Category: Lacemakers in Fiction (Page 1 of 2)

Legends of Lacemaking: Serena of Bruges and Caroline Popp

40 Zuidzandstraat in Bruges is now a perfume shop, but at the beginning of the twentieth century it was home to the lace firm Houpelyne-Mulier.  Above the shop windows four bas-reliefs depict the invention of lace, which legend ascribes to a local girl, Serena.  Of course, other lace centres dispute this claim.  Serena’s tale appears in several versions, what follows is a summary of what is probably the original version.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Serena’s story is set in the Middle Ages, the high point of the the city’s fortunes.  But twenty-year-old Serena did not partake in that wealth.  Her father, a sailor (and Bruges was then a port) had died at sea; her mother had charge of four other young children, and so it fell to Serena to support the entire family from her spinning.  She loved, and was loved in turn, by her neighbour, Arnold Van Oost, son of a rich merchant and an apprentice sculptor.  But, as poverty threatened her family, Serena made a vow before an image of Our Lady of Sorrows: ‘Holy Virgin, give me the means to aid my family and I will renounce all the joys and hopes of my heart’.

That same day, Serena’s family, accompanied by Arnold, went for a walk in the countryside.  It was a beautiful spring morning, and the fields were covered with the gossamer threads that in French are called ‘les fils de la Vierge’ [threads of the Virgin].  As she sat pondering her vow some strands floated down onto her black apron, making a beautiful pattern.  For Serena, this was a lesson from the Mother of God; if spiders could create wonderful shapes with their threads, why might not she?  Arnold knocked together a makeshift frame to carry the apron home and Serena set about trying to recreate the pattern with her own thread.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Her first attempts were hopelessly muddled but the use of a pin-cushion and Arnold’s rapid invention of bobbins to weight the threads enabled her to find her way, and soon all the great ladies of Bruges were demanding this new textile to adorn their heads.  Serena taught her younger sisters the secret and so the family’s financial problems were solved.  Arnold, in what would be an enduring division of labour within the lace industry, supplied the drawings on which they worked.  In the meantime, he had submitted his masterpiece and become a full member of the guild of sculptors.  Now in a position to marry he rushed to Serena’s house to ask for her hand.  But she, of course, was bound by her vow to refuse.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

A year passed in mutual pain as Arnold nursed his anger and confusion and Serena became listless and pale.  On the anniversary of the miracle Serena took herself once again into the fields and prayed that Arnold would recover from the hurt.  In answer the gossamer strands arranged themselves again into a pattern, a crown of orange blossom.  Serena exclaimed, ‘If this is a martyr’s crown I accept, but all others are forbidden to me’.  And in response words appeared within the crown: ‘I relieve you of your vow’.  Soon after the couple were married.

Serena and Arnold had many children, all girls, who learnt the art of lacemaking from their mother, and thus was established the industry that spread the name of Flanders far and wide.

Bas-relief of the legend of lace above Zuidzandstraat 40, Bruges, from Marc Willems’ website ‘Brugse legenden en verhalen’.

Because lace is a relatively modern invention it is feasible to imagine that it originated with a historical personage at a particular moment.  And as it was associated with the Church – because religious institutions were responsible for teaching and spreading lace skills – it was equally feasible to imagine a miraculous origin. The legend of Serena is only one of several that ascribe a role to the Virgin Mary in the inception of lace.  However, while such stories encapsulate the notion that lacemakers were engaged in a blessed occupation (a view we have seen expressed by, for example, Guido Gezelle), they are not necessarily as old as the craft itself.  They do not appear to have their origin in narratives that lacemakers told among themselves, but in the efforts to defend or invigorate the handmade lace industry in the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.  Although Serena has passed into folklore, and her story told and retold by Bruges city guides and lace aficionados, her origins are literary.[1]  We can be fairly certain she was the invention of Caroline Popp, who dated her text 12 May 1867.

Bas-relief of Caroline Popp, by her grandson-in-law Julien van den Broeck de la Palud.  Popp edited the ‘Journal de Bruges’ from her home in place Hans Memling (now Woensdagmarkt). Memling’s statue appears here in the background. Note Popp’s lace collar!

Caroline Popp (1808-1891) was a figure of some importance in nineteenth-century Bruges.[2]  Her father, Félix Nicolas Joseph Boussart, came from a military family from Binche who, having served the Austrians then fought against them, first in the Brabant Revolution of 1789 and, when that revolt was crushed, as a volunteer in the armies of the French Revolution (he would rise to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel under Napoleon; his brother, André-Joseph Boussart, became a general[3]).  It was her marriage to Philippe Christian Popp (1805-1879) which brought her to Bruges, when he was appointed the surveyor of the region.  She was co-owner of the newspaper Le journal de Bruges which she founded in 1837 alongside her husband and then edited for fifty-three years.  She was succeeded by her daughters.  Le journal de Bruges was a bastion of francophone liberalism in clerical West Flanders, having been set up in opposition to the Catholic newspaper Le Nouvelliste de Bruges.  It was a campaigning newspaper on both local and national issues, such as the establishment of a museum in Bruges, the re-establishment of the city’s port, the abolition of the death penalty, and women’s education.

The story of Serena and ‘The Legend of Lace’ was published in her 1867 collection Récits et légendes des Flandres, a book which was admired by Victor Hugo, among others.[4]  Later he would make the acquaintance of the Popps, who were hospitable to visiting writers and encouraging of local ones (including Frans Carrein).  These legends have sometimes been cited as examples of local folklore, but in fact most were fictions inspired by the topography of Bruges.[5]

Popp was under no illusions about the reality of the lace trade, nor the lives lived by lacemakers.  The Journal de Bruges had warned about the spread of lace-schools as the only solution to the linen crisis in the 1840s; was not a new crisis of overproduction being hatched?  The paper also campaigned against the abusive use of advances (the theme of Carrein’s Eliza de kantwerkster) and the exploitation of apprentice lacemakers by religious orders.  Like Joanna Courtmans-Berchmans, Popp complained of the conditions and hours of work in the lace-schools.  So it is perhaps surprising that she created such a romantic origin legend for this industry that was, in her own time, a breeding ground of poverty and ill health.  Given her liberal credentials it is even more surprising that she ascribed the invention to a religious miracle.  But we can perhaps unravel her motivations.  In the histories of lace written in the nineteenth century, Flanders vied with Italy, and Venice in particular, for the honour of inventing lace.  The weight of opinion favoured the latter, and history was supported by a legend which ascribed the inspiration to a woman from the Venetian lagoon who attempted to recreate an algae gifted by her sailor fiancé.  Popp mentions this story in the introduction to her own which is clearly a retort on behalf of the north.  And while Popp was critical of the way in which the lace industry was presently organized, she was indefatigable in her attempts to revive her adopted city including its native industries.  Her watchword was ‘en avant’; she looked back only to find the direction to go forwards.  Bruges had been an economic and cultural powerhouse in the Middle Ages; she might be again.  It is no surprise then that Popp located the invention of lace in this period (a century earlier than any historical evidence might allow).  And just like Courtmans-Berchmans, Popp saw no incompatibility between her liberalism and her Catholic faith.

There are still a few signs of her liberal politics in ‘The Legend of Lace’.  Serena’s mother, like Popp, believed in the importance of fresh air and exercise for young bodies, hence the walk in the fields that led to the miracle.  When Arnold joined the guild of sculptors, Popp cannot resist the opportunity to condemn these medieval monopolies.  And finally, she releases Serena from her vow of chastity to embrace another destiny as wife, mother and creative worker.  It is unlikely that Popp’s contemporary and fellow Bruggeling, the priest-poet Guido Gezelle, would consider that an appropriate ending.

‘Serena, de legende van de kant’, a Dutch retelling by Jean Vercammen, illustrated by Dora Rommelaere, published in 1945.

 

[1] See, for example, the websites of Bruges storyteller Marc Willems: http://brugselegenden.blogspot.com/2014/10/de-legende-van-serena-en-de-brugse-kant.html

[2] On Caroline Boussart-Popp see Éliane Gubin et al, Dictionnaire des femmes belges : XIXe et XXe siècles (Brussels, 2006), pp. 73-4.

[3] See the pages dedicated to the Boussart brothers on http://napoleon-monuments.eu/

[4] Caroline Popp, Récits et légendes des Flandres (Brussels, 1867), pp. 163-205.  An English translation of this tale was published in 1937 by Mrs L. Paulis.

[5] So says the Flemish folklore expert Hervé Stalpaert in Westvlaamse kantwerkstersfolklore (Courtrai, 1956).

Lacemaking as slavery in ‘Aunt Klara’s Cabin’ (1864)

Joanna Desideria Courtmans-Berchmans, by Jules van Biesbroeck, Letterenhuis Antwerp

For Johanna-Desideria (Désirée) Berchmans (1811-1890), often known by her married name Courtmans, the purpose of literature was to make a difference to society.  The novel was moralisation and enlightenment by other means.  (Louise Otto-Peters, whom we looked at in a previous post, took a similar approach but it was even more prevalent in Belgium due to the absence of a substantial educated public for literature in Flemish.)  There were other women writers connected to the Flemish Movement, such as Marie Doolaeghe,[1] but Courtmans-Berchmans was probably the most important female author active in the Flemish literary revival of the mid-nineteenth century.  Although she only turned to prose in her 40s, she became a prolific novelist, producing a book every year and sometimes more.  As her father was a teacher, her husband was a teacher, her daughters were teachers, and she herself attempted to run a boarding school in Maldegem, it is perhaps not surprising that schools feature regularly in her novels.  But education was not just her theme, it was her mission.  Schooling, and particularly girls’ schooling, was a political battleground in nineteenth-century Belgium, and both in her life and her fiction Courtmans-Berchmans was a combatant.  Her novel De hut van tante Klara (1864) was an indictment of the lace schools: her title – with its deliberate echo of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) – implied that children’s lacemaking was a form of slavery.[2]

As discussed in our previous blog about Father Constant Duvillers and the lace-school in Middelburg, the 1840s were the ‘Hunger Years’ in Flanders, a situation brought on by overlapping crises in the linen industry and in agriculture.  Famine was only averted by the coordinated action of local elites, particularly the Catholic Church and landowners, with the aid of the Belgian state.  They sponsored lace-schools, which provided an alternative source of income to a population which had previously been dependent on flax-spinning.  However, this was not a purely charitable endeavour; lace-schools, even those that received philanthropic support or subventions from the local authorities, needed to make money to remain open.  A few provided some hours of basic teaching in the three Rs, but most were more workshops than schools, and the persons in charge – usually members of religious orders but sometimes private individuals – were also intermediaries in the lace trade, bound up in a network of commercial relationships.  In consequence, the schools were regularly denounced for economically exploiting their young charges, while damaging their bodies and minds in the process.  The Roeselare Chamber of Commerce, for example, used its annual report for the year 1864 to the Belgian Government to condemn the lace-schools: ‘The false mask of devotion to the working class fails to hide what is in most cases the spirit of avarice, pushed to its most extreme limits and which sacrifices the health, the education and the future of these poor slaves, wretchedly deceived and abused, to this greed.’  The American Civil War was still being fought in 1864 so the use of the term ‘slaves’ was deliberate.  1864 was also the year that Berchmans-Courtmans published her novel De hut van tante Klara.

How did she become involved with lace?  To answer this we need to go back a little in her biography.  Her father had been mayor of the village of Mespelare near Dendermonde in East Flanders (he was the model for the hero of her eponymous novel De burgemeester van 1819 [1861]).  At the age of nine she was sent to a boarding-school in the French speaking part of Belgium; at the time a good education for a woman meant first and foremost learning French.  In 1835 we find her lodging in Ghent with Coleta Tanghe, a lacemaker and dealer.  (In her letters Berchmans referred to her as ‘Aunt Colette’, but the precise family relationship is unclear.)  Also lodging in the same house was the young teacher Jan-Baptist Courtmans (1811-1856), and in very short order the pair fell in love, married and started a family, all while living with ‘Aunt Colette’, as they would for most of the next decade.  Courtmans was secretary of the Maetschappij van Vlaemsche Letteroefening [The Society for Flemish Literature], which united many of the leading writers in the nascent Flemish movement such as Jan Frans Willems, Prudens Van Duyse and Ferdinand Augustijn Snellaert.  The Courtmans family played host to visiting German writers such as the folklorist Johann Wilhelm Wolf, and Désirée narrated some of the folktales that made up his Niederländische Sagen (1843).[3]  She was also launching her own writing career.  As with almost all Flemish authors in the wake of Henrik Conscience’s De Leeuw van Vlaenderen (1838), her first poems drew on Flanders’ romantic, medieval past, although she particularly highlighted the contribution of women, especially queens, to the cause of national independence.

In 1843 the Courtmans moved to Lier when her husband took a position as professor of Flemish at the Teacher Training College.  For the next decade, as the family continued to grow, her literary output shrank, but when Jan-Baptist became too ill to work (he would die in 1856), she took up her pen again, in part to earn money.  After her husband’s death, and with eight children in tow ranging in age from three to nineteen, she moved to the small town of Maldegem.  Why she chose this location is a bit obscure, but she had a definite plan: she would open a girls’ boarding-school with herself and her elder daughter as teachers.  She placed adverts in the local newspapers.  The house she chose was on Noordstraat, directly opposite the lace-school run by Father Vinckier, Maldegem’s priest from 1832 to 1872.  The two quickly, indeed almost immediately, became bitter opponents.  Noordstraat Maldegem was one of many small-town front lines in the culture wars between clericals and liberals that divided Belgium politically.[4]  Courtmans-Berchmans considered herself a good Catholic, but she was a liberal in political matters.

Noordstraat Maldegem, c. 1909. Fifty years earlier this was a frontline in the Belgian ‘culture wars’

Like Duvillers in Middelburg, which was only a walk away, Vinckier intended to dominate his parish, and the lace-school was one of the means to achieve this end.  It had been founded as a private initiative in 1842 but was taken over by Vinckier in 1845 or 1846.  (Perhaps he had been inspired to do so after paying a call on Duvillers’ school: visiting priests were common characters in the latter’s songs.)  In the mid 1850s more than 300 girls, the bulk of the available juvenile, female population, attended.

