“Pondering on that little circle of plaited hair”: Hairwork, Materiality, and Identity in Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek (1854)

Sep 20, 2019 | Articles

Heather Hind
University of Exeter and University of Bristol

Hairwork—the art of making decorative objects, such as jewellery, from human hair—is a craft in which identity is articulated not only through the object’s design, making, exchange, and possession, but through its very material. Hair, being of the body, is synecdochic of an individual but becomes, in its separation from the body, a material capable of being worked into new forms, exchanged as a token of affection, and of reifying a relationship. As hair is shaped physically, worked, and worn according to advances in technique and fashion, it imaginatively shapes and frames the identities that it lends its material to represent. Yet, in transforming hair into such intricate ornaments, hairwork might equally be seen to obfuscate the likeness between the hair and its body of origin. How is the person from which the hair came to be recognised in an elaborately worked piece? What or, more precisely, who is a hair bracelet like—and how?

These are some of the many questions underlying the uncertainty with which Matthew Grice views his sister’s hair bracelet in Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek (1854). Assuming the role of detective in his own family’s hushed-up history, Mat continually turns to the hair bracelet and the identities it represents as he searches for the missing links in the story of Mary’s disappearance and death. The bracelet, a piece of mourning jewellery made with the hair of their sister, Susan, has since had the hair of Mary’s lover, Arthur Carr, worked into it. As Mat attempts to solve the mystery of Mary’s demise (and, then, what became of Mary’s child) he finds that this hair bracelet proves difficult to decipher. With little else to go on, Mat begins to think around the hair bracelet, pondering upon the surplus locks of Arthur’s hair kept inside Mary’s letters. Material is aligned with documentary evidence, hair discovered within and considered alongside letters and records in a way that suggests a likeness of form though not, necessarily, a parallel readability.[1] In this article I will consider the ways in which the hair bracelet that Mat investigates in the course of his search for Arthur privileges material over textual engagement. I argue that in the novel hairwork functions not as a precise analogue to documentary evidence but as an alternative form of record that resists a like mode of reading. It is the materiality of hairwork, rather than its occasional textual markers, that signifies identity and which must be unravelled if Mat is to find the answers he seeks.

Hairwork and Materiality

What is perhaps most significant for this discussion of hairwork and materiality in Hide and Seek—aside from the plot in depicting a hair bracelet as a means by which to identify someone—is the way in which Mary’s bracelet problematises identity as something that may be simultaneously clear and obscure, visible yet concealed. This piece of hairwork to some extent hides bodies and relations even when it appears to aid their seeking. Indeed, defining the materiality of hairwork is difficult precisely because it sits at the intersection between several supposed binaries: body and object, living and dead matter, presence and absence, the natural and the crafted, the sentimental and the fashionable, the authentic and the affected (Goggin and Tobin 2; Gray 221; Holm 140; Rosenthal 1-2). From these tensions arise the identities and relationships that hairwork encodes. Because a lock of hair is synecdochic of the person from which it was taken, its belonging to another as an exchanged object reifies a relationship. It shapes one’s identity by association, by the way it has been crafted and kept, as well as memorialising the body from which it was taken. Giving or receiving hair and having it worked into a memento frames one’s identity in relation to another as family, friend or partner. Though Mat’s hair-centric means of detection is peculiar to Hide and Seek, locks of hair and hairwork play a key role in revealing and affirming identity across Collins’s fiction.[2] As Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe note, after commenting on Basil (1852), which holds its own secret exchange of hair tokens, these “[t]rinkets of little or no value—a jet brooch, a locket enclosing a portrait or hair, a ring with a particular combination of stones or a bracelet of plaited hair—hold a whole world of information” (152).[3] This containment of information, made literal in Basil’s locket of his secret wife’s hair, illustrates that although hair can stand in for documentation as a material token of the kinds of identity that would otherwise be inscribed on paper, it still needs to be opened up somehow, its testimony coaxed out, this “world of information” unpacked.

Jules David Prown outlines various approaches to material culture which together form a holistic means by which to assess objects. Proceeding from description, to deduction, to speculation—from what is evident about an object and what may be deduced to the kinds of ambiguities and questions that cannot be neatly resolved (7)—we often find in studying objects that there is only so much they can tell us, being “disappointing as communicators of historical fact; they tell us something, but facts are transmitted better by verbal documents” (16). Hairwork, despite its intention to commemorate a person and relationship, may be one such disappointing communicator: a reason why the clasps of hairwork are commonly inscribed and locks of hair kept in labelled envelopes. Still, complicating this apparent reliance on text is the way in which hair and other body-relics in Victorian novels do, as Deborah Lutz observes, “often furnish a means to authenticate identity, like an autograph or handwriting, proving the subject and his or her body to be unrepeatable and non-reproducible” (“The Dead Still Among Us” 136). Especially in terms of objects represented in fiction, hair and hairwork might serve as forms of record which, though more difficult to interpret than verbal documents, signify something of their donor and recipient by virtue of the individuality of the material and the chosen form in which they have been preserved.[4] The design of a piece of hairwork—its shade, shape, size, pattern, clasp, inscription, and any other aspect of its ornament—must be carefully examined. When looking for the kinds of information that may be stored in an object, the form that the object takes, whether as a simple lock of hair or a piece of intricately woven hairwork, must be considered as a key part of its intimation of meaning.

“What’s it like?” he asked aloud, turning suddenly to young Thorpe.

“What’s what like?”

“A Hair Bracelet.”

“Still harping on that, after all my explanations! Like? Why it’s hair plaited up, and made to fasten round the wrist, with gold at each end to clasp it by.” (Hide and Seek 255)

Zack Thorpe’s brief descriptive response goes some way toward addressing what form a hair bracelet might take, but cannot answer to the uncertainties that so often come with hairwork: whose hair is it made from, who made it, and who owned and wore it? While these sorts of questions may be asked of any unidentified artefact, with hairwork the impulse to speculate is hard to resist.[5] A body, or at least a representative fragment, lies before the viewer, prompting them to seek a human connection, to guess at the backstory that severed hair from head. This manner of speculation can be productive because it begins to tease out the possibilities, the latent ideas, behind the preservation of this hair as a piece of jewellery. Though Mat appears to know “perfectly well that there [is] not the slightest present or practical use in examining the hair” of Mary’s bracelet (361), it is his initial reluctance to study this object, and to concede that to do so may reveal something more of the identity of Arthur, that slows the progress of his investigation. To demonstrate what may be unravelled if we do engage with hairwork on a material level, I will first turn to a real instance of a like, and equally enigmatic, piece of hairwork.[6]


Figure 1. A hair bracelet in the Harrogate Museums and Arts Collection. Author’s own photograph.

A hair bracelet in the Harrogate Museums and Arts Collection, composed of brown hair worked around a thread mould, has only a couple of inches of hair remaining, frayed beyond repair (HARGM: 5005).[7] Its overlapped ends, encased in battered and bent metal, bear the inscriptions of two names: Alfred and Clara. The hairs sticking out from Alfred’s side appear on first glance to be of the same ashy brown hue as those on Clara’s end of the bracelet. But on closer inspection this shade appears ever so slightly warmer—perhaps the result of the other hairs fading over the years, being exposed to the sun or, given the two names, a sign that there were once two locks of hair worked into this piece. Did both Alfred and Clara give their locks to be worked, to meet in the middle that now lies exposed? Were they husband and wife, or engaged to be, or possibly brother and sister? Were they related in another way, or simply close friends? Was this piece commissioned for their betrothal, as a token of their mutual affection, in anticipation of their parting for a time, or for one mourning the other? Though these questions remain unanswered, the frayed hairs of the bracelet draw the viewer in, with some clues only to be perceived up close by the wearer or handler, privileging touch over sight. Fine splintered strands stick out from the few inches of worked hair that remain intact and, though barely to be seen from a distance, may easily be felt—likely created by rubbing against a cuff, the inside of a pocket or from frequent handling. While every other hair bracelet in the Harrogate collection is in pristine condition, ornately worked or bejewelled, that this one is not only damaged but worked simply in a functional, solid design supports the notion that this piece was worn often and not made just as a display piece. The bracelet encodes a reciprocal touch, its roughened texture created and then felt by the touch of its wearer. On the clasp, close and frequent contact has almost rubbed out the inscribed names of those anxious not to lose their connection to distance or time. Thinking on the circularity of the bracelet’s making and unmaking, the worn inscription and frayed ends of the hairs can be seen to unravel touch once again. The bracelet in its damaged state gives rise to a hidden quality, a sense of partial erasure, that underscores its place as an object which invites speculation: ultimately unknowable, but materially preserving something of the identities and relationships it represents.

Mary’s Bracelet

Alfred and Clara’s hair bracelet would appear to hold many similarities with Mary’s in Hide and Seek, which is described in detail in a letter from Jane Holdsworth—a friend Mary has trusted with the commission of the redesigned bracelet—in which we are informed that a parcel has been sent containing “the prettiest hair bracelet” that Jane has ever seen (216):

I will answer for your thinking the pattern of your bracelet much improved since the new hair has been worked in with the old … You may be rather surprised, perhaps, to see some little gold fastenings introduced as additions; but this, the jeweller told me, was a matter of necessity. Your poor dear sister’s hair being the only material of the bracelet, when you sent it up to me to be altered, was very different from the hair of that faultless true love of yours which you also sent to be worked in with it. It was, in fact, hardly half long enough to plait up properly with poor Susan’s, from end to end; so the jeweller had to join it with little gold clasps, as you will see. No country jeweller could have done it half as nicely, so you did well to send it to London after all. (215-16)

Like Alfred and Clara’s, Mary’s bracelet features the hair of two people and a gold clasp inscribed with two names. Though it is not described as having frayed or unravelled, in being redesigned and reworked by a jeweller it too has been taken apart, or in craft terms “drizzled”, in order to incorporate the hair of the second person.[8] What Jane’s letter fails to mention, however, is that Arthur’s hair has been added to the bracelet without there being any alteration made to its inscription. A sense of an identity and a relationship being hidden in this hair bracelet, which at once displays and conceals a second donor of hair, is even more tangible than for Alfred and Clara’s damaged memento. In being reworked from an object of mourning, remembering her dead sister, Susan, into a romantic token, with Arthur’s hairs added at a later date, the bracelet has become an embodiment of two distinct ties of affection and, with them, two sets of associations. As such, it represents two aspects of Mary’s identity as devoted sister and faithful lover. Even in its material presentation of these two identities and relationships, Mary’s bracelet is still more difficult to untangle as a token of private affections. As commissioner and owner of this enigmatic piece of hairwork Mary presents herself, in Christiane Holm’s terms, as “a participant in a hidden intimate network, from which other viewers are excluded” (140), and deliberately so. Her bracelet is designed not simply to represent affections and relationships, but simultaneously to conceal them.

