My forthcoming novel, The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, is about hair.
Long, vigorous yet soft, feminine hair. Hair that flows in rich torrents from seven pretty heads. Hair that can be put to work, making money for men who peddle long-tressed dolls and quack medical products for the scalp.
For The Harristown Sisters is set in the 1860s, the age of arch pseudo-medicine, when human perfectability was for sale in a bottle whose contents could be advertised without any regulation as to truth or safety. A new power-base in the feminine purse, in the mid nineteenth century, shared a cultural vortex with the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the poets who both celebrated and problematized the hair of women as an expression of passionate and unruly desires.
The English Poetry Database, where I first began my researches, teemed with 19th century works featuring ‘hair’, ‘curl’ and ‘tresses’. Browning, Rossetti and their lesser ilk wrote longingly of lying under silky tents of feminine hair, or of being strangled by the fatal tresses of supernatural sirens like Lilith, Adam’s first, wicked wife, who alleged dined on human babies. Above is Monna Vanna, by Dante Gabriele Rossetti and below his Lady Lilith, now at the Delaware Museum (both paintings courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).
And the matrons of England and America were encouraged to spend on their hair, on the principle that a husband would remain captivated by his wife’s long-flowing feminine charms while her sensible housekeeping extracted only dry compliments.It was the age of Edward’s Harlene, Koko for the Hair and most of all the preparations of America’s Seven Sutherland Sisters, who had thirty seven feet of hair between them. They are pictured in one their classic poses below - they performed in circuses and shows where they sold their Scalp Food and Hair Restorer, being living advertisements for the efficacy of these potions. These sisters provided the inspiration for my novel, though I chose to set it in Ireland and Venice, where the Pre-Raphaelites, the earlier artists who inspired them, and the dawn of photography had more cultural resonance in my study of hair.
In the course of my research I also explored the problem of hair where hair should not be. In mid-Victorian times, this was personified by Julia Pastrana, the diminutive Mexican ‘Baboon Lady’ who danced the Highland Fling and sang on the stage to the horror and delight of American and British audiences.
Weeds are sometimes described as plants simply growing in the wrong place. Hair that grows abundantly in the prescribed zones is a bio-marker of desirable breeding stock. A hand running through a curl attached the beloved’s head finds only pleasure and sentiment. But when hair appears in the wrong place – such as in our soup – we feel revulsion and a sense of dirtiness.
Julia Pastrana – a gentle soul who spoke three languages and loved sewing – suffered from hypertrichosis. She was furred all over her body, had a beard and a simian visage caused by another rare condition, Gingival hyperplasia.
The treatment of Julia Pastrana taps into two key moral debates of our own time: where does celebrity culture cross over into criminal intrusion and venality at the expense of the prey? And why is the ‘disgusting’ such a viable commodity? Embarrassing bodies, sexual failure, eating disorders: there’s a pornography of body dysfunction paraded on the television screens every night of the week.
A play and a film have been written about Julia Pastrana, and a third is in production. The Ass Ponys recorded a song about her mind, life and marriage, with a refrain ‘He loves me for my own sake’, highly ironic under the circumstances.It is less than two years since Julia Pastrana’s body finally received a picturesque burial in her native Mexico.
As an exercise in empathy, during the writing of The Harristown Sisters, I decided to write a personal essay as Julia Pastrana. People who are monstered rarely have voices. It is the way of dehumanization to render the victim silent. I wanted to give Julia the privilege of looking out of her anathematized body, instead of merely being looked at. I also wondered what she would have thought about her posthumous repatriation to Mexico, and finally concluded that it would find small favour with her.This part of my research was not published, but it informed a great deal of what I wrote about in The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters.
I wonder if others among you find that some of your most interesting work stays off the published page? Examples, please!This post really ends with that question, but below, as an optional extra, is my personal essay as Julia Pastrana.
