Pieter Geiregat’s literary career followed a trajectory similar to Frans Carrein’s. Born in Ghent in 1828, he started his working life as a candlemaker, but writing would lead him to become, in 1855, editor of the Gazette van Gent. He died in 1902. Like Carrein he mostly authored plays for local theatre troupes, but he became better known for his writing for children. He specialized in short ‘moral sketches’, such as his 1855 story ‘De Duivenmelkers’ (‘The Pigeon Fanciers’: in nineteenth-century Flanders the hobby of pigeon-fancying was widely portrayed as the very worst of depravities which sapped the health and rectitude of the whole Flemish people). Whereas his plays often had a historical setting, his stories mostly featured characters from the Flemish middle and working classes, who presumably were also his intended audience. These are simple, not to say simplistic, tales of vice punished and goodness rewarded. Geiregat was not aiming to be a Flemish Thackeray or Eliot, but rather to provide educational and uplifting works for a public which had very limited schooling. Nonetheless we are forced to concur with a recent Flemish critic — comparing Geiregat’s work with two better known Ghent writers of children’s fiction, the Loveling sisters Rosalie and Virginie — that for today’s readers these stories are ‘ongenietbaar’ (indigestible). Even in the 1850s and 60s, critics called his work ‘platte en triviale’ (flat and trivial).
This is not, then, an attempt to resurrect a lost literary masterpiece. But one of the virtues of mediocre works is that they spell out, unequivocably, attitudes and standpoints about which subtler writers are more equivocal. For instance, in Stad en dorp (City and Village) of 1853, the moral chasm between the simple virtues of the village-folk and the refined vices of the town could not be more clearly articulated. And this despite the fact that the action takes place in Ledeberg in the 1840s, a village so close to the gates of Ghent that even then it served as a suburb, and now is incorporated into the municipality, and despite the fact that Geiregat himself lived his entire life in that city.
The story concerns the Verloove family, Sies a peasant farmer, his wife Bello who sells milk on the streets of Ghent, and their two daughters Anna and Petronilla, the first of whom makes linen caps for villagers, while the second is a lacemaker. While Petronilla is content to work continously at the cottage window, eyes modestly down on her pillow, Anna yearns for excitement, fashion and luxury, all of which are available in the city next door. Anna persuades her parents, with considerable difficulty, to let her go and work as an assistant in a milliner’s shop. Soon she is wearing a hat with feathers, and then soft leather shoes, and then she is seen talking to a young man about town, and in general falling into the debauchery associated with a metropolitan lifestyle. Meanwhile her parents have arranged for Anna, much against her will, to be married to the wheelwright’s son Tone who lives opposite. When Tone comes to fetch his bride on the day of the wedding, Anna has disappeared, leaving a letter to explain that she prefers to be the mistress of a rich man. ‘Why should I bury the beauty that nature gave me under coarse peasants’ clothes?… if I became the wife of a craftsman I would be his maidservant, then the maidservant of my chldren, and the maidservant of myself’.
Tone, who is portrayed as utterly infatuated with Anna, nonetheless consoles himself a few months later by marrying her sister Nella. Anna turns up univited at the wedding speaking French — a sign of uttermost degeneracy in Flemish literature of the nineteenth century — and dispensing gold coins and jewellery. The congregation recoil in horror while her father curses her. Physically wrecked by the shame that Anna has brought on his family, Sies dies a year later. Anna’s beauty, meantimes, has been destroyed through her excesses, and the fashonable clothes and luxuries she could previously obtain by selling her favours, now she has to steal. She arrives at her father’s graveside swiftly followed by two policemen. She is sentenced to two years in prison.
Tone, however, has found married bliss with Petronilla: she keeps the house tidy, the floor well sanded, everything clean and neat. She wastes no money, so there is nothing costly, rich or superfluous in their house, everything is simple, as befits country folk. Tone feels no need to go to the inn any more, because he can sit and smoke a pipe in the corner of his own house by a warm fire with his wife beside him. And soon there is a son as well. The one cloud hanging over the house is that the couple are keeping Anna’s imprisonment a secret from her mother, for fear that the shame would kill her. Unfortunately a gossipy neighbour reveals all, and mother Bello literally falls down dead in shock.
Two years pass and the newly released Anna has determined to rob Tone and Petronilla. She creeps up to their shutters to be confronted with the sight of her sister and her nephew kneeling before a crucifix, praying ‘that unhappy aunt Anna might forsake her life of sin, reflect on her misdeeds, and that God may have mercy on her soul.’ She flees into the night, but a month later, now lying on her deathbed, she sends for the couple to beg for forgiveness, just as her soul departs her infected body. ‘Thus men see’, concludes Geiregat, ‘that already on earth, the good are rewarded for their goodness, while the bad are punished for their wickedness’.
Reading this work the other day, it seems more like an exemplary tale of the consequences of abusive parenting. Sies Verloove is a domineering and violent father, and it is this that drives his daughter from the house and, by a roundabout route, to her death. However, the reason we have included it in this survey of lacemakers in literature is that it repeats a pattern we have already observed in Caroline Barnard’s The Prize: millinery is the path to corruption, whilst lacemaking is a virtuous occupation. This despite the fact that lace formed part of the vanities that destroyed Anna, who ‘in the full flower of her beauty had been adorned with silk and lace, gold and jewels.’ There is a paradox here that we intend to explore further.
 Ludo Stynen, Rosalie en Virginie: Leven en werk van de gezusters Loveling (Tielt, 1997), p. 129.
 Review of Pieter Geiregat’s De lotelingen onder Napoleon in Leesmuseum, tydschrift voor letteren, wetenschappen en kunst 1 (1856), p. 281.