The decision to memorialise Arthur and their relationship in the form of a hair bracelet is itself a surreptitious tactic on Mary’s part. In historical terms, if the bracelet was reworked with Arthur’s hair around 1828 (the year Mary and Arthur’s child would have been born, as calculated by Mat), it was made around the decline of the Regency fashion for hair enclosed within brooches and lockets and before the trend for table work (jewellery woven out of hair on a circular table) that came to Britain in the late 1840s.[9] The plaited bracelet is, in this respect, neither highly fashionable nor a rare thing to own and wear. There is nothing out of the ordinary in Mary’s bracelet precisely because, as the narrator states, “a Hair Bracelet is in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman’s wear” (Hide and Seek 256) at both the time it was reworked and in the present at which Mat considers it. As late as 1871, an article on “Love Gifts” in Temple Bar lists “bracelets of hair” as one of “the most usual love-gifts” since, albeit hyperbolically, “time immemorial” (249).[10] A hair bracelet does not mark Mary as particularly fashion-forward nor distinguish her relationships as unusually intimate. Conversely, it serves to conventionalise the sentiments and relationships that it commemorates. In line with hairwork fashion from late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century it has even transitioned from momento mori, a reminder of death, to momento moveri, reminder of affection (Fennetaux 34), in being remade from a mourning piece into a romantic token. It has changed with the times, shifting in form and purpose not to display Mary’s adherence to trends but to hide her private feelings within an object that adheres to the ordinary of the day.

The reworked bracelet may also be linked with the growing professional trade in hairwork since it has been given over to a jeweller for its redesign and remaking.[11] Presumably taken to a premises nearby Jane’s address of “Bond Street, London” (Hide and Seek 215), Mary’s bracelet has been worked in the locale of the commercial hub of the hairwork trade in Soho.[12] This point is particularly troubling if we consider the anxieties that surrounded professionally made hairwork, as well as the hair trade at large, in relation to the bracelet. The quality and quantity of hair necessary to create a table work bracelet—the most popular form of hairwork in the mid-century and similar in process to Mary’s plaited bracelet—meant that the clients of hairworkers were concerned that their loved one’s hair might be supplemented or swapped with longer, thicker hair sourced from elsewhere. Hair harvests in France, Germany, and Switzerland contributed to an estimated fifty tons of human hair being imported to Britain annually by the early 1850s according to Alexander Rowland (157), who reasons that “Wigs of course absorb some portion of the spoil: and a cruel suspicion arises in our mind, that the clever artistes in hair in this our Babylon, do not confine themselves to the treasured relics entrusted to their care, but that many a sorrowing relative, kisses, without suspicion, mementoes eked out from hair that grew not upon the head of the beloved one” (160). Rumours about other shady sources of hair circulated in periodicals in the 1850s and 60s and included: barbers’ clippings, sales from impoverished women, assaults by hair merchants on women and children, clippings from prison, asylum and workhouse inmates, rag-picked rubbish sites, and even the dead, shorn in their graves (Dodd 205; Dodd and Wills 61-2; “The Hair” 326; “The Human Form Divine” 49). These warnings tended to involve hair destined for wigs and hair pieces, but because of the blurred lines between the trades they nonetheless fed into the anxiety that hairworkers may be depriving their clients of their beloved ones’ hair. For clients sending the hair to be worked and returned via post, like Mary, the threat of the loss or substitution of hair was even more tangible.[13] The writer of an 1850 article on the new trends in hairwork for The Ladies’ Companion is careful to add the caveat that that only ladies working hair for themselves may “insure [sic] that they do actually wear the memento they prize, and not a fabric substituted for it, as we fear has sometimes been the case” (“Hair Work” 377).[14]

In Mary sending Arthur’s hair and her hair bracelet away to be worked, and in doing so engaging with London’s growing but increasingly anxiety-inducing hairwork trade, the question arises: can we trust that it is Arthur’s hair that has been added, or is another’s hair hiding in the bracelet? With Arthur’s hairs “hardly half long enough to plait up with poor Susan’s, from end to end” (Hide and Seek 216), and some apparently surplus locks returned by the jeweller, the supposition that such a swap might have been made, and even hinted at by Jane’s words, is not unfounded. That “the jeweller had to join [Arthur’s hair] with little gold clasps” (216) to hold it in place goes some way to dispelling this notion since, as Elegant Arts for Ladies (1856) explains, bracelets could be made with hair as short as a couple of inches: “a chain can be worked in any number of separate portions and united by gold slides” (4). The striking resemblance between Arthur’s hair and his son’s golden brown locks would seem to affirm the authenticity of the bracelet (and trustworthiness of the jeweller) at the novel’s denouement, yet there remains a lingering suspicion that there may be more hiding in the bracelet, more potential for deception, than is recognised in the course of Mat’s investigation.

Mat’s complete ignorance with regards to hairwork and his “not knowing that hair bracelets are found in most houses where there are women in a position to wear any jewellery ornament at all” (Hide and Seek 260) mean that he is unaware of the implications of Mary’s bracelet as a piece of professionally reworked hairwork. What Mat can, and does, base his investigation on are the observable, material components of the bracelet. Writing that “Jewels in literature highlight the external, visible and ornamental in relation to the hidden, secret and not to be revealed” (Brilliant Effects 3), Marcia Pointon captures the duality, and even duplicity, that jewellery can represent. Arthur’s worked locks take the place of jewels in Mary’s bracelet, the visible yet hidden aspect of the bracelet emphasised by the formal attributes that Mat has to consider: the inscription lacking Arthur’s name, the gold slides added by a distant jeweller, and Arthur’s short hairs worked in alongside another’s more substantial locks. Arthur is a character who hides in plain sight—he is the first father figure we encounter in the novel and is frequently referred to by Zack, though he is not connected to the bracelet or Mary’s child, Madonna, until the final chapters—thus the bracelet establishes, and even imitates, his visible yet hidden body. Looking at each of these three aspects in more detail—initials, gold clasps, and hair—we can see more clearly how the bracelet encodes Mary and Arthur’s identities and relationship, even as it demonstrates the susceptibility of hairwork to speculative interpretation in the course of Mat’s materially-minded investigation.

The clasp of the bracelet has not changed since it was first made and reads “M.G. In memory of S.G.”, which Mat understands instantly as “Mary Grice. In memory of Susan Grice” (Hide and Seek 343). The bracelet’s inscription remembers the death of Susan, but is deliberately forgetful of the still living Arthur. His secret courtship of Mary is codified in this omission, the anxiety of Mary to hide her affections caught up in this stealthy token of their bond. But equally, in its redesigned form, the bracelet becomes somewhat forgetful of Susan in spite of this inscription. That one donor’s hair is known and evident actually serves to absent them from speculation and to bury their part in its creation. Although the bracelet is made up mostly of Susan’s hair, this sister does not play any real part in the story. The mourning function of the bracelet is at once its most visible aspect—its initial design, inscription, and the majority of its hair all concern Susan’s death—and the part that remains most obscure as it is only Arthur’s romantic contribution to the bracelet that is under investigation. But this bracelet does ultimately come to serve Mat as a token of his mourning for Mary. The bracelet remains a family relic in Mat’s hands despite the intrusion of Arthur’s hair, which comes to mark his part in Mary’s death rather than in her life. There is a fitting circularity or eventuality to the events that the bracelet comes to commemorate, just as its material form is “a smoothly coherent circular form secured by a clasp and, beginning where it ends, suggesting perpetuity” (Pointon, “Materializing Mourning” 56). And just as with Susan, initials are shown to be as concealing as they are revealing with regards to Arthur. When Mat attempts to trace Arthur through letters kept by Mary, he finds that his correspondence is “signed in the same way, merely with initial letters” (Hide and Seek 263). Both signed initials and the hair in the bracelet can be seen as “a kind of dramatic shorthand” (Lutz, Relics of Death 130) for Arthur’s identity, each expression of self simultaneously a mask. It is only when Mat comes to read Joanna’s confessional letter that he discovers Arthur’s full name, though this itself is the pseudonym of Mr Thorpe, thrice concealed by the bracelet, initials, and alias.

The nature of Arthur’s relationship with Mary is similarly hidden within the bracelet. In one sense, the bracelet represents absence by virtue of its presence since it preserves Arthur’s hair in anticipation of his separation from Mary, whether by distance, death or, as is the case, by desertion. Arthur exchanges locks of hair with Mary ahead of a trip to Germany, as detailed in a letter: “How glad I am that I gave you my hair for your Bracelet, when I did; and that I got yours in return! It will be such a consolation to both of us to have our keep-sakes to look at now” (Hide and Seek 265). In its commission during a period of Arthur’s absence from which he never returns, the bracelet already supposes disconnection through its attempt to maintain a material connection between Mary and Arthur. Further still, in redesigning an existing bracelet, Mary materialises but hides the extent of her affection for Arthur, just as she hides her pregnancy which goes undetected for months, passed off as pining for her lost lover. This hushed up out of wedlock affair which leads to Mary’s child being left fatherless places the bracelet’s inscription in another light. With Arthur’s contribution unacknowledged on the clasp, the addition of his hairs could be read as an adulteration, even bastardisation, of the bracelet. The “little gold fastenings introduced as additions” (215) to keep Arthur’s shorter hairs in place subtly play into this idea. The Gold and Silver Wares Act of 1854 (the same year the novel was published) lowered the minimum authorised standard of gold wares from eighteen to nine carats, making gold jewellery more affordable but less pure, imitable by baser substances.[15] The “delicate golden tinge” to Arthur’s brown hair, “brightly visible in the light, hardly to be detected at all in the shade” (400), means that his strands reflect the questionable gold fastenings that join them to the bracelet. Alongside the availability of lower-grade gold alloys in jewellery in the mid-century, writes Ann Louise Luthi, mass produced jewellery meant that impersonal standardised messages such as “In Memory Of” became more prevalent (18). The changes in jewellery production over time, from when the bracelet was first made to its second incarnation, might indicate a shift not only from mourning to love, but from genuine to less sincere displays of affection. There is a pervasive sense of inauthenticity to Arthur’s part in the bracelet’s making both materially and romantically.

         In attending to the hair in the bracelet, the problems that the bracelet’s reworking pose for Mat’s investigation become all the more apparent. The “very different” hairs “worked in with the old” (Hide and Seek 215) function as an authentic material token of Arthur’s identity that may be traced back to him and as a codification of his deception as a jilting lover and the masquerading Mr Thorpe. But, “Prettily run in along with the old hair” (216), Arthur’s locks are hard for Mat to inspect in bracelet form. They are physically hidden to a large extent by there being “very little of one kind [of hair], and a good deal of the other” (86), with Arthur’s sparse strands “hardly half long enough to plait up properly with poor Susan’s” (216). The working of Arthur’s hair into this bracelet in this way further disguises his contribution, with Susan’s dark strands obscuring the lighter golden brown. That the hairs in the bracelet are more difficult for Mat to examine than the surplus locks of Arthur’s hair, enclosed with Jane’s letter to Mary, brings to the fore the question of the relation between materiality and textuality. The bracelet is frequently placed amongst papers in the novel—it is returned to Mary following Jane’s letter, locked in a drawer of Valentine Blyth’s writing bureau, and carried in Mat’s jacket pocket along with Mary’s letters—with even its raw material, the surplus locks sent back by the jeweller, preserved in paper. But even as Arthur’s hair is found within a letter, and so framed by a text in one sense, in examining these locks Mat demonstrates that hair is not exactly comparable with documentary evidence but is a distinctly material form of record that must be engaged with in another way.

