in it, and spinning the yarn of the larger story as she sits by Lockwood with her physical "basket of work" (30). If Nelly, as housekeeper turned narrator, "at her domestic work is given the agency to frame, reshape, and knit together the life plots of those around her" (Lutz, Brontë Cabinet 42), then this moment of crafting with the hair of the two families amplifies her agency. Indeed, Nelly demonstrates her potential to "frame, reshape, and knit" in a single object as she works Heathcliff and Edgar's hair together, twisting the locks into a new shape before placing them in the locket. She imposes her sense of order upon their actual bodily material as well as their narratives, reworking the locket's material and meaning. In bringing together Heathcliff's and Edgar's hair at Catherine's deathbed, Nelly tries to forge a whole from fragments and bring the family together through a mutually painful bereavement. Her working together of the hair of the heads of two families to be placed upon the body that joined them in marriage aligns her act with the making of a memorial hair wreath or hair album. These compositions brought together the hair of several family members, sometimes across several generations, "contextualizing an individual's personal loss within the larger structure of an evolving kinship" (Geerken 377).17 Nelly reworks the contents of the locket to serve the dual purpose of burying the warring affections of two rivals and memorializing their family connection through Catherine. Each body, whole or metonymic, seems to be literally and figuratively laid to rest in the locket. Yet there is something more sinister to Nelly's taking hair and twisting it than appears at first glance.

It may appear that Nelly's work to combine the hair of brother and husband is akin to Paulina Home's work of reconciliation in Villette, the "amulet" in which she places the "grey lock and the golden wave" of her father and fiancé plaited and tied with her own hair (447). Paulina first attempts to bring the men together by overseeing a handshake, which, owing to Mr. Home's upset over his daughter's engagement, proves an ineffective [End Page 38] conciliatory gesture: "Graham, stretch out your right hand. Papa, put out yours. Now, let them touch. Papa, don't be stiff; close your fingers; be pliant—there! But that is not a clasp—it is a grasp!" (446). Touch plays a crucial part in crafting a connection between the two men, but without pliability, a physical and symbolic willingness to "give," the exchange only generates further hostility. Paulina turns to hairwork to unite her father and Graham and keep them friends. The plait is tied "like a knot" and "prisoned" in a locket which seems to inadvertently recall the painful handshake grasp of the pair Paulina wishes to conciliate. As the cause and centre of the conflict, however, Paulina is able to "become a bond to both, an influence over each, a mutual concord" (447). Nelly's twisting of hair and peripheral position mean that her symbolic attempt to reconcile the two antagonists lacks the deliberate design, careful crafting, and intimate, affectionate relationship with the donors of the hair that makes Paulina's plait a positive and effective means of connection. Nelly's twisting is not even, strictly speaking, a recognized form of hairwork and does not perform the same work of aesthetic and sentimental preservation. Her twisting of hair lacks the care and intentionality of hairwork proper, and the affection that these strands should be charged with is not hers to bestow.18 There is no sense of ceremony or reciprocity as there is with the mutual exchange of locks or the invested skill inherent in braiding. Nelly spontaneously and quickly works the locks of hair for the locket, but in doing so, her "twisted" and "enclosed" strands carry a tinge of animosity.

Writing that "Violence is a form of touch. It takes the intimacy of touch beyond the tentative or exploratory into the forceful and transformative" (7), Ingrid Hanson figures touch as a spectrum along which careful handling can give way to violent pressure, physically hurting the body and potentially, at times deliberately, altering it. If twisting can be seen as one such form of touch taken to prolonged and painful excess, then Nelly's twisting and enclosing of the hair of these men is evocative of Catherine's tactile but aggressive expressions of affection toward them. Twisted hair is especially redolent of Catherine's unyielding grasp of Heathcliff during their final altercation. They meet for the last time at her deathbed, where Catherine grabs Heathcliff by the hair, retaining "in her closed fingers, a portion of the locks she had been grasping" (Wuthering Heights 140). Although she has no part in crafting these strands, Catherine's pulling of Heathcliff's hair and the words she says as she does it—"I wish I could hold you … till we were both dead!" (140)—prefigure the trapping of Heathcliff's hair in the confines of the locket. Edgar's twisted hair also echoes Catherine "tighten[ing] her embrace to a squeeze" when he is subject to her excessively affectionate "strangle" (84). As well as figuring a link between the living and the dead, then, the twisted hair of the locket suggests the tangled web of affiliations and rivalries between Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar, which finds animosity in an excess of affection. Nelly twists the hair of rowing husband and [End Page 39] adopted brother together, the fair against the dark, in what is at once an embrace and a stranglehold.

