Gryll Grange, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter 4

The Forest — A Soliloquy on Hair

Mille hominum species, et rerum discolor usus:

Velle suum cuique est, nee voto vivitur uno.


In mind and taste men differ as in frame:

Each has his special will, and few the same.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. It strikes me as singular that, with such a house, you should have only female domestics.

Mr. Falconer. It is not less singular perhaps that they are seven sisters, all the children of two old servants of my father and mother. The eldest is about my own age, twenty-six, so that they have all grown up with me in time and place. They live in great harmony together, and divide among them the charge of all the household duties. Those whom you saw are the two youngest.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. If the others acquit themselves as well, you have a very efficient staff; but seven young women as the establishment of one young bachelor, for such I presume you to be (Mr. Falconer assented), is something new and strange. The world is not over charitable.

Mr. Falconer. The world will never suppose a good motive where it can suppose a bad one. I would not willingly offend any of its prejudices. I would not affect eccentricity. At the same time, I do not feel disposed to be put out of my way because it is not the way of the world — Le Chemin du Monde, as a Frenchman entitled Congreve’s comedy1 — but I assure you these seven young women live here as they might do in the temple of Vesta.

It was a singular combination of circumstances that induced and enabled me to form such an establishment; but I would not give it up, nor alter it, nor diminish it, nor increase it, for any earthly consideration.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. You hinted that, besides Milton’s verses, you had another association of ideas with living in the top of a tower.

Mr. Falconer. I have read of somebody who lived so, and admitted to his sanctum only one young person, a niece or a daughter, I forget which, but on very rare occasions would descend to speak to some visitor who had previously propitiated the young lady to obtain him an interview. At last the young lady introduced one who proposed for her, and gained the consent of the recluse (I am not sure of his name, but I always call him Lord Noirmont) to carry her off. I think this was associated with some affliction that was cured, or some mystery that was solved, and that the hermit returned into the everyday world. I do not know where I read it, but I have always liked the idea of living like Lord Noirmont, when I shall have become a sufficiently disappointed man.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. You look as little like a disappointed man as any I have seen; but as you have neither daughter nor niece, you would have seven links instead of one between the top of your tower and the external world.

Mr. Falconer. We are all born to disappointment. It is as well to be prospective. Our happiness is not in what is, but in what is to be. We may be disappointed in our everyday realities, and if not, we may make an ideality of the unattainable, and quarrel with Nature for not giving what she has not to give. It is unreasonable to be so disappointed, but it is disappointment not the less.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. It is something like the disappointment of the men of Gotham, when they could not fish up the moon from the sea.

Mr. Falconer. It is very like it, and there are more of us in the predicament of the men of Gotham than are ready to acknowledge the similitude.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. I am afraid I am too matter-of-fact to sympathise very clearly with this form of aestheticism; but here is a charming bit of forest scenery. Look at that old oak with the deer under it; the long and deep range of fern running up from it to that beech-grove on the upland, the lights and shadows on the projections and recesses of the wood, and the blaze of foxglove in its foreground. It is a place in which a poet might look for a glimpse of a Hamadryad.

Mr. Falconer. Very beautiful for the actual present — too beautiful for the probable future. Some day or other the forest will be disforested; the deer will be either banished or destroyed; the wood will be either shut up or cut down. Here is another basis for disappointment. The more we admire it now, the more we shall regret it then. The admiration of sylvan and pastoral scenery is at the mercy of an Enclosure Act, and, instead of the glimpse of a Hamadryad, you will some time see a large board warning you off the premises under penalty of rigour of law.

The Rev. Dr. Opimian. But, my dear young friend, you have yourself enclosed a favourite old resort of mine and of many others. I did not see such a board as you speak of; but there is an effective fence which answers the purpose.

Mr. Falconer. True; but when the lot of crown land was put up for sale, it was sure to be purchased and shut up by somebody. At any rate, I have not interfered with the external picturesque; and I have been much more influenced by an intense desire of shutting up myself than of shutting up the place, merely because it is my property.

About half-way from their respective homes the two new friends separated, the doctor having promised to walk over again soon to dine and pass the night.

The doctor soliloquised as he walked.

‘Strange metamorphosis of the old tower. A good dining-room. A good library. A bedroom between them: he did not show it me. Good wine: excellent. Pretty waiting-maids, exceedingly pretty. Two of seven Vestals, who maintain the domestic fire on the hearth of the young Numa. By the way, they had something of the Vestal costume: white dresses with purple borders. But they had nothing on their heads but their own hair, very gracefully arranged. The Vestals had head-dresses, which hid their hair, if they had any. They were shaved on admission. Perhaps the hair was allowed to grow again. Perhaps not. I must look into the point. If not, it was a wise precaution. “Hair, the only grace of form,”2 says the Arbiter elegantiarum, who compares a bald head to a fungus.3 A head without hair, says Ovid, is as a field without grass, and a shrub without leaves.4 Venus herself, if she had appeared with a bald head, would not have tempted Apuleius: 5 and I am of his mind. A husband, in Menander, in a fit of jealous madness, shaves his wife’s head; and when he sees what he has made of her, rolls at her feet in a paroxysm of remorse. He was at any rate safe from jealousy till it grew again. And here is a subtlety of Euripides, which none of his commentators have seen into. Ægisthus has married Electra to a young farmer, who cultivates his own land. He respects the Princess from magnanimity, and restores her a pure virgin to her brother Orestes. “Not probable,” say some critics. But I say highly probable: for she comes on with her head shaved. There is the talisman, and the consummate artifice of the great poet. It is ostensibly a symbol of grief; but not the less a most efficient ally of the aforesaid magnanimity. “In mourning,” says Aristotle, “sympathising with the dead, we deform ourselves by cutting off our hair.” And truly, it is.

But, indeed, what it is profanation to speak, nor let there be hereof any so dire example, if you despoil of its hair the head of any most transcendent and perfectly beautiful woman, and present her face thus denuded of its native loveliness, though it were even she, the descended from heaven, the born of the sea, the educated in the waves, though, I say, it were Venus herself, attended by the Graces, surrounded by the Loves, cinctured with her girdle, fragrant with spices, and dewy with balsams, yet, if she appeared with a bald head, she could not please even her own Vulcan. A woman’s head shaved is a step towards a death’s head. As a symbol of grief it was not necessary to the case of Electra; for in the sister tragedies of Æschylus and Sophocles her grief is equally great, and she appears with flowing hair; but in them she is an unmarried maid, and there is no dramatic necessity for so conspicuous an antidote to her other charms. Neither is it according to custom; for in recent grief the whole hair was sacrificed, but in the memory of an old sorrow only one or two curls were cut off.6 Therefore, it was the dramatic necessity of a counter-charm that influenced Euripides. Helen knew better than to shave her head in a case where custom required it. Euripides makes Electra reproach Helen for thus preserving her beauty;7 which further illustrates his purpose in shaving the head of Electra where custom did not require it. And Terence showed his taste in not shaving the head of his heroine in the Phormio, though the severity of Athenian custom would have required it. Her beauty shone through her dishevelled hair, but with no hair at all she would not have touched the heart of Antipho.