The alignment of hair with text is particularly striking in a novel that lacks a consistent paper trail. In the first instance, finding on Mary’s dead body “nothing more—no letters, or cards, or anything” (86) to mark her maternal link to Madonna, Mrs Peckover and the clergyman preserve Mary’s hair bracelet, along with a cambric handkerchief embroidered with her initials, and keep them with her daughter, Madonna, handing them over to Valentine upon her adoption. Though a substitution—since they are preserved in the absence of a birth certificate—these objects serve the purpose of recording Madonna’s parentage, albeit in a way that emphasises the issues of identity that surround Arthur and his child. Following the failure of the bracelet’s inscription to acknowledge Arthur, the lack of legal papers to authenticate a story like Mary’s might, in Sara Malton’s terms, be indicative of “the extent to which the illegitimate child was frequently conceived of as a forged, corrupted document” (7). Madonna, in tandem with the bracelet, becomes part of the proliferation of potentially unreliable evidence, conceived of not only as a material stand-in for documentation but, perhaps, a false document. This little archive of Mary’s possessions also fleshes out her untold story in an affirmative way, becoming a material presence that testifies to the existence of missing persons and unrecorded events. The bracelet articulates silence itself in representing Mary’s exile, in its presence in the absence of a death certificate for Mary, and in materialising the fact of Arthur’s unrecorded paternity. The task that Mat sets out to achieve, however, in seeking to recover two people and confirm their identities—Arthur and his child—is a task more often resolved in mystery and detection fiction with recourse to properly certified documents to settle questions of identity (Thomas 59; Malton 151). Owing to Mary’s scarce correspondence with Jane and Joanna’s burning of Arthur’s letters, Mat has little to go on in this respect. The handful of witnesses to whose oral testimonies Mat might turn are either unwilling or dead or their testimonies partial, and only reinforce the sense that crucial information is missing (or has been purposefully omitted). With no known authoritative source on the story of Mary’s demise, hair fills the gaps left by a lack of documentary evidence.

Mat works with hair in another sense by reflecting on the bracelet. As he forges the connection between the bracelet mentioned in Jane’s letter and the one he has glimpsed in a drawer at Valentine’s house, Mat mentally brings together documentary and physical evidence in a way that mimics the bracelet’s form as a textually inscribed token of a material body. Hairwork becomes one with the mental work of identifying connections and unravelling identities as Mat meditates on the bracelet:

Once more, he was pondering on that little circle of plaited hair, having gold at each end, and looking just big enough to go round a woman’s wrist, which he had seen in the drawer of Mr Blyth’s bureau. And once again, the identity between this object and the ornament which young Thorpe had described as being the thing called a Hair Bracelet, began surely and more surely to establish itself in his mind (257)

Verbal description aligns with physical object as Mat simply joins the two together. He recalls the description of a bracelet supplied by Zack and the appearance of one in the drawer of Valentine’s bureau, linking these two by likeness just as the bracelet itself effectively links remembrances together. But more significantly, here we see Mat beginning to think through the bracelet as he thinks about it. The repetition in this passage of “Once more” and “once again”, leading on to “surely and more surely” suggests the circularity of the bracelet, as Mat’s “pondering on that little circle of plaited hair” takes the shape of the thing it contemplates. The bracelet establishes itself in Mat’s mind as a pattern for thought as well as a material object. It is as though the different components of the mystery clasp together as he thinks on it. “The secrecy in which Mr Blyth chose to conceal Madonna’s history, and the sequestered place in the innermost drawer of his bureau where he kept the Hair Bracelet, [begin] vaguely to connect themselves together in Mat’s mind” (258) as verbal concealment is positioned against physical concealment, reiterating this coupling of documentary and material evidence. The resonance between these two lines suggests that the working of these hairs is as much imaginative, mental work, as it is physical, craft work. Mat’s work of detection may be a matter of tracing a narrative between textual and material records of the body and its relations—the locks of hair, oral testimonies, and letters he looks to in his search for Arthur—but it is his material engagement with the bracelet that strengthens his resolve and brings him closer to finding the answers he seeks.

Mat’s conviction that the strands of Arthur’s hair will lead him to the man himself comes to the fore as he heads towards a railway station, a site suggestive of the mobility of the body but also informational connectivity.

