Hairwork in Victorian Literature and Culture: Matter, Form, Craft
Date: 22 June 2020
University of Exeter
Doctor of Philosophy in English
This thesis is a study of hairwork—the crafting of decorative objects from human hair—in Victorian literature and culture. Hairwork constitutes not only the hair of an individual, but is hair worked into a suggestive form for a particular purpose, whether commemorative, mournful, romantic, reconciliatory or aesthetic and which may be ...
This thesis is a study of hairwork—the crafting of decorative objects from human hair—in Victorian literature and culture. Hairwork constitutes not only the hair of an individual, but is hair worked into a suggestive form for a particular purpose, whether commemorative, mournful, romantic, reconciliatory or aesthetic and which may be exchanged to reify a relationship. I argue that, in this way, hairwork is a means and process of representation in which hair at once figures its donor while its working signifies a more complex set of associations that are frequently in tension with one another. Hairwork expresses seemingly conflicting or incompatible ideas but holds them in equipoise: body and object; present and past; life and death; presence and absence; nature and craft; sentiment and fashion; authenticity and artifice. This set of antithetical qualities are specific to hairwork, emphasised in forms of hairwork that became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and represent its unique place in Victorian material culture. As hair was physically worked and worn, it imaginatively shaped and framed the tensions between the affects, relationships, and identities of its donor, maker, and wearer, which rendered it a compelling subject of representation in Victorian fiction. The thesis begins with a chapter addressing the history of hairwork in Britain which is followed by studies of the writings of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Wilkie Collins, and Margaret Oliphant. Through analysis of how hairwork was represented in the fiction of these authors, I demonstrate that hairwork was not just a relatively frequently represented object in Victorian literature but a rich subject of representation in its matter, form, and craft. Considerations of hairwork artefacts are positioned throughout this thesis at points at which they aid and develop my reading of literary texts: they prompt or emphasise ideas latent in textual representations or illuminate something of hairwork’s significations. Thus, as I analyse representations of hairwork in literature, I trace the tensions underlying hairwork, whether real or represented.
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