At the risk of delivering a lecture (an occupational hazard in my line of work, I’m afraid), an observation or two to begin with. I promise to be brief. Victorian behavior is considered oppressive by modern standards, no doubt with justification, one part fear of doing the wrong thing, one part Puritan zeal. The Industrial Revolution and the wealth it spawned created an entirely new, financially-stable middle class that, to put it plainly, had no idea how it was supposed to behave. This class was anxious to establish a social code of behavior if only to distance themselves from the working classes from which they sprang. The biggest problem seems to have centered around handling leisure, particularly the leisure of women. Working women were lower class and to be pitied ('Pity the Working Girl'), but mere idleness was equally shameful ("the Devil finds work for idle hands"). The solution was to have women wile away the hours doing something superficially useful like needlepoint or playing the piano. These were know as 'accomplishments,' and every lady was supposed to have several in her repertoire. Much of the middle class social code was lifted directly from the one class at the time that knew all about leisure: the aristocracy. Hence, much stress was placed on 'gentility' and on 'being a lady.' I have reached the conclusion that middle-class social barriers were largely erected by women themselves. A vast literature of etiquette books and the like sprang up telling women how to behave, most of them written by women for their peers.
With these thoughts in mind, I ran across the following passage in an obscure beauty guide by one 'Arabella' (no other name given) published in Boston in 1878. It struck me that it might have been written by AirWeaver in one of his more loquacious moments.
"Long, abundant hair is a much admired attribute among ladies of refinement, and its cultivation cannot begin at too early an age. The patrons of a certain New York school of high repute will remember the young daughter of an Albany gentleman, whose wonderful hair was considered one of that institution’s prize assets. The child was about ten years old, and her abundant tresses quite literally reached to the floor. She was frequently shown to visitors enveloped in this raiment. Upon inquiry, it was found that, beyond a special curriculum designed to protect her God-given gift, no other treatment was given it other than cutting the ends regularly each fortnight for years. While hair of such length and vigour is rare, and not generally recommended except to ladies of a retiring nature, the pride of achieving such impressive results is most gratifying to those who obtain it."
One wonders what sort of curriculum would be designed for a girl with hair-to-the-floor (no outdoor games, one would imagine, and plenty of grooming). That phrase 'ladies of a retiring nature' is curious, too. Duke Ellington comes to mind: "Don’t get around much anymore; my hair’s just too long." Yes, the Victorians were a remarkable bunch. Anyway, it has inspired AirWeaver to attempt another story. Hope you enjoy it.
THE DRAWING MASTER
I recently took leave of my position as drawing master to Mrs. Wainwright’s Seminary for Young Ladies. I resigned with the utmost reluctance, since, as you know, the Wainwright academy is among the most prestigious finishing schools in New England and counts among its clientele some of the nation’s most respected families, names you would instantly recognize, were I to enumerate them. I was sorry to leave, but I simply had no other choice. My nerves could no longer stand the strain. I still look back even now upon the peculiar circumstances surrounding my departure with a sense of longing and a feeling my heart will break. I hasten to add that the situation was in no way the fault of the school, nor of the charming young ladies placed under my care, but the result of my own weakness. I see I had better start from the beginning.
I had graduated the previous year from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, where I was fortunate enough to have studied under the great Thomas Eakins himself. My name is Edmund Walker, and I intended to go abroad for further study, as my illustrious mentor had done, and to this end sought professional employment in order to raise the necessary funds. Steady positions for artists such as myself are not easily procured, so it was with pleasure that I excepted a teaching post at Mrs. Wainwright’s elite establishment. I went up to the school over the summer recess to make final arrangements and to look over the campus. I was welcomed most cordially by Mrs. Wainwright personally, who escorted me around the grounds. If you have ever been to Wainwright, you will know that the rather rambling main building consists of a central suite of rooms, where the girls gather for their meals, as well as study their French grammar and other subjects deemed necessary for the proper life of a gentlewoman. Around this central core are a number of protracting wings in which the students are housed, not, as I discovered, by age, but according to their major accomplishment. Those who show an aptitude for music are boarded in the southwest wing under the charge of the piano master. Those whose accomplishment is needlework are housed across the way in a facing southeast wing. My drawing students were allotted the northeast wing, which I looked over with considerable interest. The quarters turned out to be pleasant and well-equipped. There were easels, and all the necessary materials, and an enviable north light. I was not shown the northwest wing opposite, but informed that it was reserved for a select group of girls with special requirements. "We call them our Mercia Guild," Mrs. Wainwright explained. "They are a Wainwright specialty, and we are very proud of them, but they need solitude and nurturing to do their best work. You will probably meet them later, but all in good time, all in good time."
I commenced my teaching duties in the autumn, and my charges proved an amiable lot, if not particularly talented. Still, they tried their best, and I was thrown headlong into a busy life of art classes and all the various challenges presented by an active school schedule. One morning, while my pupils were out attending to other studies, I was alone in the main studio tidying up. There was little that actually needed tending to, and I thought I might try working on a canvas I currently had in progress. We were having a touch of Indian Summer at the time, I remember, so I went to the window to freshen the air a bit. The studio is on the second floor, and I found myself gazing across at the facing northwest wing. A group of students had come out on the balcony, and I was reminded that these must be some of the special 'Mercia Guild' pupils Mrs. Wainwright had spoken to me about earlier. I had wondered at the time what made them so special, but up to this point they had not come into my province. They never ate with the others, and apparently didn’t join in any of the sporting activities, which seemed to consist primarily of endless rounds of croquet. Consequently, I had forgotten all about them.
I was not apt to forget them soon again, for they proceeded to brush one another’s hair. And such hair! If long tresses make a woman special, and my mother once told me that such was the case, then these girls were, indeed, special. I now knew what the accomplishment of the Mercia Guild consisted of. It was the propagation and maintenance of magnificent long hair, hair that would have been the envy of any queen. I tried to avert my eyes, but found I was unable to do so. The sight was just too captivating. I watched in fascination as the little tableaux unfolded before me. There were six of them, and never have I seen such a magnificent profusion of hair. They had come onto the balcony into the sun bare-headed and sans parasol, which was extremely unusual, since Wainwright girls are much admired for their pallid complexions. With the utmost care, they commenced to unpin the accumulations of hair piled on their heads, which spilled most charmingly down over their shoulders, They then stood in a circle, each one proceeding to brush the hair of the girl in front of her. All of them had hair that was at least knee-length, and the tallest, whom I took to be the eldest, had hair the color of copper that was so long I could not see it all. It blazed in the sun like fire, the ends lost in shadow beneath the bell-like curve of her skirt. They stood there, with their brushes moving in long, rhythmic strokes through those yards of silk. Their hair bobbed and swayed to the caressing motion of their grooming. I stood there transfixed, unable to move, until a chattering on the stairs informed me that my charges were returning. I reluctantly closed the window and returned to my duties. That night I dreamt of hair --long, seductive tresses flowing like chiffon.
Try as I might, I could not erase the vision of that Indian Summer day. Such young, perfect hair! Could I have imagined it? Would I ever see it again? The weather was turning cold, and it was unlikely that anyone would venture out onto the balcony again. I tried to sketch from memory the sight as I remembered it, and filled page after page with images of long, swirling tresses, long, sweeping lines cascading down the backs of comely young ladies. Time after time I found myself crossing to the studio window to stare out across the courtyard to the opposite wing. What mysterious rituals took place behind the thick, silent wall that met my gaze? Who were these extraordinary creatures kept in such confinement? How many of them might there be? My mind teamed with endless, burning questions.
A Christmas pageant was held that December, and for the first time I was able to see the entire school assembled in a single location. I had entered the assembly hall with my charges and suddenly noticed a group of unfamiliar faces seated at the far side of the room. At first I wondered who these new-comers might be. Then I recognized a girl with singular copper hair. No one else could possibly have hair of such a remarkable color; it reminded me of a Turner sunset. Of course, the balcony! These must be Mrs. Wainwright’s special students. From the way they all sat together and from the extraordinary luster of their hair, I determined there to be nine of them in total. The three youngest wore their hair in plump pigtails of exceptional vigor. The others all had their hair done up in elaborate coiffures. Many of the other ladies in attendance had attractive hair, some of it quite pretty, but there was something special about these nine brilliant heads of hair. They seemed to shine with a particular radiance and to be mounded or plaited in such a perfect way. How it shimmered in the festive gaslight! It was all quite extraordinary. Unfortunately, I was seated too far away for maximum effect, but suffered from distractions throughout the entire performance. As they were leaving, I had a quick glance at the three Mercia Guild members still too young to wear their hair up. One was the proud owner of a pair of golden braids so long she was literally in danger of tripping over them!
The following day I made so bold as to ask the French mistress about the students housed in the northwest wing. "Yes," she said, "the Mercia Guild is a special case. These are all girls with exceptional hair, as you may have noticed, students with special needs. It behooves us all, Mr. Walker, to foster this attribute. It is something we at Wainwright take particularly pride in. As you teach them how to use pen and pencil, so, in turn, do they need to learn how to care for their special gift . It will stand them in good stead in the long run, but requires constant nurturing." I took the trouble to look up the word 'Mercia' in the school library. It had been bothering me. I discovered that the Earl of Mercia, a certain Leofric, had been Lady Godiva’s husband. How perfectly fitting!