As he pursued his way back to the railroad, he took Jane Holdsworth’s letter out of his pocket, and looked at the hair inclosed [sic] in it. It was the fourth or fifth time he had done this during the few hours that had passed since he had possessed himself of Mary’s Bracelet. From that period there had grown within him a vague conviction, that the possession of [Arthur] Carr’s hair might in some way lead to the discovery of Carr himself. He knew perfectly well that there was not the slightest present or practical use in examining the hair, and yet, there was something that seemed to strengthen him afresh in his purpose, to encourage him anew after his unexpected check at Dibbledean, merely in the act of looking at it. “If I can’t track him no other way,” he muttered, replacing the hair in his pocket, “I’ve got the notion into my head, somehow, that I will track him by this.” (361)

Mat’s resolve is strengthened by possession, by owning a token of Arthur’s body that he can touch, ponder, and refer to, as much as by the information that it may supply. He senses that this hair has the capacity to bring him closer, physically and mentally, to uncovering the body from which it came. As he looks at Arthur’s hair for “the fourth or fifth time” within “a few hours”, he establishes a kind of ritual. His meditation casts the hair as the locus of a compulsive drive, something akin to the “repetitious remembrances of mourning” that hair bracelets imitate and facilitate by virtue of their circular form (Pointon, “Materializing Mourning” 56). In mourning for his sister and at a dead end with his enquiries into the whereabouts of Arthur, Mat’s engagement in repetitious behaviour as a means of moving forwards is significant. He fetishes the hair as he repeatedly uncovers and handles it, finding comfort “merely in the act of looking at it” as though this material engagement is itself a guard against loss, against failure, or at least a controlled simulation of it.[16] Mat’s mastery over the strands of hair becomes a sense of mastery over Arthur, of bodily possession and transmission.[17] But it is not this mode of animistic thinking alone that drives Mat’s impulse to study the hair. While there is a sense that “sympathetic magic” is at work through this hair—the idea that “the piece of the person can bring the presence of the whole” (Lutz, “The Dead Still Among Us” 131)—this does not necessarily suppose a spiritual connectivity. Mat has spent twenty years trapping animals for food and fur on his travels in America (hence his taking “Marksman” as a surname). His returning again and again to the hair is his peculiar means of discovering the whereabouts of Arthur—he is explicitly out to “track him” (Hide and Seek 361). In his “vague conviction” this hair will lead to Arthur (361), Mat recognises the elusive but distinctive nature of the material as a bodily fragment, a trace. Placing this act of examining the hair in relation to Mat’s former trade again emphasises material engagement because in following this “long hunt on a dull scent” he (rightly) anticipates that a trail will, with diligent adherence to material cues, manifest in due course (360-61).


The true identity of Arthur Carr is uncovered when, coming to visit a battered and bruised Zack, Mat is presented by Madonna with a curl of Zack’s hair, cut from around the wounds on his head and swept into newspaper. In being given away by his son’s hair, the idea that hair both reveals and conceals the identity of Arthur is realised. The light golden brown hair matches perfectly with Arthur’s strands from the bracelet which fall from Mat’s pocket as he rummages among his letters for bank notes. Mat’s eyes and hands, his tools in material detection, are initially overwhelmed by this revelation, “his restless eyes fixed in a vacant stare” and “his hands clutched round the old newspaper” (398). Mat reasons that Zack must have connections with Arthur, since he cannot be the man himself, and so places Arthur’s hair in a trail of bodies and likenesses: “The similarity between the sleeper’s hair and the hair of Arthur Carr was perfect! Both were of the same light brown colour, and both had running through that colour the same delicate golden tinge, brightly visible in the light, hardly to be detected at all in the shade” (400). The connectivity between Zack’s and his father’s hair is emphasised by their shade, both having a golden tinge “running through” like a glancing shade in a woven fabric. That this tinge is “brightly visible in the light” is also telling of the material (and specifically visual) literacy that it demands. Just as Mary’s letters and bracelet are brought out from their dark hiding places, with Mat bringing them “towards the window” (212) and “close to the flame of the candle” (343) respectively in order to examine the material, so it is with the golden tinge of these locks of hair which, “hardly to be detected at all in the shade”, need to be seen, to be brought to light, for their significance to be recognised. Mat, as physical and metaphorical illuminator of this material, at last sheds light on Arthur’s hair and the identity it encodes.

Mat’s long anticipated confrontation with Arthur Carr/Mr Thorpe is, however, brought to an abrupt close when Mat presents Thorpe with the bracelet containing his hair. Holding the bracelet before Thorpe and urging him to “Look at it again! Look at it as close as you like—” (409), Mat sees the man become in the flesh as still, silent, and puzzling as the bracelet. As Thorpe falls back into his chair in a swoon, the scene ends with the same uncertainty that hovered over his strands in the hair bracelet: is this man “Dead?” (410). The bracelet raises questions and obscures their answers once more. Mat leaves without the resolution he has been seeking, still speculating. To turn again to Alfred and Clara’s hair bracelet and its unknown qualities—the relationship between the two names it records, whose hair it preserves, and how it came to be broken—it would seem that the capacity of hairwork to fully resolve questions of identity, the body, its relations and its history are limited. These bodily objects invite speculation in one sense, suggesting intriguing possibilities around the lives of their donors and possessors, but at the same time invite uncertainty, denying resolution. At the close of the novel Collins, too, frames hairwork as a frustrating object, obscuring as much as it reveals.