Michelle Lovric's website
Unless otherwise attributed, the pictures are courtesy of Wellcome Images, which has recently made its wonderful historical collection available for general use.The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is published on June 5th by Bloomsbury
Eighteen thirty-four, I’m born in Mexico, a baboon of a baby, hooded whiteless eyes filled up with lucent brown. My jaw thrusts out like an orange, or a bustle, split by two great slugs of lips snug over double rows of teeth. My forehead slopes steeply back; there’s fur on my feet, and shags and tufts and gouts of hair everywhere, everywhere that hair shouldn’t be.
By three my beard was tied with string. My tribe in Sinaloa de Leyva mumbled things about my mother but they let me live. Ma slapped children when they screamed at the sight of me, but I guessed from her averted eyes and sparing hands that she wished me unborn. I could not crawl back inside her so I grew away from her.
I peaked at four and a half feet, with breasts, beckoning thighs, a supple dancing style, a melodious voice, a tongue for languages, a cool hand for pastry, and a desire to please the men with hair where hair should be.
A pink ribbon round my beard now, tight-laced in a Spanish dress, I was hired as a servant girl to the governor of Sinaloa. My mother’s eyes were opaque as the cart took me away. She did not wave
The governor brought me out after dark to serve port to male guests. One of them, a Mr Rates, watched me with long eyes through the candle flames. Late in the night, he threw a purse across the table.
Mr Rates was my first handler. He handled me onto the stage: Gothic Hall, New York, was deemed the best place for a gothic beast like me. I was twenty then; sang and danced with fluent grace to jungle roars from the stalls, and roses flung, quite hard. Behind my whiteless eyes, I learned English and dreamt of soft hands parting my fur with caresses and a man who’d let me dance for him, unpaid.
My billing was ‘The Marvelous Hybrid or Bear Woman’, she of the gorilla’s jaw, ape’s eyes, and hair where hair should not be. The New York papers showed their love: ‘terrifically hideous’, they said I was.
The doctors lifted, inserted, prodded till I cried. Mott from the Medical Society pronounced me ‘the most extraordinary being of the present day’, being the result of my Mexican mother mating with an orang-utan. Proof of her depravity: she’d sold me to the circus. If I mentioned otherwise, Mr Rates told me quietly, he’d skin me for my pelt and stuff me.
‘Then,’ he reflected, ‘you’d be pure profit. No cost in food and board. Remember this.’
The demi-monkey waltzed with soldiers at a military gala, knowing the fellows had been dared, feeling their reluctance through the tense fingers on my back, where my gown crushed the fur almost but not quite flat.
In Boston I was styled ‘the Hybrid Indian: The Misnomered Bear Woman’ – by the Horticultural and the Boston History Society. Neither could decide whether ‘animal’ or ‘vegetable’ best described the thing I was.
Mr Rates sold me to J.W. Beach of Cleveland. From him, I came into the possession of one Theodore Lent, my small-eyed darling, my bearded destiny, who, judging me worth the passage, carried me off to London, where they went mad for me and the hair that grew where hair should not be, while I fell deep in love with Lent, and he not at all with me.
How it clamped my heart when my love billed me ‘The Nondescript’. He claimed it meant my marvels surpassed description. It did not. ‘The grotesque’s dancing is like a fairy’s,’ the London papers wrote. ‘The monster sings romances and lilts Highland Flings to perfection.
Charles Darwin wrote of me kindly, but published me in The Variation of Animal and Plants under Domestication.
By now I spoke a lady’s English. My knitting was a credit to me, though my Theodore refused to touch the gaiters I made him. He’d swallow my little suppers with an averted face.
He coached me to tell of twenty marriage proposals turned down: to say that no admirer had yet proved rich enough to catch my glistening eye.
‘There will be someone,’ he promised, ‘There’s always someone with an itch for a thing like you.’
He toured me in Berlin and Leipzig to raise my price. I acted in a play, Der curierte Meyer. A German boy falls in love with a veiled woman. But when he goes offstage, I lift the gauze, convulsing the audience with hilarity at the horror of my baboon face. When my lover sees me unveiled, his cure is instant. I rehearsed with Theodore, till I could take it without flinching.
