The truth about red hair, like many other truths, lies enclosed in a nutshell, generally a hard one, and people are often very short of crackers.


The area around St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is one of the few parts of the city where you can still summon up its past. Close your eyes and ignore the traffic; imagine instead of honking taxis the shouts of irate draymen, the creak and squeak of wooden wheels, the clop of hooves, the endless music of an endless press of people—probably very similar to those who throng the same streets today, if rather less well soaped and washed. The street names still record their presence, these hordes of ghostly Londoners, and their doings here: Pilgrim Lane, Ironmongers Lane, Limeburner Lane, Old Jewry. Watling Street, leading to St. Paul’s, was trodden by Roman legionaries and then by Boudicca’s rampaging army; close by, off Cheapside, were once to be found the colorfully named Pissing Alley and, even better, Gropecunt Lane, until times changed and renaming became inevitable (the rather more acceptable Love Lane, where no doubt exactly the same activity took place, still exists). Paternoster Square, Amen Corner, and Ave Maria Lane celebrate the permanence of human faith and worship in this area, no matter what religion, and as Ave Maria Lane runs north to Newgate Street its name changes, to Warwick Lane. And in a house on Warwick Lane in 1865 there lived a girl of about sixteen whose name was Alice Wilding. She earned her living (or rather contributed to the household, which included her grandmother, two uncles, and at least one infant) as a dressmaker. And secretly, like so many girls of any age or class, she dreamed of a career on stage. Alice, however, was no head-in-the-clouds innocent: when, one evening early in the year, she found herself being first stared at and then followed up the Strand by a short, tubby, balding man of middle age and clearly a higher social class than hers, she seems to have taken the experience in her stride. Very possibly, this was not the first time such a thing had happened to her. Alice had a face both strong and feminine, feline eyes, milky skin, and the most wonderful head of red hair, something between copper and the color of a marigold. The man introduced himself as an artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and in the account of the meeting recorded by his studio assistant, went on to explain that he was “painting a picture and her face was the very one that he required for the subject he was at work on.” The man begged Alice to come to his studio at Cheyne Walk in Chelsea the next day, and to sit for him, promising her that she would be paid. Once satisfied that she understood, and had agreed, he went on his way. The next day, “Rossetti made every preparation to receive her and make a study of her head for The Blessed Damozel. His palette was set, the canvas on the easel and everything in readiness…. ”

Alice stood him up. Of course she did. Go sit in an “artist’s studio,” for an artist she had very possibly never heard of, a man, on her own? Was he mad?

Fortunately for us, however, that wasted day in the studio is not the end of the story.

One significant development in artistic life in the nineteenth century is that we start to learn the names and in some cases details of the biographies of the artists’ most significant models. Sir Frederic Leighton, president of the Royal Academy from 1878 to 1896, and arguably England’s premier and most successful painter of the period, had an entire family of sisters, the Pullans, who sat to him and his circle. Rossetti had first Lizzie Siddal and later Fanny Corn-forth, with Alice Wilding modeling for him as well. Most of these women were working class, and their relationship with “their” artists was one of social and economic dependency as well as collaboration: outside the artist’s studio many, in fact all those who posed nude, would be regarded as little better than prostitutes (Fanny Corn-forth, who became Rossetti’s live-in housekeeper and whose robust humor and working-class attitudes alarmed his family and friends all his life, may very likely at one time have been a streetwalker for real.) Various ruses were adopted by these young women to cover for the true nature of what they did in the artist’s studio. Ada Pullan listed herself on the 1881 census as an “art student,” for example. It was just about feasible by the latter half of the nineteenth century for a woman to have a career in the arts, to enjoy some measure of financial freedom without having been born to riches, to hold some control over her own life in a way that would have been exceptional in previous centuries, and to negotiate a place for herself within an artist’s circle that was neither wholly sexual nor without respect. One who managed to do so was Joanna Hiffernan, an Irishwoman who met the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler in a studio in Rathbone Place, London, in 1860, when she too would have been about sixteen. She went on to have a six-year relationship with him, acted in loco parentis to his illegitimate son even after their relationship as lovers had come to an end, and was the inspiration for some of Whistler’s most sophisticated and innovative works, including his Symphony in White, No. 1 of 1862 (Fig. 18), and Symphony in White, No. 2 of 1864–5. Both paintings make wonderful play of her pale skin, soulful eyes, and almost oversize features, and her dark red hair, hair that Whistler would describe ecstatically as “a red not golden but copper—as Venetian as a dream.”63 Whistler’s biographer Joseph Pennell described the woman herself as being not only beautiful but intelligent and sympathetic. Joanna was also someone who steered her own very independent course through the world. She was unconventional (in her morality) and daring (in her professional life), both qualities the world ascribes all too willingly to redheads, and she has a unique role in the history of art in that her most famous supposed “portrait,” a work with which she has been intimately associated for decades, is one that as a redhead she simply cannot have sat for at all.

The story begins with a trip to Paris, where while modeling for the second Symphony in White, Jo, as she was known, met the French artist Gustave Courbet. In 1865–6 Courbet painted her portrait as La Belle Irlandaise, showing her in close-up, before a mirror, combing out a tangle in her hair and creating his own slab-sided, meaty version of the ethereal beauty who had captivated Whistler. In 1866 she began an affair with Courbet and posed as one of the two women in his The Sleepers (Fig. 19). This painting, which was the subject of a police report on what seem to have been the only occasion in the nineteenth century when it was publicly exhibited, in 1872, shows two women, one dark-haired, one Jo, curled about each other naked in bed, supposedly sleeping after making love. It has sometimes been hailed as a ground-breaking depiction of lesbianism, but it is surely rather a male heterosexual fantasy about female lovemaking. The poses in which the two women are supposed to have fallen asleep are unnatural (and, speaking as an ex–life model, look excruciatingly uncomfortable, too). Jo’s head seems oddly unsupported, and the expression on her face suggests extreme concentration in holding a difficult pose rather than languorous afterglow. Like much erotica, perhaps it hasn’t aged very well. But it created an association between the Bohemian, free-spirited Jo and Courbet’s erotic paintings that is running to this day.

Courbet’s other notorious erotic work, also of 1866, is known simply as L’Origine du Monde. For those who don’t know it, Courbet’s “origin of the world” is, predictably, a close-up of the view the artist would have had if he had set up his easel at the foot of his model’s couch and asked his model to raise her shift above her breast and to open her legs. There’s a piece of Anglo-Saxon, no doubt familiar to many an historic wanderer in London’s St. Paul’s, that would describe the subject of the painting perfectly. Its framing excludes everything else, including head, arms, and lower legs. It was commissioned by one Halil Bey, an Ottoman diplomat who also owned The Sleepers, and who can therefore claim front rank among the grand dirty old men of erotic art, and the painting still takes one aback, even today. But there is simply no possibility of it being a portrait of Jo, untrammeled by society’s mores as she may well have been, and saddled with all the sexual baggage of being a redhead as she undoubtedly is. The pubic hair of the woman in L’Origine is so dark as to be almost black. The pubic hair of a redhead is, unsurprisingly, red. In fact you can see a tiny suggestion of Jo’s own pubic hair in The Sleepers, a minute triangle of gold above the leg of her bedmate. This second woman, an unnamed brunette whose dark hair is spread out across the pillow beside Jo’s coppery curls, may have her sharp features echoed in another painting, recently discovered, of a woman’s head, mouth open, dark hair thrown back and purporting to show L’Origine’s missing upper half. Or, the latter may have nothing to do with the former at all. But neither is Joanna Hiffernan.


Back to the Strand in 1865, and Rossetti’s studio assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn, continues the story of Rossetti’s vanishing redhead:

Days and weeks went by, and he [Rossetti] had given up all hope of seeing the young lady again and had even abandoned the picture, when one afternoon in company with [the sometime art dealer Charles Augustus] Howell in the same part of the Strand, he again caught sight of her. He was then in a cab, [&] telling Howell what he was going to do he stopped the Hansom at a side street, got out and darted after the girl and at last overtook her. He reminded her of the promise she had given him and told her of his disappointment at her not coming and at last persuaded her to enter the cab and drive with him to Cheyne Walk.64

You have to wonder at the change of heart. Perhaps the encounter was less alarming the second time around; perhaps this had begun to feel like Fate; perhaps by now Alice knew who Rossetti was; perhaps there had also been a few hours in front of her looking-glass, wondering why she had been given this face and hair if to do nothing with it? In Rossetti’s case, the explanation of his persistence is simpler—he was, in the words of the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, “hair mad”:

If a particular kind of reddish-brown crepe wavy hair came in he was away in a moment, struggling for an introduction to the owner of said head of hair….65

Thus Rossetti is forever immortalized as a classic example of Man with a Thing for Redheads. Aside from Rossetti and his obsession, however, why are there so many Pre-Raphaelite redheads? The term has become virtually synonymous, just as “Titian red” would be later in the century. They are there in works by Frederick Sandys, whose gloriously rufescent partner, the actress Mary Emma Jones, modeled for him first as the Magdalene in 1862, and then as Perdita, Proud Maisie, Helen of Troy, and countless other red-haired icons throughout his life. Arthur Hughes used his wife, Tryphena Foord, as his model for April Love (1856) and The Long Engagement (1854–9), both works depicting unhappy lovers, and both making much play of Tryphena’s ghostly skin and shining red-gold hair. Henry Wallis depicts the eighteenth-century poet and suicide Thomas Chatterton on his deathbed, in his garret, neglected poetry torn to pieces on the floor beside his lifeless hand. Chatterton’s bright red hair leaps out from the painting’s chilly gray and green palette and is perhaps used by the artist to allude both to his subject’s sensitivity and to his passionate poetic spirit. John Collier, a late Pre-Raphaelite, creates an irresistible red-haired Lilith in 1887, wearing her symbolic serpent like a feather boa, and paints Lady Godiva as a redhead in 1898 (although seeming to miss the idea that her hair should be thick and long enough to hide her completely). Rossetti surrounded himself with redheads, both male and female. Dunn’s successor as his assistant was the redheaded Manxman and later novelist Hall Caine, a man of such unusual yet engaging appearance he might have been designed by Mother Nature to play Merlin. And for a year from 1862, Rossetti shared his house with the flame-haired poet and all-round oddity Algernon Charles Swinburne (Fig. 20), of whom more in the next chapter. Joanna Hiffernan and Whistler were guests at the house in 1863; one wonders if they were entertained by Swinburne, whose party piece consisted of sliding nude down the bannisters, and who reportedly infuriated Rossetti by dancing all over his studio “like a wild cat.”66 And famously, Rossetti’s first muse and eventually his wife had been the red-haired beauty Elizabeth Siddal, the model for Millais’s Ophelia of 1852, who was described by Rossetti’s brother William as:

A most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair.67

Others were less kind. There seems to have been something unsparkling about Lizzie Siddal altogether:

She was passive…. This passivity helped bring them together. She trailed slowly towards [Rossetti], a melancholy doll, set in sluggish motion by the virile, expansive gestures of the warm Latin. His roar of laughter elicited from her a wan smile, his jests provoked a faint answering shade of humour, his ardour the ghost of passion. In the same contrary fashion, he loved her because she was so little responsive. No one knew what she was thinking of or if she thought at all. She had … the habit of “keeping herself to herself” which deepened into an unfathomable reserve on being introduced into a clever and freakish group of artists…. In her mournful beauty, her natural silence, her frigid apathy, she was like a statue to be warmed into life…. 68

That passivity probably had much to do with the fact that she suffered both from depression and an addiction to opium. Lizzie Siddal wrote poetry (not good), drew (not well), and died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, leaving Rossetti, who had been neither constant as a lover nor compassionate as a husband, with a burden of lifelong guilt that one has to say he probably deserved. You have the feeling that he loved the passive face, the hair, the sad and empty eyes and all he could project onto them, but not so much the woman. Perhaps his most affecting portrait of Lizzie Siddal is as Beata Beatrix (c. 1864–70; Fig. 21), created after her death and inspired by the Beatrice of that other Dante. It shows Lizzie as the loved one lost, eyes closed as if in death and much more otherworld than this, with her red hair gathered behind her like the tail of a pale comet, haloed with light. Now, in Alice, or Alexa Wilding, as his model was to rename herself, he had another Lizzie, just as beautiful, and apparently offering the same useful blankness too: “a lovely face,” wrote Dunn, “beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent soft mystical repose…. but without any variety of expression. She sat like the Sphynx…. ”

Not all redheads are fiery. Despite her “repose,” Rossetti used his new model, with her lovely face and unmissable hair, without stint. He made The Blessed Damozel a redhead, as if in her honor (his own poem, of 1850, had spoken of the Damozel as having “hair that lay along her back/… yellow like ripe corn”). He repainted her features over Fanny Cornforth’s in his Lilith and Venus Verticordia, both of 1864–8, and had an agreement with her that she would sit to him exclusively. Perhaps, in fact, it was her blankness, along with her resemblance to Lizzie, that made her so inspiring a muse. Perhaps the only role she had to fulfill was to turn up on time and be decorative. Even La Ghirlandata, the painting in which she stars on the cover of this book, had no “underlying significance,” according to Rossetti’s brother William: “I suppose he [the artist] purposed to indicate, more or less, youth, beauty and the faculty for art worthy of a celestial audience….” In other words, these paintings are to show off the painter, not the model. It is we, coming to them as their audience, who look for symbolic meaning in these yards and yards of red Pre-Raphaelite curls.

Certainly there is some. It’s notable that it’s almost always loose or loosened red hair that is depicted, hair so luxuriant that it’s almost out of control. It may symbolize female sexuality in Eve or Lilith, female passion in Sandys’s Proud Maisie, or be the inevitable attribute of fatal beauty in the same artist’s Helen of Troy. It’s suggestive of Bohemianism, the world in which these artists lived at least at the start of their careers. Many of their paintings are mythological in subject; perhaps playing on the notion of red hair as an attribute of the supernatural. They also undoubtedly give the artists an opportunity to show off their skill in depicting these twining tresses and shining locks. And they both draw and please the eye, in which case the artists are using red hair in exactly the same way as the advertising industry of the twenty-first century. In a bit of slang favored by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which has survived unchanged from the 1840s to the tabloid press of today, it is the coloring of the “stunner.” Used like this, of course, it starts to stigmatize the very characteristic that it thrusts at our attention. There’s something a little prurient about the Pre-Raphaelites. Look at their treatment of Mary Magdalene. In their hands Mary Magdalene, the most important female saint of medieval Europe and, next to the Virgin herself, possibly the most empowered female figure in medieval art, becomes either merely an excuse for painting another “stunner,” or in Rossetti’s Found (Fig. 22), a prostitute for real. In his own words:

The picture represents a London street at dawn, with the lamps still lighted along a bridge which forms the distant background. A drover has left his cart standing in the middle of the road … and has run a little way after a girl who has passed him, wandering in the streets. He has just come up with her and she, recognising him, has sunk under her shame upon her knees, against the wall of a raised churchyard in the foreground, while he stands holding her hands as he seized them, half in bewilderment and half guarding her from doing herself a hurt.