Mary’s bracelet does, at last, come full circle when its remaining mysteries are explained by Thorpe in a letter written to Mat after recovering from the shock. Thorpe’s letter reveals his history, his surprise and guilt at being confronted with the bracelet, and gives the reasons behind his desertion of Mary as the verbal testimony of one within the “hidden intimate network” of the bracelet at last unravels its close binding of affections and connections (Holm 140). Though the bracelet remains, then, in some sense a disappointing communicator, a limited and at times indecipherable source of information that must rely on text for its explication, without Mary’s bracelet Mat may never have gotten from Thorpe this final confession. If the hair bracelet invites speculation from its viewer, from its donor it demands explanation. As well as Thorpe’s true identity being unveiled by the bracelet, given the note that he left Mary not knowing she was pregnant, we might also see the bracelet as uncovering several identities for Thorpe. Just as Mat comes to think through the bracelet, his circling thoughts taking the shape of the material he ponders, Thorpe’s letter replicates the pattern of the bracelet in another way as he works back through his memories, reworking his sense of his place in the story of Mary’s life in the process. The hair bracelet is for him the manifestation of an unknown sequence of events, a narrative that diverges from his assumed knowledge. It is a point of reconnection with his past and, its trajectory explained by Mat, a material realisation of a daughter that reworks his identity as a father. The affirmation of Madonna’s identity, and the acknowledgement of family ties between them, is what Mat has really been seeking since his discovery of Mary’s death, with Thorpe’s letter, prompted by the bracelet, the reward for his efforts. In this way, the bracelet ultimately complements verbal testimony, rather than superseding it, confirming identity in the meeting of material and textual forms of record. While in Hide and Seek Collins positions material against textual record, with Thorpe’s letter disclosing more than could be construed from Mary’s bracelet alone, the materiality of hairwork, its physical presence and the bodily material it shapes and preserves, remains crucial to its capacity to signify identity.


Works Cited

Berrin, Emilie. Gründliche Anweisung für Frauen auf alle mögliche Art Haargeflechte nach der jetzigen Mode zu fertigen, als: Elastische Leibgürtel, Armbänder, Halsbänder, Uhrbänder, Ringe, Kniebänder etc. Baumgärtner, 1822.

Collins, Wilkie. Hide and Seek. Edited by Catherine Peters, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dodd, George. “Art-Amusements for Ladies”. St. James’s Magazine 12, 1865, pp. 197-206.

Dodd, George and W. H. Wills. “Several Heads of Hair.” Household Words 9.206, 1854, pp. 61-65.

Elegant Arts for Ladies: Comprising Bead Work, Bead and Bugle Work, Calisthenic Exercises… [and Others]. Ward and Lock, 1856.

Fennetaux, Ariane. “Fashioning Death/Gendering Sentiment: Mourning Jewelry in Britain in the Eighteenth Century.” Women and the Material Culture of Death, edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin, Ashgate, 2013. pp. 27-50.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion; Third Edition; Part II: Taboo and the Perils of the Soul. Macmillan, 1911.

Freedgood, Elaine. The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Gere, Charlotte, and Judy Rudoe. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World. British Museum Press, 2010.

Goggin, Maureen Daly and Beth Fowkes Tobin eds. Women and the Material Culture of Death. Ashgate, 2013.

Gray, Erik. “Severed Hair from Donne to Pope.” Essays in Criticism, vol.  47, no. 3, 1997, pp. 220-239.

“The Hair.” Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, no. 11, 1857, pp. 325-329.

“Hair Mementos.—C. Olifiers”. The Lady’s Newspaper, no. 304, 1852, pp. 256.

“Hair Work.” Godey’s Lady’s Book, no. 41, 1850, pp. 377-79.

Hind, Heather. “‘Golden Lies’? Reading Locks of Hair in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Tennyson’s ‘The Ringlet’.” Paraphernalia! Victorian Objects, edited by Helen Kingstone and Kate Lister, Routledge, 2018, pp. 179-192..

Holm, Christiane. “Sentimental Cuts: Eighteenth-Century Mourning Jewelry with Hair.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, 2004, pp. 139-143.

“The Human Form Divine.” The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, no. 14, 1866, pp. 48-51.

Kim, Alexandra and Ingrid Mida. The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury, 2015.

“Love Gifts.” Temple Bar: A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers vol. 31, no. 122, 1871, pp. 249-55.

Luthi, Ann Louise. Sentimental Jewellery. Shire Publications, 2001.

Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 39, no. 1, 2011, pp. 127-142.

– – – Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Malton, Sara. Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture: Fictions of Finance from Dickens to Wilde. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Miller Zohn, Kristen. “Tokens of Imperfect Affection: Portrait Miniatures and Hairwork in Sense and Sensibility.Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line, vol. 31, no. 1, 2011.

Pointon, Marcia. Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery. Yale University Press, 2009.

– – -. “Materializing Mourning: Hair, Jewellery and the Body.” Material Memories: Design and Evocation, edited by Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward and Jeremy Aynsley, Berg Publishers, 1999, pp. 39-57.

– – -. “Wearing Memory: Mourning, Jewellery and the Body.” Trauer Tragen – Trauer Zeigen: Inszenierungen der Geschlechter, edited by Gisela Ecker, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1999, pp. 65-81.

Prown, Jules David. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 17, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1-19.

Rosenthal, Angela. “Raising Hair.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1-16.

Rowland, Alexander. The Human Hair: Popularly and Physiologically Considered with Special Reference to Its Preservation, Improvement and Adornment, and the Various Modes of Its Decoration in All Countries. Piper, Brothers & Company, 1853.

Rushton, Henry. Illustrated Catalogue of the Newest Designs of Hair Jewellery. Henry Rushton, n. d. [circa 1858].

Thomas, Ronald R. Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Timmins, Samuel. Birmingham and Midland Hardware District. Routledge, 2013.

Toller, Jane. The Regency and Victorian Crafts. Ward Lock, 1969.

[1] I discuss the difficulties and dangers of reading hair as an analogous text in greater detail in “‘Golden Lies’? Reading Locks of Hair in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audleys Secret and Tennyson’s ‘The Ringlet’” (2018).

