Friday, February 5, 2016

The Brontë Cabinet by Deborah Lutz

Image result for victorian hair mourning jewelry 
An example of Victorian mourning jewelry
featuring woven hair.

Somewhere in the collection of jewelry passed down to me from my grandmother there is a locket containing a snip of hair from a long dead relative. I can't remember now if it was from my great-grandmother or one of my great-aunts. I just remember as a child being fascinated (and a bit grossed out) that anyone would keep such an object.

Yesterday, I attended a lunch and lecture event featuring author and University of Louisville English professor Deborah Lutz. She spoke about this very Victorian practice of saving a lock of hair of a deceased loved one to be woven and placed into a ring or brooch.  

A pretty strange practice indeed, this way of capturing the memory of a loved one but one that was so common, Ms. Lutz said, that the art of weaving hair for jewelry became a thriving business with its own tools and instruction manuals. 

But it wasn't just for keeping the memory of the dead alive. There was the exchange of locks between lovers or family members. She cited the scene in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility when Edward Ferrars is asked about his new ring that is set with a braid of hair. He claims it is hair from his sister but really it is a lock from the cunning Lucy Steele.

Most often though, hair was used in mourning jewelry, woven into wreaths or tied with ribbon and tucked into a book. Ms. Lutz said this was the secularized version of honoring the relics of saints.

Today, she said, parents might preserve a child's hair in a baby album and pet owners might keep a snippet of hair from a beloved dog or cat.

Image result for the bronte cabinet

Ms. Lutz also talked about the changing attitudes toward death and dying. Unfortunately, what she didn't talk about was her new book The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects. It has been shortlisted for the 2016 PEN Literary Award for Biography. It is published by Norton and is her fourth book.

In it Ms. Lutz takes a look at the Victorian era and the lives of sisters Emily, Charlotte, and Anne through the meaningful objects from their family home in Haworth: the collar worn by a family pet, portable writing desks, miniature books, letters, and walking sticks.
Deborah Lutz after her lecture.

I admit that I am not as fascinated with the Brontës as many readers are (I never did see the attraction of Heathcliff and have never read Jane Eyre...), but this reminds me of the consideration of the life of Jane Austen by Paula Byrne that I wrote about here: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. I love this idea of telling a biographical story through objects so I might just have to give The Brontë Cabinet a try. Who knows, perhaps it will lead me to become a Brontë fan after all.


  1. This sounds like a rather fascinating lecture, Belle. I'm sure I would have been attentive (I was going to say enjoy, but, not sure enjoy is really the word here).
    Jane Eyre was one of the first grown up books I read as a child. I found it in a chest of books my parents had; what used to be called a hope chest. My Dad said I could read anything in the chest, as long as I took care of the books. Jane Eyre kept my attention through a long summer.
    A nice memory for me.
    I'm currently listening to an interesting book by Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair. It's rather odd, funny, set in 1985 England, with time travel, magic, jumping into and out of books.

    1. I guess, Penny, that one either discovers and reads 'Jane Eyre' at a certain age and the experience stays with them forever...or one doesn't! A chest full of books sound wonderful. What a pleasant memory.

      I started 'The Eyre Affair' upon learning of the character Thursday Next, but didn't get too far into it. Perhaps the audio book works better.

    2. I understand, Belle. I have tried - and failed - numerous times to read Pride and Prejudice. :( I will say that there are some books I enjoy more audibly, which is usually to the credit of the person reading it.

    3. Penny, I had to watch the movie version of P&P before I could make heads or tails of the book! That also happened with Virginia Woolf's essay 'A Room of One's Own'.

  2. Try The Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks (about the Brontes) and then see if their fiction is more meaningful. Their books are about tragedies, but their lives are even sadder!

    1. Hi. Thanks for the recommendation. You might be right that knowing a bit more about the Brontes' lives could give me insight into their fiction. I will give it a try.