Mourning BroochText by Louise West, former Curator at Jane Austen’s House
Shortly after Jane’s death, Cassandra Austen cut off several locks of her sister’s hair. To many of us today this practice feels strange, ghoulish almost. But these were different times with different customs. Apart from, as far as we know, a few amateur sketches of the writer, there would be little tangible evidence of her. How different from today, with reminders in the form of photographs and even videos.
When hair was used to be worn as an ornament, it would be most carefully and intricately “styled”. This very small example shows the neat way the hair has been installed behind glass. There was an established and growing industry in memorial pieces of hair arranged as works of art. In Victorian times one could purchase catalogues advertising all manner of designs for the artistic arrangement of the lost loved one’s hair. There actually exists a smallish framed picture of a weeping willow next to a memorial stone, bearing the name Jane Austen, which was possibly created to remember the famous Jane.
Hair jewellery was not restricted to the dead, though, and hair would have been awarded as a love token to a pressing suitor and set into a ring. In Sense and Sensibility Elinor and her mother are persuaded of Willoughby’s serious intentions when Margaret says: “I am sure they will be married soon, for he has got a lock of her hair.”
Whatever we today think of wearing someone’s hair in a ring or a brooch, it clearly held great significance in the early 19th century, and this small piece of jewellery offers us a connection with the living woman and a poignant reminder of her loss as a sister and a friend.