Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapters 16 - 18

To Janeites

July 29,1999

Re: S&S, Ch 18: The Gothic, Banditti, & Hair-Rings

As used by Edward in the passage, 'banditt' refers to figures that were common in the landscape and gothic paintings of the period. Italian paintings of the period as well as the new picturesque landscape movement fed into gothic and sentimental romance. The best book on how Austen would have seen this is still probably Elizabeth Manwaring's Italian Landscape in 18th century England: A Study Chiefly of the Influence of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa on English Taste, 1700-1800. One of the chapter titles includes one of my favorite lines from Cowper: Italian light on English walls. This Italian light came through Salvator Rosa in the 18th and the spectacular dungeon, castle, labythine prints of Giovanni Piranesi in the 19th century. Banditti is a code word for figures in these paintings meant to represent outlaws and gypsies.

In a really superb recent book on the Gothic, Richard Davenport-Hines reprints a number of Rosa's paintings (which in reproductions, prints, were very popular in England and France in the later 18th century and early 19th). Rosa was a gifted landscape painter, and his speciality was savage and desolate scenery; he focused on the misery of the marginalised (and just about everyone was in the 18th century), and the amorality of humanity; but he placed these things in landscapes which allure you by their scariness, their nightmarish gloomy colours, their curious inwardness as they seem to capture people's fears, fantasies and what Davenport-Hines calls 'their potential for secret tawdriness'. People who liked to mock his work picked on the banditti in them because it was thought these showed how phony it all was: banditti were bandits, people who were outside the law, and mostly represented in gypsy costume. However, these were only one element in the scene and happy prosperous or sentimentally melancholy peasants were as fake. The latter -- sentimental, melancholy ravaged peasants, often looking tired --were Claude Lorraine's speciality in landscapes which use classic structures in ruins. Davenport-Hines dubs Rosa's _Scene of Witchcraft_ 'quintessential gothic' and reprints it.

On hair-rings: while I haven't any hard numbers, I can say from what I've read that exchanging rings with locks of hair in them was very popular and commonly done throughout the 18th and 19th century. The practice was more often associated with mourning: you left a ring to someone and asked that a lock of your hair be entwined in it. However, these kinds of rings were also exchanged between lovers and as symbols of friendship. They were used as signs of engagement -- rings have a long tradition as symbols in love.

The use of hair locks in rings became much less popular after photography was born. Imagine people who want some token or sign or image of one another before photography. Not everyone in the later 18th century could afford to pay someone to make a miniature of them. Remember Lucy also has a miniature of Edward. He had the money for that; she has given him a hair-ring as what she can afford. Hair has ever been a kind of fetish with sexual overtones (long haired women are featured in Pre-Raphaelite paintings; men with beards in the 19th century were part of a cult of masculinity). I would say it is probable that Edward would have such a ring, and even probable that he'd be such a clutz as to forget to remove it before he arrived at the cottage. He might -- he is so twisted in himself -- also tell himself that by wearing the ring he is not so false to Lucy or Elinor. It also fits Lucy's personality; she'd want to mark him somehow. If she had the money to sue him in court for breach of promise (or the connections to make it stick), nothing better than a miniature to prove he promised to marry her.

When we think about these hair-rings, we can see how far away we are from the 18th and 19th century in our attitudes towards death and sexual intimacies leading up to marriage. I suspect many people today would find a hair-ring somehow morbid. We don't want to be reminded of the fleshy presence that once was there. I should think many readers might find it uncomfortable to think that Elinor actually hopes Edward has stolen her hair and put it in a ring as a sign he loves her. In that tiny act, we see where Elinor and Marianne occupy the same emotional terrain with regard to love and sex, only Elinor is more secretive about it. Marianne is not wrong when she sharply replies to Elinor later in the book: 'our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing' (Oxford S&S, II:5, Penguin Ch 27, p. 143).

Ellen Moody

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