More than one story is told about Vinckier’s first encounter with Courtmans-Berchmans, but the gist of them all is he told her that Maldegem had no need of educated women and so she had better set up shop elsewhere.  Her reply was ‘ik blijf’ [I’m staying].  However, she lost the first battle in her personal ‘culture war’ when her boarding-school was wound up in 1858 due to, as she explained to the local council, ‘malicious obstruction’.  As it was around this time that she started seriously writing again, the cause of literature gained by the failure of her boarding-school ambitions.  But in 1857 a new front opened up.  Municipal provision of some sort of primary schooling had become law in 1842, but in the 1850s the Liberal government began to put pressure on councils to build separate schools for girls.  Unlike the lace-schools these would not be places of work but would teach reading, writing and other skills.  They would be free to those unable to pay, which was the majority of the population in Maldegem.  The ecclesiastical authorities were worried that these public schools would compete with the lace-schools, and thus draw the female population away from their control.  One solution was, therefore, to convert the lace-schools into public schools by introducing a few extra lessons in reading and writing.  This was the strategy suggested by the Archbishop of Bruges and initially followed by Vinckier.  He proposed that Sophie Westerlinck, the mistress of his lace-school, should be appointed Maldegem’s first teacher of the girls’ public school, which would succeed the lace-school.  However, Courtmans-Berchmans was simultaneously lobbying hard to ensure that her daughter Mathilde got the post.  After much dithering by the council, she gained the cause, and Mathilde Courtmans was appointed on 3 February 1858.  Several of her sisters would join her as teachers in due course.

Yet this was not the end of the struggle.  Education was provided, but parents were not obliged to take it up.  Through the 1860s and 70s the lace-schools, both Vinckier’s and other establishments in Maldegem, continued to attract more pupils than the public school.  Girls in the lace schools earned money which helped support their families, and in ‘Poor Flanders’ this support could be vital to a family’s survival.  But the Church had other ways of exerting control.  In 1879 a new Liberal government attempted to laicise primary education in Belgium but the Church hierarchy fought back, threatening to excommunicate all teachers and all parents of pupils attending state primary schools.  In rural Catholic Flanders the effect of the first ‘School War’ (Schoolstrijd) from 1879 to 1884 was to empty the state primary schools and thus put the Courtmans sisters out of work.

However, this defeat lay some years off.  During the 1860s Courtmans-Berchmans was battling for decent schooling for Flemish girls on several fronts: with the local council (to whom she complained about the condition of the school buildings, and especially the playground, as she was convinced of the need for physical activity and fun as part of a rounded education), in the local papers such as De Eecloonaer where she berated her fellow citizens for their parish pump politicking, and in her novels, such as De hut van tante Klara.  No works by Courtmans-Berchmans are available in English (to our knowledge) but sections of this novel were translated by Brenda Mudde, and commentated on by Lia Van Gemert, in the latter’s collection Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam University Press, 2010).

The eponymous heroine, Klara Roman, is a herb-gatherer and the widow of a supposed ‘jacobijn’ barber-surgeon (Jacobin was a term of abuse aimed at anyone with liberal or anticlerical ideas).  Living with her are two orphaned granddaughters, Mieke and Roza, or Mieken and Rozeken as they usually appear in the text (along with their father, an unimportant character).  An industrial accident will soon rob her of her other son-in-law, and her other daughter with her tiny children will also take up residence in her crowded cottage.  At first, though, all seems idyllic, the six-year-old Mieken and Rozeken playing in the healthy outdoors while Klara picks her herbs for the apothecary.  Yet there is a presentiment of tragedy: the girls weave crowns of flowers that make them resemble two virgin martyrs.  Into the scene walk the agents of misfortune, the sisters Ludgarda and Rosanna Devroede, offspring of a disgraced notary.  They have come to persuade the local landowner, Mevrouw Van Dooren, to set up a lace-school which they will run.  Van Dooren wants to help a population suffering through the linen crisis.  But she is also an enlightened philanthropist, so the rules she lays out for her lace-school specify that children under nine should only work for three hours a day on lace, that there should be lessons in other subjects, plenty of play-time, and that the children themselves should receive the profit from their work.  This is not at all to the Devroede sisters’ liking, but they accept the position, and soon the old village spinning house is converted into a lace-school.

The school is not an immediate hit.  The poorer inhabitants want their daughters to start earning, three hours work is not enough.  The village notables object to the common people learning to read.  The most influential man in the village, Mr Hardies visits Mrs Van Dooren to warn her:

You are undermining the pillars of society.  You drive the insignificant upwards in order to bring down the great.  You wish to give the vermin wings so that they may rise up with the eagle, and you don’t even seem to understand that one swipe of its claws can crush thousands of these insects…  Artificial reading will grow into exercises to develop the mind, and then what – what will become of society once we get that far?  Oh, Madam, I am saddened, saddened to the soul when I think of it.[5]

Although not a priest, fat Mr Hardies with his sanctimonious shows of piety, is a thinly disguised portrayal of father Vinckier.  Mrs Van Dooren, fortunately, is equal to this pressure.  For three further years (we are now in the late 1840s), until they are nine, Mieken and Rozeken continue at the school with Klara’s blessing.  They learn, they earn and they remain healthy.  But then their benefactor dies, and a new regime is established in the lace school.  All the poor girls in the parish are obliged to go, or their families will cease to receive charity: within a month there are 400 girls in the school.  All other classes are stopped, as is playtime.  The children are charged for the thread and other equipment, which had previously been a cost of the establishment.  According to Aunt Klara the luckiest are those who die young, but those that survive this ‘kinderslavernij’ [child slavery] will become feeble housewives, with their twisted hands.

The fate of her two grandchildren under this new order is very different.  Mieken is constantly punished with the ‘zottekap’ [dunce’s cap] and the ‘lange tong’ [a wooden board hung on a pupil’s back as a mark of shame] for not fulfilling her lace quota, she is beaten with rods and made to sit near the door, far from the warming fire; soon she is coughing and fading.  Rozeken, however, with her ‘downcast eye’ [a regular sign of hypocritical submission and devotion in the literature of lacemaking] adapts to the Devroedes’ bigotry and greed, and so is rapidly promoted.  She transfers designs onto the parchments used by the pupils, particularly the ‘Brusselsche bloemen’ [Brussels flowers, or Duchesse lace], a specialist job.

Meanwhile Hardies has forced the Devroedes to accept his ‘protection’ and has become a silent partner in the school.  The miser estimates that each girl earns at least fifteen centimes profit a day: 600 or more girls equals 100 francs a day, divided equally between Hardies and the Devroedes.  The three plot to dispatch Rozeken to the convent at Zwijbeke, in order to improve their relationship with this important intermediary in the lace trade.

The other girls are becoming pale, thin, pinched and ill.  In fact they are dying of consumption (and this mirrors the reality: between 1852 and 1856 twelve pupils in the Vinckier lace-school died of consumption, and two others of typhus: the mayor of Maldegem wrote in 1857 that ‘the cause of death of the lace apprentices is a wasting disease to which the parents have given the vigorous name “schoolsickness”’).  Their ill-health becomes very obvious on the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, 15 August, when the school parades through the town.

They were headed by the two school mistresses in their black silk dresses, lace-edged coats, and pretty, white silk hats decorated with purple violets.  Each had a fat gold chain with a precious watch around her neck, and there was nothing to find fault with in their beautiful attire. Then came the pupils.

A sigh of pity escaped each breast on seeing these pale creatures, these stunted limbs, these thin bodies, which seemed to be fighting a stubborn battle of life and death.

Never had poverty made a more painful impression than it did now that so much trouble had been taken to adorn it.

The school’s older pupils looked very neat in cotton dresses, and it was evident that their parents had done the impossible to fulfil the needs of their money-earning daughters.  Among these children, the granddaughters of Aunt Clara were to be found.

