There are no prizes for guessing the identity of my favourite redhead, even though our Lizzie’s personality may not have been as dazzling as her locks. “In her mournful beauty, her natural silence, her frigid apathy, she was like a statue to be warmed into life…” (Jennifer J. Lee)
It’s not the fire, tempestuousness and temper that is expected of a redhead in these parts … a licence for volatility which Jackie Colliss Harvey made good use of, if her childhood stories are the measure. As she grew older, she discovered other expectations and as she travelled around the world, even more, though sometimes contradictory. And yet, the common demoninator always, redheads are different. It begged the question why …
… one she answers in this history of the natural redhead. Beginning with the Neanderthals, Harvey traces the voyage of the recessive gene through the human population, which has resulted in this intriguing distribution of red-headedness throughout Europe.
What accounts for the high concentration of redheads in Central Asia? The answer involves Thracian slaves and Alexander the Great and disproves that all redheads must have Irish or Scottish ancestry.
Historically the book is fascinating. I’d never thought of Elizabeth I’s red hair as incontrovertible proof of her royal descent. Never associated redheadedness with anti-semitism, due to the nefarious role of Judas, although many did (which accounts for why Shylock was played wearing a red wig until the C19th.) I particularly enjoyed the art history section in which Harvey points out the significance and associations of the red-haired subjects.
Scientifically too, there are many interesting facts. Redheads avoid the sun for good reason and this behaviour led to accusations of vampirism in the past. A variation in hormonal balance presents a different smell and this, combined with character of the infamous Mary Magdalene, results in a reputation of sexual sizzle.
All of this and more was new to me, a brunette, and I found this definition of “the otherness” of the redhead fascinating. Harvey has an engaging style, vivid and immersive powers of description. She lost me though when she turned her text into a political agenda, arguing that the ignorance and intolerance of the past still prevail, that we live in a world that can’t cope with something as small and insignificant as people whose hair is a different color. It sounds completely hyperbolic to me, but then I live in Scotland, amidst one of the highest concentrations of redheads in the world.