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Continuing our series of posts to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility, I thought it might be an opportune moment today to write about sentimental jewellery as worn by Edward Ferrars.
Poor Elinor Dashwood. She has all her hopes about a gently burgeoning, mutual and serious attraction between her and Edward Ferrars cruelly dashed, when it is revealed that a ring containing hair, one that he has suddenly taken to wearing, is made from a plaited lock, not of his sisters or even her own hair as Elinor had initially surmised, but of hair belonging to the scheming Lucy Steele to whom he is clandestinely engaged:
Elinor saw that it was his hand, and she could doubt no longer. The picture, she had allowed herself to believe, might have been accidentally obtained; it might not have been Edward’s gift; but a correspondence between them by letter, could subsist only under a positive engagement, could be authorised by nothing else; for a few moments, she was almost overcome — her heart sunk within her, and she could hardly stand; but exertion was indispensably necessary, and she struggled so resolutely against the oppression of her feelings, that her success was speedy, and for the time complete.
”Writing to each other,” said Lucy, returning the letter into her pocket, “is the only comfort we have in such long separations. Yes, I have one other comfort in his picture; but poor Edward has not even that . If he had but my picture, he says he should be easy. 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 anything she had ever felt before. She was mortified, shocked, confounded.
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 22.
So, now we find Elinor, surrounded by the many proofs of the existence of the engagement between Lucy and Edward: earlier in this chapter Lucy had already produced a portrait miniature of Edward, a strong proof of an attachment as lovers often wore portraits of their love ( or his or her eyes) set in jewellery ; then she produced a letter, proof, as the passage above indicates, of an engagement as during this period a correspondence between young men and women was only properly to be undertaken between engaged men and women (there were other exceptions to the “no letter writing” rule, that is between relations or correspondence about a matter business); and the coup de grace is the hair ring, a very intimate token of regard. Elinor,and we, the readers, can no longer doubt that Edward and Lucy are indeed engaged and involved intimately, albeit secretly.
Hair jewellery has been out of fashion for some time now. I am lucky to posses a few family pieces in my collection dating from the mid 18th century to the late 19th century. Some people find these items squeamish. I confess, I don’t.
The hair jewellery with which we are most familiar is, I suppose, mourning jewellery, which often contained a lock of hair of the deceased and would have been given to members of the deceased’s family as a memento. And indeed hair did not need to be made into jewellery to be treasured. Jane Austen’s hair was kept as a momento, see below,
as was a lock of her father’s hair, and both are kept in the collection of the Jane Austen’s House Museum. Do note the label -My Father’s Hair- is written in Jane’s hand:
Here are two items of mourning jewellery containing hair from my collection:
a Georgian brooch, above, dating from 1816, containing a lock of hair held in a glass locket surrounded by pearls
and a later Victorian brooch dating from 1852, made of gold with black enamel decoration. The hair is plaited in the centre glass window of the jewel, as Lucy’s hair would have been plaited and set in Edward’s ring.
But, as we have now realised, some of these sentimental jewels were given as tokens of love and fidelity, often at the time of an engagement. They did not always denote memorials of death.
This, above is another family piece, circa 1765, and it is obvious from the colour of the gemstone used, -pink foiled tourmaline- that the brooch is not meant to symbolise memories of death. Mourning jewellery most often used two colours- white and black -as these were permitted colours associated with the first and most severe period of mourning. It is interesting to note that white emanel used on a piece would often indicate that the deceased was unmarried at death.
The reverse of the brooch has a small compartment filled with lightly plaited hair , presumably taken from the beloved’s head. It is, of course not ,seen by anyone when the piece is being worn,as it is hidden next to the skin or clothes. I often wonder of this brooch commemorated a clandestine relationship ….I do wish it could talk.
The fashion for purely sentimental, or lover’s jewellery increased after the publication in 1761 of Rousseaus’ La Nouvelle Heloise as Diana Scarisbrick explains in her magnificent book, Jewellery in Britain 1066-1837: a Documentary, Society, Literary and Artistic Survey:
Devotees of this novel extolling the virtues of the simple life and true love paraded their enamel crystal lockets of hair and the miniatures of loved one as proudly as they wore parues of rubies or diamonds. Mrs Delaney expressed the feelings which such jewels represented in her lines
All things but friendship such as your
Inconstant pass away
This lock the emblem of your love
Like that will ne’er decay.
Mrs Delaney’s poem alludes to the reason why hair was chosen as a memorial of love: hair simply does not rot away…as everlasting regard or love should endure…
Both types of hair jewellery have been in the news this year, for in January a love token, not a memorial piece, containing hair supposed to be that of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton, was sold in Salisbury by the auctioneer Wooley and Wallis of Salisbury.
It was a double sided locket. One side, above, allegedly showing a lock of Lord Nelson’s hair, together with an anchor worked in seed pearls and the initial ”N” …
and the reverse of the locket , showing what is thought to have been Emma Hamilton’s auburn hair. When it sold the piece achieved the amazing figure of £44,000.
Last week a piece of mourning jewellery commemorating Napoleon was sold by the auctioneer David Lay of Penzance in Cornwall, for the rather more modest price of £4000
So, there you are, a little explanation of hair jewellery as worn by Edward Ferrars, which was, when Sense and Sensibility was composed and written, an up to the minute expression of regard, and denoted the true nature of his relationship with Lucy Steele. No wonder poor Elinor was depressed when confronted with the evidence of this ring and what it represented.