No rich suitors came to marry me, but other handlers loomed in, offering terms and smiles. Theodore proposed. On our wedding night, he closed his face, the shutters, the curtains and put out the light. He divided me rough and sudden from my girlhood. In the morning, he was gone, and stayed gone for days. I did not allow the stained sheets changed and lay sleepless on my hardened blood, remembering. My heart beat like jungle rain when he appeared again; I cried from joy if his lips curved upwards. His eyes never smiled when they looked on me.
In Vienna he let more doctors pay to do what he had done in the darkest part of me, with sharp cold tools instead of his hard heat and shouted obscenities. He locked me in our rooms by day. In Poland and Moscow, he grew crueller and harder though I stood on tiptoe in everything to please him. He still came to me some nights, roaring on gin. He clapped his hand over my great lips, grasped the bedstead rungs and laboured on me. Afterwards he’d fling himself from me, groaning, to vomit in his chamber pot and strode swearing from the room.
Yet he got a child on me.
No baby ever had such a delightful layette, every item stitched by me. The nursery I had painted all the colours of hope. Of course I wondered what was growing inside me, the little stranger was already beloved. Theo kept away. If I saw his face, it was in profile only.
He did not burn the anonymous letters but left them for me to see. You have mated with a beast. You have stained mankind with bestiality.
The birth tore my narrow hips apart. Worse than pain was the sight of my son who took after me with whiteless eyes, bustle-jaw and hair where hair should not be. I slapped myself so as not to scream at the sight of him. His hours of life were thirty five.
‘Put it in a bucket and throw it in the river,’ Theodore told the maid.
Puerperal sepsis seized me like a serpent, poisoned me, shook me, till I saw Sinaloan ghosts again, the New York stage, Theodore’s face. My widower did not visit my deathbed, sent the photographer instead. He was in deep negotiations to sell our two corpses to Professor Sukolov at the Anatomical Institute in Moscow, and had gone to buy a monkey the height of a two-year-old child. The public, he told the maid, loving horror as they did, would not accommodate a baby, even semi-human, stuffed. ‘Better this,’ he said, wringing the monkey’s neck and kissing the maid’s.
At the sound of his lips on her skin, my hairless soul rose from my corpse. No funeral. Instead, I watched Sukolov dissect the monkey and me side by side on stained slabs. I saw the scalpel separate my skin, cried out soundlessly when he chose a finer blade for the poor small creature. I began to feel for my monkey child a fierce new love.
For six months, the professor hovered over us, extracting, scouring, packing, stitching us to such perfection that we retained our colour and our form. My sawdust-stiffened limbs were mounted in my old dancing pose, hand on hip. A crucifix hid the seam that held my breasts together. Sewn into a short Spanish dress, I was set up in a glass case, my false simian son in a sailor suit on a pedestal in a separate box where I might stare at him as the paying customers did.
News came to Theodore of the great crowds we drew and the great sums made for Sukolov. Our marriage certificate, presented to the American consul, robbed the Russian professor of his hard-won profits. That gaunt February of sixty-two, Theodore shipped us back to England; charged a shilling a look at the ‘Embalmed Nondescript’ and her progeny. Then he hired us out to a travelling museum of curiosities, I, the monster with hair where hair should not be, still topped the bills and filled the tents.
By now Theodore had found a girl near as hairy as myself. He set her up as “Zenora Pastrana”, my sister. He married her as well. The four of us, two living and two dead, toured till Theodore tired – his calculating mind slowed for the first but not the last time to a sick ticking. He rented his first wife and supposed son to a Vienna museum. With my corpse retired, he claimed that Zenora was me. The two repaired to St Petersburg, bought a waxworks. It was there my Theodore, Zenora’s Theodore, the stock exchange’s Theodore went mad. In the asylum, my spirit watched him long days writhing on his bed. It danced my Highland Fling for him, combed the hair where it should be, and touched him till he shrieked. He died insensible or perhaps fully sensible of me for the first time.