But wherefore does my mind discourse these things to me, suspending dismal images on lovely realities? for the luxuriant hair of these young girls is of no ordinary beauty. Their tresses have not been deposited under the shadow of the sacred lotus, as Pliny tells us those of the Vestals were. Well, this young gentleman’s establishment may be perfectly moral, strictly correct, but in one sense it is morality thrown away: the world will give him no credit for it. I am sure Mrs. Opimian will not. If he were married it would be different. But I think, if he were to marry now, there would be a fiercer fire than Vesta’s among his Lares. The temple would be too hot for the seven virgins. I suppose, as he is so resolute against change, he does not mean to marry. Then he talks about anticipated disappointment in some unrealisable ideality, leading him to live like Lord Noirmont, whom I never heard of before. He is far enough off from that while he lunches and walks as he does, and no doubt dines in accordance. He will not break his heart for any moon in the water, if his cooks are as good as his waiting-maids, and the wine which he gave me is a fair specimen of his cellar. He is learned too. Greek seems to be the strongest chord in his sympathies. If it had not been for the singular accident of his overhearing me repeat half a dozen lines of Homer, I should not have been asked to walk in. I might have leaned over the gate till sunset, and have had no more notice taken of me than if I had been a crow.’

At dinner the doctor narrated his morning adventure to Mrs. Opimian, and found her, as he had anticipated, most virtuously uncharitable with respect to the seven sisters. She did not depart from her usual serenity, but said, with equal calmness and decision, that she had no belief in the virtue of young men.

‘My dear,’ said the doctor, ‘it has been observed, though I forget by whom, that there is in every man’s life a page which is usually doubled down. Perhaps there is such a page in the life of our young friend; but if there be, the volume which contains it is not in the same house with the seven sisters.’

The doctor could not retire to rest without verifying his question touching the hair of the Vestals; and stepping into his study, was taking out an old folio, to consult Lipsius de Vestalibus, when a passage flashed across his memory which seemed decisive on the point. ‘How could I overlook it?’ he thought —

‘Ignibus Iliacis aderam: cum lapsa capillis

Decidit ante sacros lanea vitta focos:8

says Rhea Sylvia in the Fasti.

He took down the Fasti, and turning over the leaves, lighted on another line:—

Attonitæ flebant demisso crine ministræ.9

With the note of an old commentator: ‘This will enlighten those who doubt if the Vestals wore their hair.’ ‘I infer,’ said the doctor, ‘that I have doubted in good company; but it is clear that the Vestals did wear their hair of second growth.

But if it was wrapped up in wool, it might as well not have been there. The vitta was at once the symbol and the talisman of chastity. Shall I recommend my young friend to wrap up the heads of his Vestals in a vitta? It would be safer for all parties. But I cannot imagine a piece of advice for which the giver would receive less thanks. And I had rather see them as they are. So I shall let well alone.’

1 Congreve, le meilleur auteur comique d’Angleterre: ses pièces les plus estimées sont Le Fourbe, Le Vieux Garçon, Amour pour Amour, L Epouse du Matin, Le Chemin du Monde. — Manuel Bibliographique. Par G. Peignot. Paris, 1800.

2 Quod solum formse decus est, cecidere capilli. — Petronius, c. 109.

3 .. laevior . . . rotundo Horti tubere, quod creavit unda. Ibid. ‘A head, to speak in the gardener’s style, is a bulbous excrescence, growing up between the shoulders. ‘— G. A. Steevens: Lecture on Heads.

4 Turpe pecus mutilum; turpe est sine gramme campus; Et sine fronde frutex; et sine crine caput. Ovid: Arks Amatorio, iii. 249.

5 At vero, quod nefas dicere, neque sit ullum hujus rei tam dirum exemplum: si cujuslibet eximiae pulcherrimaeque fominae caput capillo exspoliaveris, et faciem nativa specie nudaveris, licet ilia coelo dejecta, mari édita, fluctibus educata, licet, inquam, Venus ipsa fuerit, licet omni Gratiarum choro stipata, et toto Cupidinum populo comitata, et balteo suo cincta, cinnama fragrans, et balsama rorans, calva processerit, placere non potent nee Vulcano suo. — Apuleius: Metamorph. ii. 25.

6 Sophocles: Electra, v. 449.

7 Euripides: Orestes, v. 128.

8 The woollen wreath, by Vesta’s inmost shrine, Fell from my hair before the fire divine.

9 With hair dishevelled wept the vestal train.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59