[2] Other examples of locks of hair and hairwork in Wilkie Collins’s fiction include: the lock of hair tied with dirty ribbon in “The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter” (1854); Mademoiselle Clairfait’s three hair bracelets made with the hair of her pupils in “The French Governess’s Story of Sister Rose” (1855); the little morsel of hair that Sara Leeson asks Rosamund to bury with her in The Dead Secret (1857); the ring given to Laura Fairlie containing the hair of her uncle in The Woman in White (1859); the lock of Frank Clare’s hair tied with silver thread and kept by Magdalen Vanstone in No Name (1862); the lock of Oscar Dubourg’s hair worn in a locket by Lucilla Finch and the morsel of her own hair which she unwittingly ties in a ribbon for Nugent Dubourg in Poor Miss Finch (1872); Major Fitz-David’s album of locks of women’s hair and the lock of Sara Macallan’s hair worn in a locket by Miserrimus Dexter in The Law and the Lady (1875); the lock of Lord Montbarry’s hair tied with golden cord kept by Agnes Lockwood in The Haunted Hotel (1878); the lock of Lord Harry’s hair kept in Iris Henley’s desk in Blind Love (1889).

[3] Basil, his brother, Ralph, and his sister, Clara, all keep locks of hair as keepsakes. Basil accidentally betrays the secret of his marriage to Margaret to his sister when a locket containing her hair swings out of his waistcoat.

[4] This approach which seeks to align real and represented objects draws on Elaine Freedgood’s close inspection of Victorian object histories in The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (2010), in particular the idea that objects represented in novels “are not always semiotically severed from their materiality or their relations to subjects and objects beyond the narrative frame” (158).

[5] Marcia Pointon notes that hair bracelets seem to “invite speculation upon two absent bodies, that of the donor of the substance and that of the wearer of the bracelet” (“Materializing Mourning” 56, my emphasis).

[6] For a discussion of this investigative approach to material culture, particularly in relation to textiles, see Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim, The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion (2015).

[7] I would like to thank Nicola Baxter, Assistant Curator, Harrogate Museums and Arts Collection, for facilitating this research.

[8] “Drizzling”, also known as parfilage, was the practice of unwinding bits of old lace, tassels, and braiding to be reworked, repurposed or to release any gold or other precious threads and parts that could be sold on. See Jane Toller, The Regency and Victorian Crafts (1969), p. 90.

[9] There are some pieces made with braided hair from the Regency Period, but table work only became popular in Britain following its rise in Germany with the publication of Emilie Berrin’s Gründliche Anweisung für Frauen auf alle mögliche Art Haargeflechte nach der jetzigen Mode zu fertigen (Thorough Instructions for Women on the Production of All Possible Kinds of Hairbraids According to the Current Fashion) in 1822. For a discussion of Regency hairwork fashions, see Kristen Miller Zohn, “Tokens of Imperfect Affection: Portrait Miniatures and Hairwork in Sense and Sensibility” (2011).

[10] Though this is a bold claim, hair bracelets were used as romantic tokens at least as far back as the seventeenth century. In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), Egeus complains that Lysander’s secret courtship of Hermia has involved bracelets of his hair. They feature in John Donne’s “The Relic” and “The Funeral” (1633); in Thomas Carew’s “A Pastoral Dialogue (‘As Celia rested in the shade’)” (1640); and in Thomas Stanley’s “The Bracelet” and “The Bracelet: Tristan” (1651).

[11] According to the London Directory of 1853, writes Alexander Rowland, there were twenty-four “artistes or workers in hair—hair jewellers, or device workers” at this time in London, plus seventeen ambiguously termed “hair-manufacturers” who may belong with the number of workers in hair since there are separate tallies for hair-merchants, hair-dressers, barbers and wig-makers (161).

[12] London hairworkers’ premises were concentrated around Soho and Fitzrovia, within or nearby Soho Bazaar and the Pantheon, and some hairworkers held premises even closer to Bond Street on the west border of Soho: Fosser of Hanover Street, Alfred Shuff of 43 Great Marlborough Street, F. L. S. of 215 Regent Street, Henry Rushton of 213 Regent Street, and Charles Packer of 78 Regent Street.

[13] Many hairworkers advertised their mail order services to clients unable to visit their premises, with their pattern books often “sent free to any part of the kingdom” (“Hair Mementos.—C. Olifiers”), though they were careful to emphasise the safety of the transaction. Henry Rushton writes a typical preamble in his Illustrated Catalogue of the Newest Designs of Hair Jewellery (circa 1858), “that any Lock entrusted to me will not be allowed to go out of my possession until worked into the form desired, and carefully returned” and that his work “can be safely transmitted through the post” (1).

[14] This article, originally titled “A Recent Importation from Germany” was reprinted under the title of “Hair Work” in the American publications Peterson’s Magazine and Godey’s Ladys Book in the same year. The latter has been used as the source for this citation.

[15] With the 1854 Gold and Silver Wares Act additional standards of 15, 12, and 9 carats were authorised. The introduction of lower standards meant that gold was altogether more affordable and rose in popularity across the middle and lower classes as a result. Before this, lower standards of gold were often imported from America, especially for watch cases. See Samuel Timmins, Birmingham and Midland Hardware District (2013; based on his 1866 collection of reports), pp. 504-5.

[16] The extent to which keeping locks of hair and/as hairwork engage in Freudian fort da and fetishistic behaviours, especially given their place in mourning culture, is discussed by Pointon in “Wearing Memory: Mourning, Jewellery and the Body” (1999), see in particular p. 69.

[17] James Frazer explains this form of sympathetic magic in The Golden Bough (1890), the belief “that the sympathetic connexion [sic] which exists between himself and every part of his body continues to exist even after the physical connexion has been broken, and that therefore he will suffer from any harm that may befall the severed parts of his body, such as the clippings of his hair or the parings of his nails” (258).