Beijing airport, 7 December 2012

Perhaps it is the tiredness that is seeping into my bones as I wait at the airport to take my third flight this week, or perhaps it is the piercing cold that has descended on the north of China these last few days, but I find myself in a melancholy mood. My last post on red hair is making my mind wander off to a sad tale of a young woman who lived and died long ago, decades before I was born.

My mother was the source of the tale, which she in turn had received from her mother. The events took place in the early 1900s, when my grandmother was in her early twenties. It was that moment in the lives of young women of a certain class – to which my grandmother firmly belonged – when their attention was increasingly taken up by their matrimonial prospects. If a woman was not married by her mid-twenties, she was considered an old maid and condemned to spinsterhood, which meant living with her parents for the rest of their lives and eking out a modest living thereafter off the kindness of her family; working was of course unthinkable. It was a fate to be avoided at all costs.

My grandmother was very friendly with the girl next door, who was close to her in age. This girl’s main claim to beauty was her wonderfully long, auburn, hair. The girl’s father was a wine merchant, as were many in that region. Perhaps too many, because he went out of business and was bankrupted. This was a catastrophe for the whole family, never more so than for the girl. For now there was no money for her dowry, and in those days a girl without a dowry simply could not marry (or could only marry beneath her station, which was unthinkable). The father compounded the calamity by committing suicide, to save his honour it was said.

A solution was found for the girl’s younger brother. He was placed with an uncle who was working in Romania, in the wine industry. But as I said, work was not a solution for the girl. She was faced with the prospect of passing the rest of her life with her mother, with no likelihood of ever marrying, living off some miserable amount of money.

But in this dark time, she met a man, who made promises. And she succumbed to his blandishments. He got what he wanted, but he reneged on his promises. She came to see my grandmother one evening to tell her all this. She stood in front of the mirror and looked at her hair, and said “No-one will ever be able to enjoy this hair after all.” My grandmother tried to comfort her, telling her that things would look better in the morning. The girl thanked her, hugged her and left. She was found a few days later floating in the river than ran through town.

I think of her every time I see the painting of Ophelia drowned, by the pre-Raphaelite Millais.


But I don’t suppose the girl looked nearly so nice when they hauled her out of the river.

Ah, they’re calling the flight. I might get to bed before midnight.


Ophelia drowned: