Since my last post about Eliza’s underwear, I have spent some time looking at the photograph of her and this portrait of her mother, from 1840. I am fascinated by family likenesses as a result of having grown up with a dead mother with a face just like mine. You wouldn’t need great powers of deduction to work out that Eliza took after her father, although maybe there’s a resemblance about the eyes. Maybe.
What also interested me was the brooch on Eliza’s neck and the one on Sarah’s chest (her name is rightly Eliza Benton. The caption is wrong). Could it possibly be the same brooch? I wonder if the portrait painter exaggerated the size of the brooch to cast Mrs Johnson in the best possible light. What do you think?
I think I’m probably reaching; trying to find the threads that connect us to each other in a neat and tidy narrative.
Speaking of strands that connect though, I did find a picture of this lovely Victorian hair brooch. Hair from deceased loved ones was routinely used to create beautiful, if slightly macabre, mementoes. The seed pearls in this brooch represent tears. Long hair was used to make bracelets and rings or lockets containing the hair of deceased loved ones were often given to friends and family.
Godey’s Lady’s Book advertised hair jewellery and had the following to say,
“Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.”
Now, while I appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of the keepsakes, I must say that I find it all too grim for speech. But perhaps it’s another reminder quite how removed from us and sanitized death has become. We don’t connect the meat we eat to animals anymore (Barb Drummond has grappled with this idea in her amazing blog Text History . Visit it if you haven’t and read the article about British kids who think that eggs come from wheat, butter from chickens and milk from pigs!) and a good number of us will spend our whole lives never seeing a dead human body. Death does not sit in our living rooms with us and I find descriptions or photographs of dead children almost impossible to look at. When our hamster died, I was sorely tempted to quickly buy a replacement and not tell the kids that Ben was dead. Eliza and Sarah (also Eliza, really) were from a different time, when you wore your grief on your left-breast pocket.
p.s. I did tell the kids that Ben had died. We had a very moving funeral at which Yoda and Sai Baba officiated. He rests in peace.