Yet touch is never one-sided. Ann M.C. Gagne writes that since "touch is reciprocal, we need to be aware that when one touches, one is also touched back" (17). This reciprocity is evident in the physical marking of the body in prolonged and excessive touch, such as when Heathcliff's tight embrace of Catherine, fragile in the late stages of pregnancy, results in "four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin" (Wuthering Heights 140). Although Heathcliff and Catherine physically hurt each other, their doing so leaves visible marks and thereby gives material expression to the reciprocity of touch. They not only imagine their bodily matter being sympathetic to their desires but also compel their bodies to sympathetic expression, to visualize their hold on one another, through the violence of their touch. The pair tear at one another in their heated exchanges as the harming of one another's body becomes, conversely, a means of connection. No point of contact is lost, every instance recorded on their skin as a bruise or ripped out hair follicle. Still, if Catherine's locket is intended to manifest an enduring reciprocity of touch, it serves only to separate her body from Heathcliff's (and Edgar's) in keeping them close. Cutaneous contact, or physical touch, gives way to an affective and metaphoric "deep" touch as the hair enclosed in the locket offers distant touch but not the body-to-body contact that Heathcliff craves (Paterson 6). His desire for Catherine is prolonged, but not fulfilled, through his lock of hair as it ensures that their matter will remain tantalizingly close in her grave as they await a full bodily union.

Later in the novel, Heathcliff contrives a means of renewed material—touchable—connection with Catherine by exhuming her corpse and breaking one side of the coffin away so that his corpse may be slid in to touch and decompose with hers: "by the time Linton gets to us, he'll not know which is which!" (255). While this attempt to prevent Edgar's corpse from being placed beside Catherine's mirrors the casting out of his hair from the locket, Heathcliff's lock of hair carries desires and anxieties that go beyond his antagonism toward Edgar. The purpose is not only the displacement of a rival but the seizure of another means of cleaving to Catherine and "dissolving with her" (255). Heathcliff imagines a corporeal merging—"my cheek frozen against hers" (255)—which subsumes Catherine into (or least binds her against) his body. If, following Kate Brown's terms, the corpse as a form of "beloved object" memorializes the departed at the same time as it disavows the loss (398), then Heathcliff's joining of his and Catherine's bodies, through the locket and grave, not only denies the separation of death but attempts to transform it into a means of connection.19 Heathcliff's obsession with the physical relics of Catherine may also be understood in light of his act of placing his hair on her corpse. Although he complains that "[t] he entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her" (Wuthering Heights 288), this loss is at once denied [End Page 40] by the continued presence of objects associated with or used by Catherine. If her corpse can be taken as one such object, then Heathcliff's exhuming of Catherine is an attempt to counteract loss by possessing it. When Heathcliff finds Catherine's body as "hers yet" (255), without noticeable signs of decomposition, she becomes in Heathcliff's mind as though in a state of suspended animation. A loss of form is negated by the gain of matter, hence Heathcliff's insistence on first becoming physically attached to Catherine's corpse, that decay "should not commence till I share it" (256). The lock of hair that he attaches to her fresh corpse may be seen to feed into this imagined imperishability.20 The longevity of the lock of hair, a part of the body that does not easily decompose, becomes a talisman against the corruption of the body and fuels belief in the continued connection between its donor and its possessor. Catherine's locket functions as a reliquary for Heathcliff's hair that presides over her body and preserves it for future material reconnection.

Although in Catherine's locket it is not her hair being worked, there is a lingering sense that it is Catherine who is forcibly refashioned or manipulated by those that alter its contents. As a locket given to Catherine by Edgar, it is not, in the first instance, Heathcliff's business to alter its contents. Although I disagree with the direct line of Pointon's argument, that "Heathcliffe's [sic] profoundly transgressive act is analogous to illegal sexual intercourse (that is, rape, or incest)" ("Wearing Memory" 76), it is a suggestively intrusive act on Heathcliff's part. The "disarrangement of the drapery about the corpse's face" (Wuthering Heights 148) after Heathcliff has been in the room clearly signals that he has been touching Catherine's corpse as well as her locket. Even in death, Catherine's body and its accoutrements are touched by others in a way that speaks to their desire to control her. Though perhaps performed with better intentions, Nelly's act of twisting hair equally renders her craft a kind of compulsion, a symbolic bending of several bodies to her will. Heathcliff's passionate feelings for Catherine are downgraded to a family memento in Nelly's return of Edgar's hair, as the two men's locks are joined together in a way that does not ultimately express either's sense of singular entitlement over Catherine's body.21

There may be a sense, then, in which Nelly, acting as proxy, brings locks of hair together in an expression befitting Catherine's violent, often physically twisted, expressions of affection and her indecision as to where her allegiance lies. But even with this notion, Nelly's intervention in reworking the hair does not reconnect the "cast out" contents of the locket but disturbs its singular and separate connections. Nelly may not cast out or break the hair in the locket, but she twists it into a contrived and perverse whole. If violent touch may be "as prolonged as the grabbing and twisting of limbs or features" (Hanson 7), then Nelly's enclosing of Heathcliff's and Edgar's hair together is violent touch in perpetuity. The joining of the fair and dark locks becomes a doubly coiled structure. Curls have been twisted together, [End Page 41] form echoing texture, as their contention for pride of place in Catherine's locket is made material in their coiling round one another. They are worked into everlasting opposition, each lock figuratively contesting the other's right to a connection with Catherine. Nelly's act of twisting hair resolves only the fact that resolution cannot be found.


Catherine's locket reminds us that hair is always a dead material. It is living only insofar as it preserves some physical trace or association of the body of its donor or of those that have worked and worn it. In Catherine's locket, as in all hairwork, a tension exists between the presence of the locks and the absence of the bodies they belonged to, and with this an anxiety that what cannot be physically felt—whether a friendship, romantic partnership, or family connection—ceases to be. Still, the hair enclosed within the locket draws attention to a central lack given its purpose: the lack of touch. In enclosing hair in a locket, the remembered body is preserved but at the expense of touch, confounding the desire for tactile contact with the departed. Relationships are memorialized through hairwork because without material expression, they lose the kind of durability of memory that an object affords. In this desire to materialize, it emerges that it is the remains that can be felt, that can be touched and their affective meanings revivified, that are true tokens of connection for as long as they endure.

Ending this article with one further consideration of hairwork from the BPM collections, I wish to return to the idea that Brontë's novel and hairwork may be meaningfully connected through the visual and material intertwining that hairwork suggests. The most elaborate piece of hairwork in the collection is a bracelet formed of four tubular chains plaited around one another and joined with a gold clasp (J44–1.5.25). The clasp is a striking design of two loops tied in a lover's knot, a symbol of connection.22 Its rippling wave visually echoes the soft wave of the chains it joins, which are loosely plaited so as not to crush the tubes of hair. The detail on the clasp reflects the larger design, the gold embossed with a fine floral pattern of coiling leaves. These subtle motifs suggest it may have been mourning jewellery. On closer inspection, it seems that the two parts of the clasp cannot be separated, each one wrapped around the other, holding on firmly to either end of the chain. The inseparability of the links reifies an everlasting affection, an unbreakable bond between family members or, perhaps, someone unwilling or unable to let go. A few hairs have broken and poke out along the length of the chains, perhaps from rubbing against the collar or skin of the wearer or from handling, the wearer turning over the chain in remembrance.

There is no indication in the catalogue of the source of the hair, nor its owner.23 Although the brunette locks could be Charlotte's, the shade is as dark as some pieces named as Emily's. The amount of hair that has gone [End Page 42] into its making, the sense that this is a mourning bracelet, and the pattern of the other named pieces of hairwork in the collection also point to its being Emily's, perhaps commissioned by Charlotte or Anne shortly after her death. Its donor could, however, be another of the sisters—Maria or Elizabeth—or even Mrs. Brontë or Aunt Branwell. While this guesswork can be frustrating or appear futile, it is constructive to think how this bracelet might signify a close relationship between family members by virtue of its anonymity. The indeterminacy of the hair's origin, that it may well be Emily's faded to a closer likeness to Charlotte's, means that as time has passed—with the bracelet changing hands several times as well as visually fading—the sisters have become more difficult to distinguish from one another in these articles of hairwork. The bracelet's original purpose, one can safely assume, was to preserve the memory of a relation by weaving their familiar hair into a circlet of eternity. The bracelet now preserves the memory of several relations in weaving these uncertainties.

Hair is cut and collected in anticipation of bodies parting and is crafted to preserve that which may be lost, whether to distance, age, or death. The making of hairwork is thus an attempt to forge and maintain connections: to manifest family ties, to promise romantic fidelity, and to demonstrate the bonds of friendship. In this attempt, there are, however, points of disconnect, a pervasive series of absences, distances, and broken and mismatched links. Hairwork in this way serves to craft connection while simultaneously endorsing the anxiety of separation. In my treatment of the Brontës' hairwork and Wuthering Heights, I have enacted the same crux supposed by all hairwork: the paradoxical connection and disconnection of bodies through the exchange and working of hair. What can be traced through the Brontës' hairwork, whether real or representational, is the idea that without material engagement, without touch or even with too much of it, connections break down and relations may be lost.

Heather Hind

heather hind recently completed her PhD at the University of Exeter. She is currently working on her first monograph based on her thesis, which was titled "Hairwork in Victorian Literature and Culture: Matter, Form, Craft." She is a post-graduate representative for the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) and has worked as a research assistant for the Central Online Victorian Educator (COVE). Her research has been published in the Wilkie Collins Journal and the edited collection Paraphernalia! Victorian Objects.


1. Objects mentioned in the article are from the Museum Collection, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth. References to objects from the collection are given in parentheses. Images of the objects discussed in this article can be viewed online at <>.

2. For the process of making hairwork, see Sheumaker, Love Entwined. American hairwork, although a little different in fashion, used many of the same techniques as British hairwork.

3. J. Lee advertised his "New Invented Secure Hair Bracelets" for the first time in The Lady's Newspaper in Jan. 1847 (95), and in Mar. 1848, B. Lee, of the same address, added "new elastic Hair Bracelets" to their "Souvenirs in Hair" (254). Guides for amateurs to make hairwork at home included William Martin's The Hairworker's Manual, F.L.S.'s The Art of Ornamental Hair Work, and a hairwork chapter in Elegant Arts for Ladies, all of which focus primarily on table work techniques for bracelets.

5. This is more clearly the purpose of the excerpt published as "Death Made Material," cited above.

6. See also Arnold, Daly.

7. Steedman's Dust has heightened my awareness of archival research as not purely about the information gathered but about the process and experience of gathering information.

8. Ratcliffe makes a similar point on the embodied and affective encounter with material culture necessary for her research on curl-papers (205).

9. On the reciprocity of touch, see Gagne.

10. Ellen and Charlotte discussed exchanging locks via post in their correspondence. In a letter to Ellen marked 21 July 1832, Charlotte writes that she is "very much dissappointed [sic] by your {not} sending the hair. You may be sure my {dear} est Ellen that I would 'not' grudge double postage to obtain it but I must offer the same excuse for not sending you any" (The Letters of Charlotte Brontë 115).

11. A page in William Halford and Charles Young's The Jewellers' Book of Patterns in Hair Work shows very similar designs for fine chains with circular charms at the centre (designs 51 and 52 in particular). The type of jewellery is not named, but the following page shows designs for crosses and other hanging pendants with connective rings at the top for attaching to a chain, which would seem to suggest that Emily's plait was intended to hold an ornament.

12. As early as the turn of the nineteenth century, romantic and sentimental designs for hairwork were becoming more common than overt mourning jewellery, with the use of hair in jewellery denoting love but not necessarily bereavement. See Bury 36, Luthi 10, and Sheumaker, "This Lock You See" 426–27.

13. While there are moments of threatened disconnection brought about by worked hair in Charlotte Brontë's fiction—with Villette's Madame Beck pulling the grey plait of Miss Marchmont's hair from Lucy's memorandum book, and Shirley's Caroline Helstone feverishly clinging to Robert Moore's black curl in a locket in her illness, fearful he will ask for it back—her work, in contrast with Emily's, deals with the preserving of ties, with hairwork a manifestation of connections and affections that defy absence, antagonism, and death.

14. In an attempt to fend off death and decay, in "Long Neglect Has Worn Away" (1837), a twined "lock of silky hair" sits beneath a portrait that "mould and damp" have corrupted (lines 4–5). In "Why Ask to Know the Date—the Clime?" (1846), "rival curls of silken hair, / Sable and brown" enclosed together in a locket suggest "A tale of doubtful constancy" (lines 146–48) and so fail to achieve accord.

15. Pointon argues that, although Nelly's twisting of the hairs is an interference, it is nonetheless an attempt to find some resolution: "Nelly's restitution of the husband's hair is corrective, while her willingness to leave Heathcliffe's [sic] hair also in the locket which is to be buried with its owner resolves at the symbolic level what could not be resolved juridically" ("Materializing Mourning" 76).

16. Several critics have considered the violence of Wuthering Heights in relation to issues of gender and sexual desire, yet few have framed its violence in relation to touch or noted the significance of Catherine's locket, which dramatizes the tensions surrounding her body and her death. Such critics include Gilbert and Gubar, Yaeger, and Crouse.

17. Though Geerkin makes a link between the locket and hair wreaths, the making of family hair wreaths was a far more common practice in America than Britain, especially following the American Civil War.

18. F.L.S. states that "[p]atience, neatness, and a systematic method of proceeding, are indispensable. Hair-plaiting is easy, but cannot be done without care and attention" (18). Alexanna Speight's instructions in The Lock of Hair also urge careful handling; for instance: "As soon as the plait is finished carefully raise it up, so as to cover the paper under it with gum. As soon as the gum has been placed upon the paper, carefully put the plait back" (105; my emphasis).

19. Brown discusses the "beloved object" in relation to Graham's sealed and buried letters in Villette, which Lucy Snowe imagines as a corpse with "hair, still golden, and living" (371).

20. Heathcliff's lock being placed on Catherine's corpse may be linked to the devotional relic culture of the Catholic tradition. Locks of hair were worn as religious relics and buried with their devotees at least as far back as the ninth century. Charlemagne was buried at Aix-la-Chapelle wearing an amulet professing to contain the Virgin Mary's hair. See Blersch 42.

21. Meier argues that Nelly's mingling of Heathcliff's and Edgar's hair demonstrates, conversely, her uneasy loyalty to Heathcliff and willingness to betray Edgar (310).

22. Almost the exact same design for a hair bracelet appears as No. 35, "lover's knot," in Christian Olifiers's C. Olifiers' Album of Ornamental Hair-Work for 1850.

23. The gifts and acquisitions articles printed in Brontë Studies over the years almost exclusively refer to articles of hair belonging to Charlotte. Although Patrick is less frequently named as the possessor of hair tokens and other relics, this may be answered simply by Charlotte's celebrity, her being the last surviving sister, and the currency her named personal effects held in auctions and sales.

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