In eighty-eight, Zenora left Russia, reclaimed our bodies, toured them. Wooed by a young man, she sold us to an anthropological exhibit in Munich. J.B. Gassner put our bodies on the German fair circuit. At a circus convention in Vienna, he auctioned the monstrous Madonna and her brute baby. For a quarter of a century we passed from hand to calloused hand for cash.
The new century felt the old disgust for a pair of creatures with hair where hair should not be. In ‘twenty-one, Haakon Lund bought us for his Norwegian chamber of horrors. That was the year my name was divided from my body. ‘Julia Pastrana’ was not listed on the bill of sale. The new generation of shilling-payers did not think me real, but a diabolical confection of horsehair and leather, a relic of more barbarous times before Modernity, its brute lines, featureless towers, slot windows, slack chairs and inhumanly pale renders. I thought Modernity a diabolic confection of vanity and laziness. Modernity and I agreed to disagree.
When the Nazis thundered into Norway they ordered us destroyed. But Lund made them believe an Ape woman tour would line the Third Reich’s coffers, while showing to a hairy nicety miscegenation’s awful perils. On the strength of the world’s worst ever idea, my monkey son and me outlasted the war and the pale blue eyes that despised us up and down the Rhine.
‘Fifty-three and the good times were over for monsters. Lund stored his chamber of horrors, including us, in a warehouse outside Oslo. Rumours spread of a ghastly ape haunting the midnight dust. Teenage horror-seekers broke in, surrounded us, opened their mouths in ‘O’s and screamed till I thought our glass would shatter. Lund’s son Hans saw new money in the teenage stories in the press. He set us back to earn.
But now at last, someone remembered the old ape lady Julia Pastrana. In ‘sixty-nine, Judge Hofheinz, collector of curiosities, hired detectives to hunt down the Female Nondescript. Hans set up a bidding war for our corpses, only to withdraw from the sale to profit from the press’s frantic delight. He put us on the circus routes of Sweden and Norway, then shipped us to America. Here a New Age public finally found its conscience and cried out against the poor corpses paraded. So Hans rented us to Swedes. Again I travelled until people, month by month, grew ashamed of seeing me. I settled into years of peaceful warehouse dust, tender as fingers on my cheek.
Then the vandals came. They tore off my son’s arm, punched his little jaw, threw him in a gutter where the mice ate him. By the time he was found, he was in small scraps. I was left alone in my glass case looking at his empty pedestal, year on year.
‘Seventy-nine, I was stolen in the night. Once more, I was separated from my name. Children found my arm protruding from a ditch. The police pulled an entire woman, with hair where it should not be, from the mud and leaves. A crime against a woman dead a hundred years could not be chased. And who would charge dead Theodore with selling his wife, living and dead?
They delivered me to the Norwegian Institute of Forensic Medicine. I lived in its basement, a friend to mould and unsolved case files.
Nineteen-ninety, I felt the old cold draft of a journalist swooping down on me. I sold more newspapers when my ugly tale was knitted to my old body again.
Norwegian priests pressed for a Christian burial. A compromise – a sarcophagus in Oslo’s Museum of Medical History, a small DNA extraction first.
Twenty-twelve they sent me back Mexico, a burial my home country. A Roman Catholic mass was said over me. My coffin was borne to the cemetery in Sinaloa Province where I had begun. Instead of dirges the band played jaunty music, as if it were a fine thing to lay the dancing baboon-lady in earth at last.
But I shall hardly rest in peace.
For why was I repatriated to a backwater I left gratefully at twenty? Was I not celebrated worldwide, a star of the stage, the newspapers’ darling? Should I not have had a hollow in the actors’ graveyard in Covent Garden? Or lie with the other famous clever ladies in Saint Pancras field?
Or better still, I should have been allowed to sleep beside my Theodore, to lie and lie beside him for immemorial nights; to watch him gyre in his grave as the muscles died and shrank and danced his bones on leathery strings. Everything would drip from us, except my deathless hair, wrapped around his every place, a black wreath, a furring, a stirring of living hair everywhere on Theodore, everywhere my hair should justly be.