Red: A Natural History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey, book review

Red hair has been both celebrated and feared for centuries, a new study reveals

Allen and Unwin, £16.99. ». Order at the discounted price of £14.49 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

In 2011, the world's largest sperm bank, Cryos International, announced that it would no longer take "deposits" from redheaded donors; anaesthetists use approximately 20 per cent more anaesthesia to knock out redheads than they do other patients; Taylor Swift, trendy feminist and golden girl of the moment, stated: " I would do a ginger."

These are just a few of the extraordinary things I learned from reading Jacky Colliss Harvey's Red, a beautifully produced and soundly researched volume that traces conceptions of red hair from the first appearance of the red-headed gene 50,000 or so years ago to the present.

It is a considerable piece of scholarship, in which Colliss Harvey quotes everyone from the historian Livy to Baroness Orczy. It is also an absorbing read – no small achievement considering the sometimes offensive, sometimes harrowing, sometimes overwhelmingly scientific nature of the subject matter.

Colliss Harvey is an engaging narrator. She sets scenes and creates immediacy. She writes eloquently, sometimes humorously, often rousingly, her statements empowered by an authoritative command of her material. Her theories are ambitious yet compelling: "The redheaded [Mary] Magdalene, as Western art and literature has created her, [is]…the single most important reason why Western attitudes toward redheaded men and redheaded women diverge so thoroughly," she writes; elsewhere: "[if] you want to look for reasons for the continuing and increasing antipathy towards redheads in medieval Europe, in particular redheaded men, look no further than its anti-Semitism. And if you want to place the point at which attitudes toward red hair in men and women begin to radically diverge, likewise.

"Elizabeth I paraded her hair not only as a sign of the Tudor rose and St George, but of her royal paternity, presenting her head, in all its accouterments, as if on a platter, and so transforming a death-like punishment into an irrefutable riposte to her enemies should the thought arise regarding her right to rule."

She created a "royal branding, in red and white", Colliss Harvey contests, the sheer magnificence of which was an "aligning of sovereign, symbol, and state of a different order to anything that had gone before".

Colliss Harvey is equally at home expounding scientific research, making it digestible to the average reader.Apparently redheads not only produce more adrenaline than non-redheads but their bodies access it more speedily, making the transition to the fight-or-flight response more natural to them than for others. They are scientifically proven to feel more pain and to be more sensitive to extremes of temperature.

The reason for the mythical "hotness" of redheaded women is that they really do smell different, at a pheromone level, to their blonde or brunette peers. These are just some of the startling revelations of Red. The story it tells, though, is the story of all conflict throughout history – the story of difference.Embracing difference is the biggest challenge we face as a species if we are to survive, Colliss Harvey notes in conclusion. The fact that this book goes a substantial way towards doing just that is reason enough to give it our full attention.

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