The “fallen woman” of Victorian cliché, in other words, here literally slumped to the ground.

“Magdalene,” as a polite-ish bit of slang for a prostitute, had been in use since the late seventeenth century at least. What makes this painting particularly rich in allusion—so rich and complex, in fact, that for thirty years it defied the artist’s attempts to finish it off, and was left as it is, uncompleted, on his death in 1882—is the fact that Rossetti’s eventual model for the woman in Found was his mistress and housekeeper, Fanny Cornforth, she of the doubtful past. Fanny was no silent Sphynx, nor a woman who sounds likely to have had much time for disdainful reserve. As she and Rossetti grew fatter in their old age together, she called him “Rhino” and he called her “Elephant.” In Found, however, the earthly Fanny is depicted as a pitiable being, in the last stages of consumption or perhaps of syphilis, with greenish pallor and face compressed in shame and agony. Her jaunty feathered hat has fallen back, revealing her coppery hair, by which perhaps her onetime sweetheart, the drover, is meant to have recognized her. (The sweet young thing come up from the country and ruined by the wicked city is another workhorse cliché of Victorian art and literature alike. Think of Little Em’ly in Dickens’s David Copperfield.) The work was exhibited, even if unfinished, and found many an admirer, among them Lewis Carroll, who saw it at the Royal Academy in London in 1883 and called the face of the drover “one of the most marvelous things I have ever seen done in painting.” A matter of opinion, perhaps; the painting’s other great point of interest here is the way it reworks the iconography of the Colmar Noli Me Tangere of four centuries before. Here is the Magdalene as a Magdalene, disempowered and the lowest of the low; here it is the man who touches her against her will; here she who turns away. In Rossetti’s nod to Colmar, the Garden of Gethsemane has become a single withered rose, lying in the gutter, the birds in the garden a pair of London sparrows.69

You get the sneaking impression that neither brains nor personality were much desired in the Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model. Women with either tended to become bored and to move on, sometimes, in hope, like Lizzie Siddal, by marrying the artist. Some married and were bored still. A sixteen-year-old Ellen Terry sat for the artist G. F. Watts, a close associate of the Pre-Raphaelites in 1864, when he was forty-seven, and shortly after married him. The portrait he painted of her, Choosing, makes glorious play of her fair, schoolgirlish features and strawberry-blond hair, and is usually interpreted as showing Ellen’s rejection of the artifice of the outside world for a life of married duty, but looking at it today, with its hit-you-over-the-head flower symbolism, it’s possible to read the showy but scentless camellia that Ellen holds to her nose as life with Watts, and the tiny scented violets held close to her heart as her ambitions (like Alexa’s, but much more successfully so) for a career on the stage. In 1889, at the height of Ellen’s fame as an actress, John Singer Sargent would paint her in costume as Lady Macbeth, during the run of Henry Irving’s production of Macbethat the Lyceum Theatre in London. Her extraordinary dress, in a peacock’s-tail palette of green crochet and blue tinsel, sparkles with more than a thousand green iridescent beetle-wings. Willful, passionate, murderous, and Scottish, as she holds Duncan’s crown over her own head, Lady Macbeth’s ensemble is completed with two plaits of deep red hair, thick as hawsers, bound with gold, and reaching to her knees (Fig. 23).

And as an example of red hair equaling ethnicity, there is also Millais’s Martyr of the Solway of 1871. Scotland had a particular importance for Millais. Some of his most significant works of the 1850s have Scottish settings or Scottish subjects; and it was here in 1853 that he fell in love with the auburn-haired Effie Gray, then Mrs. John Ruskin. Not that the story behind the Martyr of the Solway is itself an uplifting tale, nor does it have anything but the most tragic of endings. The martyr was one Margaret Wilson, an eighteen-year-old girl from Wigtown in Dumfries, who in 1685 had been sentenced to death for refusing to swear an oath accepting the Catholic James II of England, and VII of Scotland, as head of the church in Scotland. Despite the fact that a reprieve had been granted, Margaret Wilson nonetheless died as sentenced, by drowning, chained to a stake in the Solway Firth.

This too is a work with a unique backstory, which can only be told with reference to Millais’s Knight Errant, of 1870. The redhead in this earlier work, hair blown across her naked, captive body as she is cut loose from a tree by the knight who has killed one of her attackers, has been interpreted as a victim of robbery, but rape seems just as likely (an early description speaks of the woman having been “despitefully used”). And then there is the knight’s extremely prominent longsword, streaked with blood. The painting, which is otherwise rather Arthur Rackham–esque in its moonlit details and forest setting, trembles with sexual activity; and in it, in its original incarnation, the woman who now looks away from us had her face turned toward her rescuer. This was heady and subversive stuff. While a naked woman’s body might be laid out for the viewers’ delectation, her face was apparently better turned modestly away, in shame or private humiliation (as it would be in Lefebvre’s Mary Magdalene in the Cave, for example). Millais’s treatment was in fact held up for comparison with the “idealized” form the nude took in continental painting, and presumably the critics making this comparison must have had Salon painters such as Lefebvre in mind, rather than works such as Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe of 1863, or his Olympia, of the same year. The fact that this, Millais’s one full-length naked female figure is almost life-size, only added to the critic’s discomfort when it was first exhibited. Her thighs are dimply, her waist a little thick; “too life-like,” the critics called it, “too real.”70 It failed to sell until Millais cut away the central section and replaced it with new canvas on which the woman turns her face from us. What, then, to do with a half-length study of a nude redhead, arms bound behind her back? Create the Martyr of the Solway (Fig. 24) with it, of course, which, in a startling bit of artistic sleight-of-hand, is exactly what Millais did.71 Margaret Wilson in the Martyr was originally the top half of the damsel being rescued by the knight. But having learned his lesson, perhaps, from the reception accorded to The Knight Errant, in her new incarnation Millais clothes her, in a very nineteenth-century-looking blouse and, tellingly, a plaid skirt. He also removes all possibility of rescue. There was to be no knight, no Perseus for this Andromeda. The dark waters of the Solway Firth are rushing in upon her; it is this, her fate, that she turns her eyes from, rather than her own nakedness. The viewer of the painting is left in the uncomfortable position of being forced to see what Margaret does not. But set against the dark waters as they roil in behind her and in contrast to the stormy and overcast sky is her red hair, used here like a flag, to suggest (with the tartan of her skirt) both her nationality and her defiance. This is one case where the subject’s red hair and the meaning of the work are indivisible.


In fact the days of the smooth and perfect limbs of the Salon nudes were already numbered. Over the Channel the French Impressionists were also creating works in which redheads abound, in Renoir’s marshmallowy nudes and in the pastels of Edgar Degas of the late 1880s in particular. There hadn’t been so many redheads in art since the days of Elizabeth I. Degas’s pastels of women sponging or toweling off after the bath, or combing through their long hair, have been criticized for their objectifying of their subjects, their equation of these women with so many cats washing and tending to themselves. They also have what one might view as at least a semi-exploitative subtext, in that such ablutions traditionally preceded or followed intercourse, and that the women are often naked, or almost so, and their faces are again often obscured. But Degas did produce one of the best depictions, indeed glorifications, of red hair ever, in his La Coiffure of 1896 (Fig. 25). Here one woman (older, a redhead, in apron and pinkish blouse) is combing through the hair of another (younger, wearing a red robe) who sits before her. The younger woman’s long red hair is stretched between them, like washing going through a mangle. Everything in the image is red, from the curtain looped up in the top left-hand corner, to the color of the wall behind them. The beads of jewelry on the table are red. The young woman’s cheeks are flushed. The painting shows what we should presumably take for a domestic space as being as red as a womb. It is as if the electricity one can almost hear crackling off that hair as it is combed has suffused the entire canvas with its color.

But the artist of red hair par excellence in this period must be Toulouse-Lautrec. All three of his most famous sitters from among the singers and dancers of the Folies-Bergère—Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, and La Goulue—were redheads. In his Rue des Moulins of 1894 he depicts one of his favorite models, a snub-nosed prostitute who was apparently named Rolande waiting insouciantly in line, shift held up above her navel, to be inspected for signs of syphilis. Her bright red hair is the hotspot of the painting. And of course this is another reason why artists place redheads in their works—for that vibrant dash of color, that ability of red to draw the eye; which is exactly the same reason why for a woman of the streets, or a tart in a brothel of the Belle Epoque, red hair works. It gets you noticed.72

Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings record a love affair between a particular kind of throwaway French chic and the blazingly artificial dyed red hair that can still be seen on the streets of Paris today. How did a characteristic once so linked to the lower end of the social scale become desirable and fashionable? One answer is the link forged by these artists between the image of the intriguing, independent, unconventional, Bohemian young women, and red hair either real or dyed; another can be found in a gradual change of attitudes toward red hair, evident in at least two specific examples of this period. The first is the courtesan Cora Pearl, a grande horizontale of the old school who was also known as “La Lune Rousse” (Fig. 26).73 Her enormous wealth (in the 1860s she could command as much as 10,000 francs for an evening in her company) made everything she wore and every aspect of her show-stopping style worthy of emulation. Cora understood the importance of creating a spectacle in order to stay in the public eye, of reinventing her image; dyeing her hair on occasion not only red but also lemon yellow, to match the upholstery of a new carriage, and her dog blue, to match her gown. Rather more respectable was the opera singer Adelina Patti, who did much to popularize and make acceptable the use of henna as a hair dye and whose career was at its height in the 1870s and 1880s. But both women were still exploiting the ability of red hair to draw the eye and get the wearer noticed. As were Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, La Goulue, and Rolande her humble self. Madame X, the professional beauty Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, star of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of 1884, was another much-emulated celebrity of fin-de-siècle Paris, also known to use henna to tint her hair. By 1881 Miss Maria R. Oakey could write of red hair in her Beauty in Dress not as something to be played down or even disguised but as a specific and desirable type, with its own palette of colors to show off the hair to best advantage: “White, of a creamy tone, black, invisible green [one assumes she means eau-de-nil], rich bottle-green, rich blue-green, plum color, amethyst,” and so on. And by 1910, in The History of Mr. Polly, H. G. Wells can present an audacious redheaded schoolgirl as the object of the youthful Polly’s chivalrous and most ardent admiration, and as an entity whose desirability would be wholly understood by his readers.

There is even a new vocabulary, to mark red hair’s new status as socially acceptable. In 1890, on April 1 (All Fools Day) the Auburn Printing Works of Lightcliffe, Yorkshire, published The Philosophy of Red Hair. This work, of heavy Victorian humor, records the hapless state of mind of Rufus, a young man with red hair. Rufus reads in his sister’s journal that “red hair if straight denotes ugliness,” but if “given to curl” it denotes “deceit, treachery, and a willingness to sacrifice old friends for new or personal advancement.” When traveling by train, Rufus is warned not to stick his head out of the window, lest he be mistaken for a danger signal. When invited to a costume party he is advised to wrap himself in brown paper and go as a lit cigar. He is presented with all the usual reasons for being an object of such ridicule: the dislike of red hair recalls the fear of the Danes; that Judas was a redhead; that it is a primitive characteristic (a favorite of the nineteenth-century anthropologist, this one). Yet at the same time Rufus notes that the typical female flirt is always presented with flaming red hair and green eyes as part of her charm. And most unfair of all: “A very curious trait with authors is that the red of the red-haired girl is transmuted to auburn, or golden, when she becomes an interesting young lady, whereas the red of the red-haired boy remains red to the end of the chapter.” This is auburn in its modern meaning, an acceptable alternative to the pejorative carrots, or ginger, for a hair color that for women was well on its way to becoming positively desirable. “Auburn” has cachet.74 “Titian,” which also came into use in the late nineteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has the same, plus the added advantage of suggesting familiarity with high art. Unsurprisingly, the term caught on. The Dundee Advertiser would note in 1904 that “twenty years ago hair with a reddish tinge was called ‘carrots,’ now Titian-colored locks are reckoned a definite beauty.” By the time Elinor Glyn, the (green-eyed, red-haired) sensationally successful and knowingly risqué novelist of the pre–World War I period, was writing Red Hair in 1905, she could have her endearingly ditzy heroine Evangeline declare herself a social outlaw, “a penniless adventuress with green eyes and red hair” who is “bound to go to the devil” because of it, yet nonetheless also have her virtuous enough to not only frustrate the seductive wiles of her guardian but win over the hero’s wealthy and aristocratic uncle and gain his blessing on their marriage. (And this despite the sight of her come-hither, pink silk nightdress scandalizing his killjoy relatives.)

The red-haired flirt as a toned-down, more socially acceptable version of the red-haired Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale was a new development for a new century, and owes much to Mrs. Glyn. But even more tellingly, by the time Red Hair was filmed, in 1928, complete with a very early Technicolor sequence (to do justice to the heroine’s red hair, perhaps?) and starring Hollywood’s first redheaded sexpot, Clara Bow, Clara’s fellow starlet Mabel Normand could declare in an interview, “I’m shanty Irish”—and be proud of it.


A Scotsman, Tam Blake, was perhaps the first of the Celtic diaspora to make it to the New World, in 1540 (although there are legends that the aptly named St. Brendan the Navigator beat both the Vikings and Christopher Columbus to it, in the sixth century, thus opening up a whole new field of possibilities for those Native American stories of red-haired giants). Tam would be followed by more adventurers in both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Red hair—as with the Normans in Sicily—has always been a convenient marker of human migration. So it was to be again. In the 1650s, under Oliver Cromwell, tens of thousands of Irish were shipped as slaves to the West Indies. In the eighteenth century many more were transported as convicts to Australia. In what has been called the final act in the great Celtic diaspora, in the nineteenth century there were immense migrations from both Scotland and Ireland to North and South America, to Canada, and to Australia and New Zealand. Once again, the gene for red hair went with them.

Clara Bow herself, the “It” girl of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties (a sobriquet coined for her by none other than Elinor Glyn) owed her head of bubbling red curls to her Anglo-Irish and Scottish ancestry. Bow emerged from a childhood and adolescence of great hardship and tragedy with an underlying sense of herself as being set apart and thus extremely vulnerable, which she sought to disguise for all she was worth. She spoke of herself as being awkward and funny-faced and was teased for her coppery ringlets at school as many redheaded children are, yet in front of a camera she had “It” and to spare. Hollywood, and America, had discovered the redhead.

It is one thing to have your hair color as a badge of your underclass status in the Old World. It is quite another to carry it as a marker of your identity into the New. Transpose red hair into this environment and it comes to mean something completely different. It becomes a mark of authenticity as well as of identity. Rather than a stigma, it becomes something to celebrate, a bold visual claim to your heritage and history. And it must be remembered that in America there was already an underclass, marked out by the color not of its hair but of its skin. Immigrants from the Old World might indeed be regarded as of lowly social caste by those white-skinned Americans born in the New World, just as the Irish has been by the Anglo-Irish in the Old. They might still suffer what Noel Ignatiev in his How the Irish Became White defines as the “hallmark of racial aggression, the reduction of all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status.” But whereas in the Old World there had been no buffer, no slave community beneath them, in America there was. In fact there were two: first the black community, and then as another wave of immigrants reached the New World from the Old, Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms of the 1880s.75 The Irish in America could lift their social class simply by crossing the Atlantic. All the mighty difference created by their doing so is wrapped up in the one American concept of the despised “redheaded stepchild.” When the Irish first began to arrive in numbers, the black community found itself referred to as “smoked Irish.” The Irish in turn heard themselves stigmatized as “blacks turned inside out.”76 The Historical Society of Pennsylvania records the complaint of one black laborer: “My master is a great tyrant. He treats me as badly as if I was a common Irishman.” The Irish had to decide, in effect, if they were going to identify with the slaves or with the oppressors. They chose the latter, and no difference, as Ignatiev points out, is fought for more fiercely than the thinnest. The phrase “beat you like a redheaded stepchild” in the States goes back very far and to somewhere very ugly, but I don’t believe it has anything to do with the original lowly status of the Irish at all, nor as such with red hair. It indicates instead a child of mixed race, and originally very possibly the offspring of a black slave woman and a white slave owner. Hence the following exchange from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, between Jem and his sister, Scout:

“Jem,” I asked, “what’s a mixed child?”

“Half white, half colored. You’ve seen ’em, Scout. You know that red kinky-headed one that delivers for the drugstore. He’s half white. They’re real sad.”

“Sad, how come?”

“They don’t belong anywhere. Colored folks won’t have ’em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ’em cause they’re colored, so they’re just in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere.”

In other words, unless they did something about it, the lowest and least-loved of the low. The magic of codominance means that the gene for red hair can certainly manifest itself with a black heritage—the red tint to Malcolm X’s hair came from a Scottish grandfather. Nonetheless, and despite this unlovely phrase, there are, for me, very pertinent differences in the responses to red hair from one side of the Atlantic to the other. In the United States, where the legacy of black slavery has meant that social awareness of any sort of stereotyping as undesirable runs much higher than it does in Great Britain, I have often been told that there is no such thing as discrimination against redheads in the States (although many an American redhead may feel they reserve the right to disagree). Even more striking, however, are the differences in attitudes toward red hair between Canada and the States (where white immigration in the nineteenth century was elective), and Australia, where there was no urbanized underclass “other” already conveniently in existence, where immigration was often the result of judicial punishment, and where red hair carried with it all the connotations marking one out as very likely having been transported there not as an underclass but as a criminal.


Red hair in women might have become newly popular in the Old World in the nineteenth century, but there was no answering change in attitudes toward the redheaded man. In fact this period saw the creation of two of the nastiest redheaded wrong’uns ever to fall from between the pages of a book: Uriah Heep, in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, of 1850, about as fell a villain as Dickens ever created; and in 1898 the character of Peter Quint, in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

Heep, as he is introduced to us, already has his ginger hair shorn convict (or we would say skinhead) short (Fig. 27). He has in his face, “in the grain of it … that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people.” In other words, he is another take on the ruddy-faced, red-haired impenitent thief of the Crucifixion. We are to understand that Uriah’s true nature—grafting, scheming, leading every soul around him astray, if he can, like the devil in a medieval morality play—is announced by that telltale red coloring, seeping through the grain of his skin. Heep is sexual. He both fascinates and repels the hero, David Copperfield, in equal measure; he is Machiavellian, and he is very nearly triumphant. In 1898, Henry James would also draw upon this ancient connection between the color red and the whiff of brimstone for the character of Peter Quint.77 Quint has a particularly sickly connection to the two young children in The Turn of the Screw, and he has returned in death to haunt both them and the novel’s narrator, an unnamed governess. In the governess’s description of him, Quint’s red hair not only serves as a marker of his diabolical nature but identifies him, even if he should be in his grave, to her listener:

… he has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little, rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair.

Heep and Quint are nineteenth-century embodiments of far older fears, and in both cases their red hair marks them out as being apart from the normal, law-abiding, or even laws-of-nature-abiding society in which they wreak such havoc. These two come from somewhere very different indeed.

But there is a change of heart toward red hair in literature for children. First in France, in 1894, there is Jules Renard’s semi-autobiographical Poil de Carotte, or Carrot Head, as it is usually known in translation; and then in the New World, Anne of Green Gables, in 1908.

Poil de Carotte is not a children’s book, even though it is a stalwart of French literature classes in school. It is instead a book about a child, and what it is to be a child growing up in a household where your father hates your mother, and your mother takes out her hatred of her own life on her youngest, redheaded son. The fact that Poil de Carotte (he is hardly ever referred to by his given name, Francois) is a redhead is almost hidden; what the book does is present the interior workings of his life, his insecurities and fears, his attempts to make sense of the world as being no different to those of any other child. He is neither more nor less disobedient, neither more nor less hot-tempered. He is a heartbreakingly human and unhappy little boy who simply happens to have red hair. Meeting the actress Sarah Bernhardt, once he too had become a celebrity, Jules Renard (fittingly, his surname means “fox”) recorded in his Journal a faltering recognition of the shift to a more sympathetic awareness to which his book had contributed, when the divine Sarah tries to excuse the fact that he is a redhead: “Redheads are ill-natured…. You are rather on the blond side.”

And then of course there is Anne. As envisaged by her creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery (a Canadian—would Anne have been the same had she been conceived in the Old World?), “she wore a faded brown sailor hat and beneath the hat, extending down her back, were two braids of very thick, decidedly red hair. Her face was small, white and thin, also much freckled.”78

Anne, like David Copperfield, is an orphan, and as a character is related to those formulaic orphan children of so many children’s stories (get the troublesome parents out of the way and have the hero or heroine stand in their own light), but Anne has a brain and a temper. Long before the ineffable Australian comic Tim Minchin, and his song, “Only a Ginger Can Call Another Ginger Ginger,” Anne hits the nail exactly on the (red)head: “There’s such a difference between saying a thing yourself and hearing other people say it.” When Anne’s coloring is commented upon in her hearing by the unpleasant Rachel Lynde (“Did anyone ever see such freckles! And hair as red as carrots!”), she fires up in her own defense at once.79 Yet, for all her spirit, Anne too longs for her hair to be “a handsome auburn” when she grows up.

Anne’s quick wit and precocity are, if you like, an acceptably infantilized version of the red-haired flirt (Evangeline, Clara Bow), the girl with a twinkle in her eye and a smart riposte but with her virtue intact. Via Anne, the redhead female juvenile lead descends to Little Orphan Annie herself, in the 1920s, and to the redheaded tomboy’s all-time heroine Pippi Longstocking, living adult-free in her Villa Villekulla with her monkey and her horse. Pippi was first published in 1945; to my mind Jessie the Cowgirl of Toy Story 2 (1999) owes much to Pippi.80 Thence and more recently we come to the independent-minded and very freckly Freckleface Strawberry of today. And let’s not forget the Little Red-Haired Girl in Peanuts, object of as devoted an adoration on the part of Charlie Brown as ever Alfred Polly suffered for his red-haired sweetheart, sitting on her school wall, forever out of reach.

It’s children’s fiction that also finally creates a male redheaded character neither evil, ill-intentioned, nor a milksop. Tintin, first published in 1929, is resourceful, adventurous, and intrepid and has a signature cowlick of red hair (Fig. 28). And, he is the hero. William, of the Just Williamstories of the 1920s, has his trusty sidekick, Ginger, but he is a sidekick only. (William also has a redheaded and at least by implication devastatingly soigneé and attractive older sister, Ethel, whose popularity with any number of eligible bachelors in the neighborhood is an eternal mystery to her younger brother.) Biggles, first published in 1932, also has a “Ginger” as his sidekick, thus continuing a tradition still used by writers today—think Ron Weasley, second-in-command to Harry Potter. But Tintin, despite being the youngest character in the books, is the protagonist, has a personality full of all the stalwart virtues of the Boy Scout, and is a first. Do these juvenile leads offset the centuries of prejudice against redheaded men in art and literature, their use as shorthand for villainy of every sort? I think that they at least start such a transformation, and they certainly record a shift in society’s attitudes, away from “redheaded woman good/redheaded man bad” to something less unthinking and rather more nuanced. But it takes many, many Tin-Tins, Gingers, and Rons to expunge the centuries-long prejudice reflected in a single Uriah Heep. And what’s Heep’s come-uppance, when all his schemes and machinations are foiled? Transportation for life, of course—to Australia.

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