As she was writing her most recent biography, Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli, Daisy Hay spent hours in the basement of the Bodleian Library in Oxford trying to untangle the relationship between one of Great Britain’s foremost politicians, Benjamin Disraeli, and his eccentric wife, Mary Anne. Here she recounts one of her more peculiar discoveries and ponders a tumble down an unexpected “archival rabbit hole.”
During the five year period in which I researched and wrote Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli, I spent months on end in a chilly basement at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, combing through the Disraelis’ papers. Anyone who has ever done any kind of archival research will be familiar with its peculiar rituals. The first thing you do, once you’ve arrived at the archive in the morning, is to encase your possessions in a clear plastic bag and your person in extra layers. Then you fill in a call slip and wait while boxes of paper are retrieved from mysterious underground stacks. Unless you are fortunate enough to be working with a very thorough catalogue, you never quite know what those boxes will contain.
This uncertainty is part of the fun of doing archival work, as well as one of the things which can make it frustrating. You can start a day not knowing what you’ll read, whether you’ll be moved, intrigued, or bored. Sometimes a day will pass, and at kicking out time you feel like you’ve learnt nothing. On another day something will surprise you and send you tumbling down a rabbit hole through the centuries, in search of solutions and explanations.
As a biographer of Romantic and Victorian subjects, I am a practiced tumbler down rabbit holes. I’ve spent weeks of my life deciphering cross-written love letters, cross-referencing manuscript documents with contemporary newspapers, and hunting for people who leave only the faintest traces of themselves on paper. But the most memorable pursuit that the Disraeli archive has taken me on hasn’t involved much paper at all. Instead, it has involved hair.
Mary Anne Disraeli was an avid collector, and it is largely because of her curatorial impulses that we know so much about Disraeli’s private life. She kept every letter he received of which she was aware, every letter he sent to her, and thousands of scraps of paper relating to her own life. She kept valentines and commonplace books, inventories and account books, letters from old lovers, and the hair of those she loved.
I first came across Mary Anne’s hair collection on one of those mundane research days at the Bodleian, during which I had been laboriously transcribing for hours without finding anything very exciting. Opening a box to discover it was full of hair jolted me out of my stupor most effectively. I can still remember that my first reaction to the hair was shockingly visceral, and bordered on disgust. Here was a lock of hair from Mary Anne’s head, annotated “my own hair . . . 1835,” a bodily remnant of the person who occupied my waking hours. Here was a long, straggly white curl, with its own annotation: “my dear dear Mamas hair cut off the day I lost her.” Here were curls from the heads of children Mary Anne knew, one of whom I knew to have committed suicide in adulthood. And here I was, feeling distinctly squeamish about all this bodily material, marooned by the strength of my own reaction from my scholarly training.
The Disraelis and their contemporaries would have thought my squeamishness ridiculous. The Victorians were avid hair collectors. They cut it from the heads of dead relatives and live lovers; they wrote novels and produced paintings which represented the giving and receiving of hair as a symbol of devotion. They had it made into jewelry, although young women were encouraged to learn how make such jewelry at home, rather than to entrust their precious mementoes to unscrupulous commercial manufacturers. In an age before photographs were easily reproducible, hair offered the illusion of intimacy with the absent, a symbol of the body more animate than a portrait.
Three years on, and the box of hair in the Disraeli archive continues to fascinate and repel me. It’s sent me on a journey through the world of Victorian hair—not a journey I ever thought I’d make. I’ve come to realize that Mary Anne Disraeli didn’t collect hair in completely straightforward ways: the fact that her own hair is in her collection is a clue to this. She used it as a means to catalogue her relationships, her sense of self, and, as I later discovered, to mark the progress of her marriage. As I did more research I discovered that the most interesting hair represented in Mary Anne’s archive isn’t actually there at all. She cut Benjamin Disraeli’s hair every two weeks of their thirty year marriage, and when he began to go grey she also dyed it black. After Mary Anne’s death, Benjamin discovered that she had kept all the hair she’d ever cut from his head. Rather than live alongside this archive of his own body, he sent it to his friends. “She . . . appear[s] . . . never to have cut my hair . . . without garnering the harvest,” he told his secretary. “So, as you once asked for some of an early date, I send you a packet, of which I could not break the seal.”
Now that my work on the Disraelis is complete, I wonder why all this hair has stayed with me so strongly. I think it’s because it reminds me that there are stories lurking in the most unlikely places, and that sometimes those stories aren’t represented on paper. It’s reminded me too of the things that survive from the past, and the things that don’t, and of the complicated ways in which we create symbols of our relationships with others. And it continues to remind me of the rich possibilities of those archival rabbit holes, and of the joy to be had in letting oneself tumble.
Daisy Hay is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance and Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives (FSG, 2010) and has a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: