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Galia Ofek, Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture

Laurence Roussillon-Constanty
p. 206-208
Référence(s) :

Galia Ofek, Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. 284 p. ISBN: 9780754661610.

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1The abiding image that comes to mind after reading Galia Ofek’s compelling study is that of a very sophisticated coiffure, for like the chignons it evokes and examines, the book manages to bring together many strands of recent criticism on the Victorian age, from literary studies to anthropology, gender and cultural studies. By patiently examining both descriptions of hair in fiction and its visual representations in various media, the author artfully shows the complexities of the Victorians’ obsession with hair.

2In the book’s preface, the author clearly states the aim of her study and grounds it in the mid to late Victorian period. As she explains, “during these decades, hair attracted increasing attention as a focus for tensions and at times uneasy compromises between natural forces and cultural codes; ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture; sensuality and spirituality; private and public spheres; potentially disruptive self-assertion and reassuring social conventionality; personal subjectivity and communal identity; originality and reproduction; authenticity and artificiality; the requirements of realism and the powers of the imagination” (ix). The book explores all these issues and levels through a clear thematic division which turns out to be an efficient way of disentangling the network of images and texts in which hair features.

3Chapter 1, by far the most theoretical chapter in the whole book, firmly establishes the critical framework that Ofek later refers to in her detailed analyses. As an introduction to the subject at hand, it provides the necessary background information and offers a good overview of cultural and religious attitudes to hair. It then goes on to examine the various critical approaches that have been offered in the past to account for the representation of women’s hair. From Freudian analysis to feminist theory, through Barthes, the section examines “fetish theories” in a perceptive way. Beyond the scope of the book, this chapter in itself could be used by most teachers or graduate students as an accurate and impressive “reader’s digest” to secondary literary criticism on fetish theories—a compliment to the author’s skill at handling concepts and abstract ideas without oversimplifying them.

4As a way in to the subject of the book, it does set the tone of its more original findings, but it could also be regarded as a strangely disembodied introduction to the topic. Even though it is key to the later parts of the book, it is hard to decide whether such a theoretical array of critical tools will engage a general reader or rather defeat his or her best efforts to reach the level of discussion attained in the book.

5By contrast, chapter 2 is a very accessible study of the way in which “Victorian representations of women’s hair ultimately took part in its fetishization through science, fashion, material culture and painting” (33). First discussing hair fashion and hair commodities (such as hair memorabilia), Ofek moves on to discuss science and anthropology, showing how each aspect can be related to other, adjacent issues. The various theories established in the first chapter come alive as she shows, for instance, how both female hairiness and primitive fetishism have to be considered “within the context of evolutionary thought” (58). The link between science and artistic representation is further explored in the pages devoted to Preraphaelite painting, which provides a good synthesis of the recent writings on the subject. The book’s lavish colour illustrations, which are placed at the end of the chapter, add further appeal to the volume’s well-written prose.

6Chapters 3 and 4 return to a more conventional literary corpus by looking at novel-writing. The two chapters are divided along the gender line of authorship: Ofek first shows how such canonical writers as Dickens, Trollope and Hardy recycled the Medusa myth and domesticated female hair in their plots through various narrative strategies. She convincingly argues that “male authors participated in the cultural production of gendered identities through their representations of women’s hair” (147). She then turns to women’s writing and tries to assess the extent to which female novelists “participated in the production of the same network of interpretations, through which they negotiated female identity and its cultural encoding” (147). The authors she examines include well-known figures such as Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot but also lesser-studied writers such as Margaret Oliphant and Sarah Grand. Both chapters are sure to be of equal interest to those well-versed in the literature of the period, as well as to newcomers to the subject, as Ofek’s elegant style manages to sustain the reader’s interest throughout her minute analysis of selected passages.

7In chapter 5, Ofek further explores the deployment of women’s hair in sensation fiction from the 1860s onward and the contemporary responses it triggered. The main—and decisive—point she makes there is to demonstrate how the meaning of such legible signs as fair hair, which had up until then been associated with female gentleness and innocence, was gradually being turned upside down. Such a reversal, she argues, was no coincidence and “it was a deliberate manipulation of the dominant system of signification in ‘high’ Victorian culture, whereby hair marked both behavioural and anatomical differentiation between male and female, ‘fallen’ women and virtuous ones.” (185). The argument leads her to re-examine the major types of hair—yellow versus black—and elaborate on the idea that “once the hair-type paradigm changed, the shifting value of yellow hair meant that its complementary and opposite sign, black hair, had to be rethought and resignified, too” (200). Finally her analysis of wigs and hair dyes allows her to expand the colour palette to include red hair and return to the visual art scene with augmented astute remarks.

8The last chapter of the book takes the reader back to popular culture and the world of black-and-white pictures in a convincing examination of caricature. Here as through a mirror, Preraphaelite painting appears in the eyes of some of its detractors, George du Maurier or Aubrey Beardsley. In a final twist (or rather, curl), the famous illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s Salomé allow Ofek to envisage hair as a grotesque motif and a symptom of Beardsley’s ambiguous sexual and artistic status.

9Contrary to Ofek’s concern that her unweaving of the Victorian hairdos should have led her astray, her finely-spun text will prove valuable to many a Victorian scholar but also to every reader interested in the culture of the period. The book is well-written, well-documented and includes a long and useful bibliography. In its overall scope and its step-by-step commentaries on individual texts (for this is where Ofek is at her best), it is both a fine piece of scholarship and an enjoyable read.

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « Galia Ofek, Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 73 Printemps | 2011, 206-208.

Référence électronique

Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « Galia Ofek, Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 73 Printemps | 2011, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty

Université de Toulouse

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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