Jennifer Forest, Jane Austen’s sewing box
…and so the current Jane Austen juggernaut rolls on. The latest that has come to my attention is Canberra writer Jennifer Forest’s book Jane Austen’s sewing box. Must admit that I was a little sceptical when I first heard of it, but I saw it, bought it, and was pretty impressed. It’s a nicely produced book and represents a genuine attempt to look at the “crafts” of Jane Austen’s time – as well as being a “how to” book.
The first thing to note, said the author when she attended my Jane Austen group’s monthly meeting last weekend, is that these are not all simply “crafts”. Many are, in fact, women’s work. Women made clothes, including men’s shirts and cravats, bags and purses, bonnets and so on. There was, in fact, a clear divide between “decorative” work and “useful” work and most women, including Jane Austen herself, did both. In fact, Penny Gay, writing in Cambridge University Press’s Jane Austen in context wrote:
Most houses had several sitting-rooms, in one of which the ladies of the household would gather after breakfast to ‘work’. By this is meant needlework, an accomplishment which was both useful and artistic, and which was considered a necessity for women of all social classes. Jane Austen herself was a fine needlewoman… If visitors called, it was often considered more genteel to continue with one’s ‘fancywork’ rather than ‘plain’ shirt-making or mending.
Forest also talked a little about how Jane Austen uses knowledge and skill in this work as part of her characterisation. In Mansfield Park, for instance, the work of the Bertram sisters is deemed not good enough for display in the public rooms (“a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill-done for display in the drawing room”) of the house – a clear indication that these girls are not to be admired. On the contrary, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey shows himself to be a solid young man and a loving brother by his knowledge of muslin. He could even be seen, many of us think, as the fore-runner of the SNAG (aka Sensitive New Age Guy)!
Forest introduced her talk with the quote that set her thinking about crafts in Jane Austen. It comes from the famous Netherfield scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth Bennet, Mr Darcy, and Caroline and Charles Bingley discuss women’s accomplishments. The aways generous Charles Bingley believes all women are accomplished:
Yes, all of them I think. They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses.
Forest went on to describe these three “accomplishments” and more, such as crewel work, tambour work, and knotting. She also brought along a “show and tell” of the objects she had made in the course of writing the book. There is nothing like seeing and touching a hand-made bonnet or a netted purse to understand just how these women spent so much of their time. I am so glad I was born in the time of labour-saving devices!
This might not be a book for everyone. It is not academic but is nicely researched; and it is gorgeously produced with lovely period illustrations. I do have a quibble though – one that is, to me, quite serious – and that is its index. Why have a Table of Contents listing for “Muff and Tippett” and then have an Index listing for the same. If you want to find out what a Tippett is, you will not find it under T. Try M instead. How silly is that? Overall, the index is idiosyncratic and needs to at least double its existing size to be truly useful. That said, even if, like me, you are unlikely to make the 18 items described, take a look. Its readable discussion of “the accomplishments” of the period nicely illuminates the context of the novels – and this can only enhance our enjoyment of them.
Jane Austen’s sewing box: Craft projects and stories from Jane Austen’s novels
Miller’s Point: Murdoch Books, 2009