Object name: Mourning brooch
Object number: CHWJA:JAH16
Description: Gold mourning brooch, of lozenge form, containing a coil of Jane Austen’s hair. The reverse is engraved ‘J A December 16th 1775-July 1817’. Measuring 3.5cm x 3.5cm. Late George III period.
Context: Shortly after Jane’s death, Cassandra cut off several locks of her sister’s hair. Several of these locks survive; in this case, it has been set in a mourning brooch. We do not know to whom this belonged, but it is likely to have been a close family member.
It was a common practice to keep a lock of hair, often set in jewellery, such as a brooch or ring, to remember a loved one. Because hair survives time and decay, it has long been incorporated into tokens of affection as a sign that love outlasts death.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, locks of hair were generally a private memento, often enclosed in precious and elaborate lockets, hidden from view. In the eighteenth century, they became a more visible element of sentimental jewellery, often woven into decorative motifs, and displayed in bracelets, brooches and earrings.
Hair jewellery was not restricted to the dead, however; it was also used as a love token. In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars wears a ring set with Lucy Steele’s hair, which Lucy uses as proof of their engagement:
‘“I gave him a lock of my hair set in a ring when he was at Longstaple last, and that was some comfort to him, he said, but not equal to a picture. Perhaps you might notice the ring when you saw him?”
“I did,” said Elinor, with a composure of voice, under which was concealed an emotion and distress beyond any thing she had ever felt before. She was mortified, shocked, confounded.’
Willoughby also has a lock of Marianne’s hair, which he is forced to give up when he becomes engaged to Miss Grey:
‘“And the lock of hair—that too I had always carried about me in the same pocket-book, which was now searched by Madam with the most ingratiating virulence,—the dear lock,—all, every memento was torn from me.”
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