For some reason, my pupils developed an interest in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite movement during the winter term, particularly in the works of Edward Burne-Jones, who has done those wonderful portraits of woman cloaked in cascades of flowing hair. Actually, I could understand my girls’ desire for a fresh theme, as it was becoming difficult to find suitable subjects for the students to draw during those dark winter months Amy _____ asked one day if we might possibly do some life studies, and I found myself at a loss as to whom we might call on to be a suitable model. "No problem with that," replied the ever optimistic Ida. "We can ask Sarah. She’s ever so nice, and I know she’d let us draw her beautiful hair. How about it, Mr. Walker?" Mrs. Wainwright gave her consent, and thus it was that Sarah came to our studio as a model, Sarah with her long, incredible copper hair.
Sarah was Wainwright’s most prized student. The daughter of a prominent New York industrialist, she is an accomplished pianist and her embroidery work has to be seen to be believed. Then, of course, there’s her hair. She has been part of the Seminary’s special program since the age of nine, when the promise of this talent was first recognized. The results have been magical, though I’m sure my students see it from a perspective rather different from my own.
The moment she walked through the door I knew whom Ida had been referring to when she spoke about Sarah. As an added bonus, Sarah had been escorted to our studio by her room mate, a slightly younger girl endowed with a most captivating chignon of jet black hair. I felt a shortness of breath and a sense of anticipation when Sarah at last agreed to pose for us with her hair down. She had even put on a blue Gothic gown the better to show off her coloring. I was on tinderhooks as the girls picked up their sketch pads and Sarah proceeded to mount the dais at the end of the room. It’s a little platform directly under a skylight, so the lighting is particularly enhancing. Sarah reached up and slowly withdrew a single large hairpin from beneath the masses so skillfully arranged there. Then down it plummeted in all its splendor. It descended in a seemingly endless torrent until, suddenly, she stood before us enveloped in a rich tapestry of glossy red hair, hair that danced and sparkled under the skylight as if it had a life of its own. Now I could finally see her hair in all its glory. It surrounded her like a copper veil, half hiding her from view. It extended in heavy waves past her shoes and terminated in a little pile of soft curls gathered beneath her feet. While my girls tried to capture the riveting sight on paper, I stood there transfixed. Sarah stood there like a prima donna, her hair falling in all its magnificence against the blue of her gown. I asked her to strike a different pose, which she did with grace, her long, copper hair swaying against her in all its profusion. The sight made me shiver with longing.
After a long silence, broken only by the scratching on pen on paper, Sarah asked if her friend could join her on the dais. "Perhaps your students would like to draw Emma too," she said. "She has the nicest hair. Haven’t you noticed?" Noticed I had. A mound of jet black hair so glossy that it reflected blue-black in the winter light. I could hardly contain myself. "If you would so favor us, Miss Emma," I finally managed to stammer. So it was that I was treated to a second close inspection of the Mercia Guild. Emma joined her room mate on the dais and proceeded to release her hair. Down it fell like a raven’s wing, black as night and gleaming with a thousand highlights, clear to her ankles. If my students were struck with awe or envy, they didn’t show it, but went right on producing their imitation Burne-Joneses. Personally, I was beside myself looking at the counterpoint of copper and black floating and rippling before my eyes. "My hair may be longer than Emma’s," Sarah was saying," but have you ever seen anything prettier? Besides she takes such good care of it and is catching up. Her hair must have grown eight inches since last spring." "Nonsense," Emma responded, a voice buried beneath the waves of her midnight hair. "Everyone knows Sarah has the most beautiful hair in school. She’s worked on it every day for years, and it shows."
I was not about to take sides in this lady-like battle of deferment. I had other worries on my mind. How could I continue to live so close to such perfection and keep my equanimity? I had my reputation to consider, and my entire career was in front of me, and yet there was this fire in my loins. So near, and yet so far away!
It was as bad as I suspected. The more I saw of all that wonderful hair, the more I longed to see it yet again. Like a drunkard who continually needs another drink, I thirsted. I slept poorly at night, dreaming of all that magnificent hair sleeping in the wing just across the courtyard. I imagined myself creeping in there at night... to do what? Seduce them? Watch them comb out their long, impeccable tresses? I grew paler and paler. My students began to think me ill from lack of sleep. They were sympathetic, but what could I tell them? No, my only hope was to leave this place, this place where nine girls, nine privileged ladies-to-be, were being trained to grow and tend for the most beautiful hair in the world. Better to tread the earth seeking fulfillment than to live with that temptation just beyond reach. I gave my notice the following day.
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