They were followed by the smaller children…. Hundreds of clogged little feet came clattering by.  Some few were in new clogs, but many wore old ones, dripping with water and sand, and the clunking, rattling and clattering of the clogs mingled with the monotonous church hymns in such an unpleasant way that it saddened all attentive viewers.

[…]

Shamelessness had never shown itself more plainly than on that procession day.  Those who, by forcing them to labour well beyond their years and strength, had transformed blooming children into creatures whose weakness would be passed on to the next generation, and had turned golden youths into pale flowers bending towards the grave even in the morning of life, they were not shamed to put the misery of these child-slaves on show as a foil to their own wealth.  They braved the looks of the crowd, which seemed to call out to them:

‘Your pomp, your wealth, is the fruit of your slaves’ labour.  It is the purchase price of the victims you drag to an early grave.’

‘Lost souls! Are you not afraid that He, who is the strength of the weak and the ealth of the poor, will one day call you to account for the fate of those unhappy creatures whose bodies and souls were entrusted to you?  You have prematurely killed their spirits, and their bodies you have tortured, so that they will never regain the strength to rekindle their extinguished spirits.  No, you are not afraid, for you recognise no other virtue for the people than ignorance, as it is ignorance on which you have built the throne of your rule.’[6]

Mieken is one of the fatalities.  Although she rallies for a while, long enough to start a romance with her neighbour Paulus, her funeral will also be her wedding.  Her father, long since too ill to work, soon follows her to the grave.  Although Rozeken’s wages would now really help Aunt Klara’s household, she follows the plan laid out by her employers and joins the convent as a novice.  Aunt Klara’s other two grandchildren are now also in the lace school and one is already showing signs of the wasting sickness.  At last Aunt Klara, who perhaps understandably is given to weeping, now turns defiant: she removes her grandchildren, even though this means the family cannot receive poor relief from the council, which is under the thumb of Hardies.

Georges Laugée (1853-1937), Enterrement d’une jeune fille à Étricourt. Musée de l’Échevinage, Saintes. This is an example of ‘the wedding of the dead’.

But times have changed.  The Crimean War knocks the bottom out of the handmade lace market; the wages of the lace mistress employed by the Devroedes is halved, and even the sisters themselves cut back on their consumption of eau-de-cologne.  Punishments increase in an attempt to squeeze more work out of the children, but still wages decline.  For the men a new opportunity has opened up as migrant harvesters in France, so the poorer villagers are not so dependent on the lace-school.  Other women start to follow Aunt Klara’s example and remove their daughters.  The partners in the venture have started to bicker when Hardies drops down dead of a heart attack; he returns like Jacob Marley as a ghost, weighed down with account books and banknotes.  The sisters’ father is released from prison and with him they slip away into the night.  The lace-school building is put up for sale.  Aunt Klara has one last task to fulfil: she goes to the convent to persuade Roza to renounce her noviciate and come back home.

In her introduction Berchmans-Courtmans made explicit that this novel had a social purpose, to expose the exploitation of young girls in the lace-schools, because such institutions ‘disgraced a civilized country’.  She was not against the idea that girls engaged in some work that could contribute to the household income, but that they should also receive an education that expanded their mental horizons, that they be taught useful lessons in tasks that would help them later as housewives (sewing, knitting), and that their bodies be allowed to bloom in exercise and fresh air.  The campaign against the lace-schools would grow, picking up themes rehearsed by Berchmans-Courtmans, such as the impact on the reproductive potential of the Flemish population.  In 1876 the sociologist Guillaume de Greef launched a newspaper diatribe against the lace-schools run by religious orders and not just because they exploited their charges and condemned to poverty, ill-health and early death, but also because they sapped the intellectual and moral strength of the female population: ‘they are not even slaves, because slaves can rise up, but not they’.[7]  However, during the ‘School War’ clerical Flanders rallied to the defence of the lace-schools, which survived well into the twentieth century.  Thus they remained a theme for later Flemish writers such as Virginie Loveling (in Sophie 1885, where the Darwinian implications of a stunted female population are brought to the fore) and Reimond Stijns (in Hard Labeur 1904).  Of course the fate of the ‘hard worked, half-stifled little girls’ in the lace schools was not just a campaigning matter for Flemish writers, as we have already seen in the case of Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family, published the year after De Hut van Tante Klara.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Funeral of a Young Woman at Damvillers, c. 1880.

 

[1] Doolaeghe (1803-1884), to whom we may return, wrote an encomium for ‘my noble friend’ Courtmans-Berchmans in 1883, in which she praised her efforts to ‘enlighten the people through her writing’ [Het volk verlichtend door zijn woord]: ‘Hulde aan mijne hooggeachte vriendin Mevr. Courtmans, geboren Berchmans’, De Vlaamsche Kunstbode 13 (1883): 261-2.

[2] There are several biographies and other studies of Courtmans-Berchmans: I have drawn mostly on Hugo Notteboom, Rik Van de Rosteyne and Michiel de Bruyne (eds) Over Mevrouw Courtmans Leven en Werk (Maldegem: Mevrouw Courtmanscomité, 1990); and Jules Pée, Mevrouw Courtmans, een letterkundige studie, (Antwerp: Ruquoy, Delagarde, Van Uffelen, 1933).

[3] Johann Wilhelm Wolf, Niederländische Sagen (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1843), p. xxi.  German philologists such as Wolf played an important part in the Flemish revival.

[4] For the ‘culture wars’ in Belgium, see Els Witte, ‘The Battle for Monasteries, Cemeteries and Schools: Belgium’, in Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser (eds), Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5] Lia Van Gemert (ed.), Brenda Mudde (trans.) Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology (Amsterdam, 2010), pp. 523-4.

[6] Van Gemert (ed.), Mudde (trans.) Women’s Writing from the Low Countries, pp. 525-6

[7] Guillaume Degreef, L’ouvrière dentellière en Belgique (Brussels, 1886), p. 8.  The 1886 volume is a new edition of his newspaper articles.

Lacemakers in Fiction: ‘Wit Leven’ (‘White Life’, 1897) by Stijn Streuvels

We continue our posts on lacemakers in Flemish fiction with a look at Stijn Streuvels.  Unlike almost all the other Flemish authors considered in this series, you can read some of the novels and stories by the prolific Streuvels in English.  We don’t know why, but British publishers from the nineteenth century onwards took little interest in the cultural production of the Flemish Movement, and not much more of Belgian literature in French.  Even in the case of Streuvels, who twice came close to winning the Nobel Prize for literature, translations are rare.  His Langs de Wegen (1902) was translated in 1936 by Edward Crankshaw as Old Jan; while De Vlasschard (1907) was translated as The Flaxfield by Peter Glassgold and André Lefevere in 1988.  Both are quite hard to come by, and neither are primarily concerned with lacemakers.  Streuvels’ 1909 novella ‘De Blijde Dag’ is set among lacemaking girls in an orphanage, but this is not available in English.  (The title translates as ‘The Happy Day’; we should add that happiness is at best a relative concept for Streuvels, whose work might be characterised as pastoral fatalism.)  That leaves the stories translated byAlexander Teixeira de Mattos and gathered together in a volume entitled The Path of Life (London: Unwins, 1915).  This collection is available online for free, and it includes ‘Wit Leven’ which first appeared in Flemish in the literary modernist magazine Van Nu en Straks in 1897, and in English as ‘White Life’ in The English Review in 1912.

Stijn Streuvels, 1917. From the ‘digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren’

Streuvels, whose real name was Franciscus (Frank) Lateur (Courtrai 1871 – Ingooigem 1969) started his working life not as a pastry chef, like Frans Carrein, but as a village baker in Avelgem in West Flanders.  He read voraciously in between his bread-making tasks, and taught himself numerous languages.  (In later life he would translate the work of another baker-writer who had been raised among lacemakers, Maxim Gorky.)  He only gave up the bakery in 1905 to dedicate himself to literature when his reputation as an anticlerical and a freethinker began to damage the family business.  West Flanders was then a bastion of clerical authority.  Streuvels maternal uncle was the priest-poet Guido Gezelle, almost unknown in Britain but in Belgium probably rated as the most important writer in Flemish.  Gezelle, too, ran foul of the ecclesiastical authorities for his writings, but he chose obedience rather than resistance.

‘White Life’ we think rather a good title for a story about a lacemaker.  Its heroine, Sofie, does indeed live her life in white – ‘Her life flowed on as a little brook flows under grass on a Sunday noon in summer, flowed on in calm seclusion, far from the bustle of the crowd, secretly, steadily, uninterrupted save by ever-recurring little incidents, peacefully approaching old age.’  She works in a whitewashed room with white curtains under a cap of white, and at night sleeps between white sheets under a canopy of white.  A statue of the Virgin, clad in white watches from the wall, while a canary in a white cage is her only company.  The canary and the geraniums at her window are almost the only splashes of colour in her existence (one day we might write a blog about lacemakers, canaries and geraniums).  Her ‘white and peaceful little soul’ is innocent of anything but her daily tasks and piety.  She lives almost like a nun, or a beguine, dividing her time between lacemaking and readings from Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and saying her rosary.

Erzgebirge lacemakers by Gustav Zindel. Note the canary and the geraniums. Zindel (1883-1959) was a Czech-German painter and illustrator of folk life.

Lacemaking is part of her separation from the ‘bustle of the crowd’, for it draws her into a world in itself.  Her pillow

‘was her only amusement, her treasure: this half-rounded arch of smooth, blue paper on the wooden pillow-stool, occupied by a swarm of copper pins, with coloured-glass heads, and of finely-turned wooden bobbins, with slender necks and notched bodies, hanging side by side from fine white threads or heaped up behind a steel bodkin. All this array of pins, holes, drawers and trays had for her its own form and meaning, a small world in which she knew her way so well. Her deft white fingers knew how to throw, change, catch and pick up those bobbins so nimbly, so swiftly; she stuck her pins, which were to give the thread its lie and form, so accurately and surely; and, under her hand, the lace grew slowly and imperceptibly into a light thread network, grew with the leaves and flowers of her geraniums and phlox and the silent course of time.’

This peaceful if monotonous existence is interrupted when the grate on her stove needs mending and she takes it to the smith, Sander, next door.  He has already made his presence known, hammering away in the background.  But now he takes to calling in the evening, sharing a cup of coffee and a bit of a gossip about village affairs.  His eyes are kindly and impish, the smell of his pipe makes such a change in her routine.  And she begins to think ‘that calm rest, in which she had once found such a pure delight, was now a heavy weariness’, that an alteration that brought together two lonely people of mature years might do them both good.  She could teach him the rosary.  Sander too has ambitions towards matrimony.  This envisioned idyll comes to a shocking end when the smith gets drunk celebrating the feast of Saint Eligius (Eloi, the patron of metalworkers).  He breaks into Sofie’s house and assaults her.  Neighbours hearing her screams haul him off.  But now not only her new dreams of companionship but also her old ‘white life’ have been ‘stamped to pieces’, and she has been left like a naked child freezing in the snow.

We did warn you that happiness was in short supply in Streuvels’ Flanders.

Dickens’ lacemaker heroine: Phoebe of ‘Mugby Junction’

 

Lordship Lane Railway Station, by Camille Pissarro, 1871. From Wikipedia Commons. “And those threads of railway, with their puffs of smoke and steam changing places so fast, make it so lively for me”.

 

In a 1994 article on the literary image of the lacemaker, Nichola Anne Haxell complained that she had found only four relevant works: “These four texts have to bear the full weight of my analysis: considerable investigation has failed to bring forth any other texts which situate a lacemaker in or near the centre of the narrative.”  Her four were Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor (1846, though published in 1857), Gérard de Nerval’s “Sylvie” (1853), Pascal Lainé’s La dentellière (1974, and, despite the title, not actually about a lacemaker), and Chantal Chawaf’s Retable: La Rêverie (1974).[1]

If we say that we know of about forty it will sound like boasting, but really it’s a testament to the wonder of search engines.  And it has to be said that many of our authors are not particularly well known.  But Charles Dickens certainly is a canonical writer, how could his contribution be overlooked in a “considerable investigation”?  The answer to that depends on whether you have heard of “Mugby Junction”, a set of stories written by Dickens and collaborators for the Christmas 1866 edition of the magazine All The Year Round.  We hadn’t until a search engine led us to it.  It may be familiar to Victorian steam enthusiasts as most of the stories are in the voices of railway employees: the engine-driver, the signalman, the engineer, the boy who serves in the refreshment room…  But there is also a frame story about a character known as “Barbox Brothers” on the basis of the label on his luggage, or the “Gentleman for Nowhere”, as he hangs around Mugby Junction station without taking a train.  His name, however, is Jackson; he got off a train from London at Mugby in the middle of the night with no particular object.  He develops the plan of travelling all the lines that meet there.  Dickens creates here an opportunity for many spin-off stories, though in fact only one, Jackson’s visit to Birmingham, ever materializes.  “Mugby”, as you may have guessed, is Rugby in Warwickshire, then still a rural market town with a large railway junction attached, rather than the industrial centre it would become a decade or two later.

“Mugby Junction” is not, to be frank, a very good story.  Jackson is rather like Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, a man oppressed by his bigoted upbringing and the moneygrubbing tedium of his work in the City.  Having sold his business, he is searching for some purpose to his life, but has no clue how to find it.  He wanders the streets and surrounding countryside until he encounters an odd sight: the fragile but bright face of a young woman, with her cheek on a cottage windowsill.  “And now there were a pair of delicate hands too. They had the action of performing on some musical instrument and yet it produced no sound that reached his ears.”  His walks over the following days are all directed past this cottage which he observes also serves as a village school.  From one of the children he learns that the sideways woman is called Phoebe, who sings in order to instruct.

“The Face at the Window”, Harry Furniss’s disturbing 1910 illustration of Phoebe. From Phillip Allingham’s article on Victorian illustrators on The Victorian Web

 

A few days later, having introduced himself through the window, Jackson visits Phoebe who, unable to walk, lies on a couch all day.  “She was engaged in very nimbly and dexterously making lace.  A lace-pillow lay upon her breast; and the quick movements and changes of her hands upon it as she worked, had given them the action he had misinterpreted” as playing an instrument.  When he explains his mistake she replies “That is curious…  For I often fancy, myself, that I play tunes while I am at work.”  Jackson, unused to any form of human contact, is at a loss for further small talk, but “there was a kind of substitute for conversation in the click and play of its pegs…  The charm of her transparent face and large bright brown eyes, was, not that they were passively resigned, but that they were actively and thoroughly cheerful.  Even her busy hands, which of their own thinness alone might have besought compassion, plied their task with a gay courage that made mere compassion an unjustifiable assumption of superiority, and an impertinence.”  Jackson cannot help but compare this young woman’s pleasant outlook with his own melancholy.  He had loathed his work whereas she loves hers, both her teaching and “my lace-pillow… it goes with my thoughts when I think, and it goes with my tunes when I hum any, and that’s not work.  Why, you yourself thought it was music, you know sir.  And so it is, to me.”  Her father, a railway worker that Jackson has already met, adds that Phoebe is “Always working – and after all, sir, for but a very few shillings a week – always contented, always lively, always interested in others, of all sorts.”

Dickens had a penchant for women who suffer while retaining their vivacity and compassion.  Like Phoebe, Little Dorrit was a textile worker (a seamstress).  One suspects that, if the”‘Mugby Junction” story had been taken further, it would have been Phoebe’s role to save Jackson from himself, as Amy Dorrit saves Arthur Clennam.  It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century fiction that women’s pain redeemed men.

Lacemaking appears like playing an instrument, lacemakers hum and sing as they work.  The idea of music is bound together with Phoebe’s lace, and her character.  We have often encountered this image of the singing textile worker, contented with her domestic lot.  But Dickens introduces a novel synonym for lace, “those threads of railway”, that Phoebe can observe from her window, but not follow.  Jackson undertakes to explore them and report back on what he discovers.  As she weaves her threads so he will weave narratives for her.

Much of this coincides with Haxell’s “paradigm of the lacemaker” derived from her four texts.  In most of these, and especially those authored by men, “a lacemaker is a young woman of humble background or reduced circumstances who attempts to make her way in the world through patient and unassuming craft. Although she has little formal education, there is a modest desire within her for self-improvement. Beneath her demure manner, she often demonstrates qualities and modes of behaviour which make her an outsider to the lowly class and social position where her occupation situates her. A lacemaker will inevitably enter into an emotional relationship with a smug young man, socially and educationally superior to her. He will be attracted initially to her docility and “naturalness”, which correspond to his personal ideal of femininity.”  Jackson may not be young, nor particularly smug, but otherwise the literary model is replicated.  However Dickens might have allowed for a happier ending than that permitted in Nerval’s ‘Sylvie’ or Lainé’s La Dentellière.

What did Dickens know about lacemaking?  Rugby borders the Northamptonshire lace districts, and Dickens had other opportunities to see lacemakers at work, for instance when he covered the 1835 by-election in Kettering (we know how important the lace interest was in that town).  He returned quite often to Northamptonshire to visit his friends the Watsons at Rockingham Castle.  However, we are not aware of any other text in which he showed any interest in this manufacture.  We are also a little doubtful about Phoebe’s prone position as an effective way to work on a lace pillow.  Certainly the illustrator of the American edition of Dickens’ complete works, Arthur Jules Goodman, had difficulty picturing the scene.

 

Arthur Jules Goodman’s frontispiece to the 1898 edition of “Mugby Junction”, depicting Phoebe, Phoebe’s father “Lamps” and the “Gentleman for Nowhere”.

 

[1] Nichola Anne Haxell, ‘Woman as Lacemaker: The Development of a Literary Stereotype in Texts by CharlotteBrontë, Nerval, Lainé, and Chawaf’, The Modern Language Review 89 (1994): 545-60.

A Moral Tale of ‘City and Village’. Pieter Geiregat’s ‘Stad en dorp’ (1853)

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).[1]  Even in the 1850s and 60s, critics called his work ‘platte en triviale’ (flat and trivial).[2]

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 Sint Lievenspoort’ of Ghent by Pierre François De Noter (1822). Ledeberg lies just beyond.

 

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.

Lucian Gérard (1852-1935) ‘De kantwerkster’ (The Lacemaker). Gérard was born in Ledeberg, so perhaps this painting represents Tone and Petronella in later life.

 

[1] Ludo Stynen, Rosalie en Virginie: Leven en werk van de gezusters Loveling (Tielt, 1997), p. 129.

[2] Review of Pieter Geiregat’s De lotelingen onder Napoleon in Leesmuseum, tydschrift voor letteren, wetenschappen en kunst 1 (1856), p. 281.

Poverty and Predation in Frans Carrein’s ‘Elisa de Kantwerkster’ [Eliza the Lacemaker] (1859)

We were wrong to claim that Goldoni’s Le baruffe chiozzotte (The Squabbles in Chioggia) is the only play to feature lacemakers as its main characters. Frans Carrein’s Elisa de Kantwerkster (Eliza the lacemaker) puts one of them even more firmly centre stage.  This piece of musical theatre was first performed in Bruges in 1859 by the Flemish amateur dramatic society Yver en Broedermin (Zeal and Brotherhood).  Such ‘chambers of rhetoric’, as they were known, had a long history in the Low Countries as promoters of middle-class sociability and civic ideals.  In the nineteenth century they were, additionally, important vehicles for Flemish as a language of culture in Belgium.  Yver en Broedermin, for example, organized the first competition for new plays in Flemish in 1835.[1]

Yver en Broedermin, founded in 1822, was more socially open than its relatively exclusive rival in Bruges, the Maatschappy van Vaderlandsche Taal en Letterkunde.  Frans Carrein (1816 Eernegem – 1877 Ostend) was typical of its urban artisan and clerk membership.  His day-job was a pastry chef, but literature had become his passion.  He had started in a rival society, Kunstliebe, in 1843 (Kunstliebe had broken away from Yver en Broedermin in 1841, no doubt largely as a vehicle for personal ambitions, but it also took a more radical position on the language question).[2]  Carrein’s initial dramatic excursions, in which he often acted himself, were translations of French melodramas and vaudevilles, which were staple fare for Flemish chambers of rhetoric at the time.  But Carrein had ambitions to foster a native Flemish theatre.[3]  The nineteenth century witnessed the deliberate creation of repertoires of ‘national’ dramas which drew their inspiration from moments of national history.  Flanders was no exception, and so Carrein’s first major work told the story of Pieter Lanchals (1849), the leader of the Bruges Revolt against the Emperor Maximilian of Austria in the 1480s.  This is evidence of the tremendous influence of Hendrik Conscience’s 1838 novel – effectively the first Flemish novel – De Leeuw van Vlaanderen, which took as its inspiration an earlier revolt of the Flemish cities against their overlords.  The late medieval period was central to the Flemish Movement’s cultural memory.

However, Carrein soon shifted towards a theatre of social criticism; a transition from romantic to realist drama in other words.  So contentious was his 1851 play Arm en Ryk (Poor and Rich) that it was banned by the mayor of Bruges.  Arm en Ryk was set in a Flemish village of weavers and spinners; the villain of the piece is a linen-merchant and also, as it happens, mayor of the village, who not only exploits the weavers but also opposes the love between his son and a weaver’s daughter.  All ends happily but the depiction of social conflict, including a crowd of weavers threatening death to the cowering merchant, was uncomfortable viewing in Flanders in the mid-nineteenth century.  The 1840s had witnessed the catastrophic collapse of the once dominant linen trade in Flanders as handloom weavers and spinners succumbed under the dual effects of factory-made competition from Britain and harvest failure.[4]  The crisis gave rise to widespread hunger and even starvation.  A similar set of circumstances had led to armed rebellion among the weavers of Silesia in 1844 (the theme of Louise Otto’s novel Schloss und Fabrik which has a rather similar plotline to Carrein’s play, see our blog entry); the ‘Hungry Forties’ were part of the background to the Europe-wide series of revolutions in the spring and summer of 1848.  Belgium did not witness any similar outbreak of violence; instead the Belgian government responded by setting up lace schools in the Flemish countryside, in the hope that lace might take the place of spinning as a means of supporting the population.  But the mayor of Bruges may have feared that the play could enflame social conflict.  After all, the revolt that had led to the creation of the state of Belgium in 1830 had itself started at the theatre.[5]  In the absence of fully democratic institutions, theatre was a locus where protest could be voiced and rebellion enacted.

Carrein, however, was not really a revolutionary.  Workers’ violence, Carrein believed, was a consequence of ignorance, especially among the poor.  Ignorance could be combated through literature, which would impart moral guidance as well as knowledge.  As society became more democratic and not ruled by a single class, it was vital that the masses be provided with instruction.  But for this campaign to be successful, literature had to be in the common tongue, that is in Flemish.  Carrein set out this programme in a speech to the third Congress dedicated to Dutch Literature, held in Brussels in 1851, where he proposed the foundation of a society for the distribution of pamphlets to the people, and which would also support the writers of such works.[6]  (Carrein spoke immediately after Jan van Beers, whose own contribution to the literature of lacemaking, ‘Begga’, will be discussed in another blog.)

The fate of Arm en Ryk seems to have left Carrein a little bitter; or at least it was several years before he tried his hands at theatre again.  In the introduction to his next piece, Elisa de Kantwerkster, Carrein took his Flemish audience to task because they only had a taste for for comic pieces and songs.  Nonetheless he bent to the fashion, and Eliza is a relatively light piece with lots of music provided by P. Cools.  In a way he was proved right because Elisa was certainly his most popular work, repeatedly restaged in Ypres, Ghent and Brussels as well as Bruges.  It was a standard in the repertory of the company De Vlaams Ster who were still performing it in the 1900s.  And as if to bear out Carrein’s words, when it put on in Brussels in March 1862, ‘the public heartily laughed’.[7]  However, Carrein explicitly wanted the play to achieve something more than amusement: it was meant as a critique of the way the lace industry was run, based on his own observations and interviews with lacemakers.  In particular he attacked the practice of advancing money to workers as a means of making them dependent.  They could not change employer while they remained in debt, and there were all kinds of tricks to keep them in debt.[8]

 

 

The play opens with Elisa Nolf sitting at her pillow before dawn.  She has a lamp and a waterfilled flask beside her to concentrate light on her work, and a firepot to keep her feet warm, the standard accoutrements of the lacemaker.  She is singing, but her song is a lament: the lacemaker works from early morning to late into the night, damaging her eyes for a pitiful salary, while duchesses and baronesses wear her work to balls and grand dinners, she suffers in body and soul.  Elisa is an orphan: her father died not long before, and to pay for medicine during his last sickness she borrowed thirty francs from the lace-merchant Gierbaert (‘vulture beard’; Carrein played this part when the play was first performed).  Until she has cleared this debt she cannot work for anyone else.  She has also been left with the care of a younger brother, Joseph, a bravehearted lad but not entirely reliable.  He has in fact just been sacked though Elisa does not know this.  She sends him to the baker for a loaf, but Joseph has to tell her that the baker won’t give them credit anymore (they are two francs and thirteen centimes in debt), not now Elisa has a rich boyfriend.  The baker’s implication is that Adolf, the writer-friend of Elisa’s father, is visiting too often for her reputation.  Elisa is horrified.  She has been slaving away, denying herself all pleasures, preserving her virtue as best she can, and yet is still the subject of the neighbours’ gossip.  Unfortunately Adolf himself appears at exactly this moment, and Elisa, in her shame, sends him away.

Adolf leaves, and Rooze Dorn (there is no rose without a thorn), an elderly neighbour (played by a man) arrives to sit and work with Elisa.  Her language is colourful and plebian, and includes bits of English (eg: ‘nottink’).  The women plan to sing while they work because, as Elisa says, ‘song makes the work lighter; it gives spirit and courage’.  However, before they sit down, Joseph whispers to Rooze that ‘magerman is kok’ (‘lean man is the cook’; in other words they have had nothing to eat).  Rooze hurries off to get bread, leaving her pillow.  Elisa chides Joseph: time is the only precious thing that the poor have, and if Rooze is giving up her time for them, then she should make up time for her.  She picks up Rooze’s pillow and starts on her pattern.

Just at that moment Gierbaert appears and, spying the other cushion, accuses Elisa of making ‘dievenkanten’ (‘thieves’ lace’, that is lace for another merchant other than the one she owes).  Joseph claims that this other pillow is his, and in a song celebrates that men are now doing women’s work.  Gierbaert finds Joseph tiresome and, after he leaves, suggests to Elisa that as his own son has been selected for military service, Joseph could replace him and then the debt would be paid.  In nineteenth-century Belgium conscripts were chosen by lottery, and if someone unfortunate enough to pull a ‘bad number’ could find, that is buy, a replacement, he did not have to go.  Effectively this made military service a burden that fell disproportionately on the poor, and it was much resented.  Elisa refuses to sell her brother, but this only brings Gierbaert to the real point of his bargaining.  He wants Elisa to become his lover; and perhaps she might be his wife later, when he has first ‘tried on the shoe’.  When the indignant Elisa refuses, he explains that ‘your fate is in my hands, believe me’.  At this moment Rooze returns to hear the full force of Elisa’s anger: Gierbaert has profited from her misery, now he comes to buy her brother’s blood, her honour and her emaciated body.  Gierbaert leaves, threatening that she will soon have news from him.

Rooze herself brings news that she has just seen Joseph step in the path of a run-away coach and horses carrying a woman and children.  Joseph follows soon after, safe and sound, having stopped the coach.  But he too is followed by a policeman, who tells Elisa that Gierbaert has brought a complaint, and she must accompany him.  While Joseph and Rooze argue about what to do, Adolf appears just in time to meet Elisa returning from the magistrate, hopeless and despairing.  She has to pay her debt today or she will go to prison.  Although Rooze herself has only 30 centimes in the world, she sets off at once to rouse the other lacemakers and see if they can get the money together.  Adolf and Joseph both have plans too and leave Elisa.  Alone she soliloquizes: is honour just a foppery, something the poor cannot afford?  She could now be surrounded by luxury, her sense of honour has led her only to the gates of the prison.  Gierbaert overhears some of this and sees his chance.  He gives her the note of her debt (telling the audience in passing that it has already been repaid by Rooze and her friends), and while she is overcome with gratitude, pulls her to his chest and strokes her hair.  But before things go too far Adolf arrives to defend Eliza.

It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century gender politics that young women could not defend themselves.  Law and custom were stacked against them, as Adolf explains.  The law, he argues, that enables Gierbaert to send a worker to prison simply for trying to make a living from her work, should properly be described as ‘the white slave law’.  It was a relic from more barbarous times, incompatible with the march of civilisation.  Adolf, who is described as a writer, is evidently the mouthpiece for Carrein’s own views.  He is not impressed by Gierbaert’s surrender of the debt: what he couldn’t obtain by force he is now trying to get through a hypocritical show of generosity, making Elisa’s good heart an accomplice of his wickedness.  Gierbaert finally slinks away.

Adolf reveals that the family saved by Joseph was his sister’s.  But he also claims to be deeply unfortunate himself.  He is love with a young woman, less than half his age; he can’t reveal it for fear of rejection.  Elisa urges him to declare his feelings; the woman, of course, is Elisa, who falls into his arms.  (Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of Adolf to make Elisa’s feelings of gratitude the auxiliary of his own desires?)  At that moment Joseph and then Rooze return: Joseph with thirty francs whose origin he refuses to reveal, but Rooze, who always seems to know what’s up, explains that she saw him at the ‘soul merchant’ (i.e. the man who arranges military replacements).  As Elisa begins to lament again Adolf says he will save the man who rescued his sister and her children, and the man who is about to become his brother now that Elisa has agreed to become his wife.  They will all be one happy family, and when Rooze pops round they will all sing the song of the lacemaker.  The curtain comes down as the actors repeat the chorus of Elisa’s song from the beginning of the show.

Lacemakers’ songs are a common motif in the literature of Flemish Movement.  We will meet other examples, but this is one of the earliest songs ascribed to lacemakers to appear in print, and one which would have some influence on later representations of lacemakers, so we reproduce it in full.  It is not clear whether Carrein and Cools made up the text himself or were reproducing a song that they had heard sung on the streets of Bruges.  It certainly has some similarity to text in the Flemish lacemakers’ repertoire.  Unfortunately, the music was not included with the printed text.

Laet rollen de klosjes

Chorus
Laet rollen de flosjes,
En vlecht met uw draedjes,
En oogjes en naedjes,
Met lustigen zwier,
Op ‘t glib’rig papier.
Zy ritz’len en klotsen,
Zy tuim’len en botsen,
En glyden op ‘t kussen,
En ram’len en sussen;
Zoo ras en gezwind,
Als loof in den wind.

Verse 1
Reeds van in den vroegen morgen,
Zit ik aen het werk met vlyt,
Om myn’ nooddruft te bezorgen,
In dees guren slechten tyd.
Gauw is thans de dag vervlogen,
En het loon is toch zoo kleen;
‘T nachtwerk drukt, verkrent myn oogen,
Als ik by myn lampje ween.

Verse 2
Ach! hoe prachtig en hoe kunstig,
Is hy toch die blanke kant!
By haer die het lot was gunstig
Prykt hy eens naest diamant:
Hertogin of baronnesse,
Praelt er mede op bal en feest;
En ik, arme lyderesse,
Lyd aeen lichaem en aen geest.

 

Ida von Düringsfeld thought that Elisa gave a ‘good picture of working-class life (Volksleben) in Bruges’, and she also translated the chorus of this song into German (though she kept the Flemish terms ‘Klosjes’ and ‘Flosjes’, two different types of bobbin).  Perhaps as a baroness herself she was not so inclined to include the second verse, in which the pleasures of the lace-buying classes are compared with the misery of the lace-producing classes.

Lasst rollen die Klosjen,
Lasst rollen die Flosjen,
Und webt mit den Fädchen,
So Säumchen, wie Näthchen,
Mit Eil und mit Zier,
Auf’s glatte Papier.

Sie fallen und rasseln,
Sie wirbeln und prasseln
Sie gleiten und schwirren,
Sie klappern und klirren,
So seltsam geschwind,
Wie Blätter im Wind.

The Carmerstraat in Bruges, with typical working-class housing of the kind inhabited by lacemakers like Elisa Nolf and Roose Dorn.

 

[1]IJver en Broedermin’, openbare bibliotheek Brugge, blog.

[2] “Letterbroeders zedenvoeders”: De opkomst van Kunstliefde, Brugse toneel- en letterkundige vereniging (1841-1887), Onttoovering blog.

[3] Most of what we know of Carrein’s early literary career comes from an interview he gave, c. 1860, apparently in the middle of his pastry shop, to the German author Baroness Ida von Düringsfeld: Von der Schelde bis zur Maas: Das geistige Leben der Vlaminge seit des Wiederaufblühen der Literatur 3 vols (Leipzig and Brussels: Lehmann, 1861), vol. 1, pp. 68-71.  Carrein adapted and performed in works by French dramatists including Adolphe Poujol, Charles Desnoyer, Eugène Labiche, Adolphe Dennery and Felicien Mallefille.

[4]  Eric Vanhaute, ‘“So Worthy an Example to Ireland”: The Subsistence and Industrial Crisis of 1845–1850 in Flanders’, in Cormac Ó Gráda, Richard Paping, Eric Vanhaute (eds), When the Potato Failed.  Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007).

[5] Sonia Slatin, ‘Opera and Revolution: La Muette de Portici and the Belgian Revolution of 1830 Revisited’, Journal of Musicological Research 3:1-2 (1979): 45-62.

[6] Handelingen van het derde Nederlandsch letterkundig congres, gehouden te Brussel, den 30 en 31 Augustus en 1 September 1851 (Brussels: J.-H. Dehou, 1852), pp. 187-91.

[7] De Toekomst, ‘Stad nieuws’, 6 April 1862, p.1.

[8] The epigraph to the play, from from the French writer Bernardin de Saint Pierre, states: ‘Ils ont mille ruses pour les reduire à la plus petite paie possible, par exemple, de l’argent d’avance: et quand ils en ont fait des débiteurs insolvables, ce qui est l’affaire de quelques écus, alors ils les ont à leur discrétion.’

An Italian Lace Interlude, Troubles in Chioggia

A brief trip away from Midlands lacemakers last September took us to a conference in Padua and then, briefly, to Chioggia, an island at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon. Why Chioggia? Apart from the fact it’s delightful? Because it is the setting for Carlo Goldoni’s 1762 play Le baruffe chiozzotte (The Squabbles in Chioggia; the link takes you to the Italian text) which is, to our knowledge (and as always we don’t mind being corrected) the only play that features lacemakers as its main characters.

Carlo Goldoni, playwright (1707-1793)

Carlo Goldoni, playwright (1707-1793)

 

Goldoni is going through a bit of a revival at the moment thanks to the National Theatre’s adaptation of his 1746 Il servitore di due padroni, now known as One Man, Two Guvnors. We’ve not seen Le baruffe chiozzotte performed in English, but there is a published translation entitled It Happened in Venice. At the risk of judging a book by its title, this seems very much to miss the point, because it didn’t happen in Venice. The Chioggians in the play are at pains to differentiate themselves from their Venetian overlords, not least through their distinctive dialect. Perhaps the use of dialect explains why the play has also been translated into Scots by Bill Findlay and Christopher Whyte as The Chioggian Rammies (unfortunately we’ve not been able to access this version either). Goldoni, who was a judge’s assistant in Chioggia in the 1730s, was a radical playwright: he thought that the real lives of ordinary working people, such as the fishermen and lacemakers among whom he had lived in Chioggia, were suitable subjects for drama. Even their everyday street language could be permitted on stage. Unfortunately the upmarket Venetian theatre-going public did not agree, and Goldoni was forced to leave the city in 1762. Le baruffe chiozzotte was his last play there.

A view through Chioggia. The fish market (mentioned in Goldoni's play) is on the right.

A view through Chioggia. The fish market (mentioned in Goldoni’s play) is on the right.

 

Act 1, scene 1 opens on a street in Chioggia where five women are sitting outside their houses with their lace pillows. Chioggia, like Palestrina, was a bobbin lace centre, perhaps another marker of its more plebeian character than Venice with its upmarket needle lace. On one side sits Pasqua ‘Frying Pan’, wife of skipper Toni ‘Fish Crate’, and her sister-in-law Lucietta ‘Little Lies’ who is engaged to the fisherman Titta Nane (a diminutive for Giambattista). On the other side of the street sit Libera ‘Capon’, wife of skipper Fortunato, with her sisters 24-year-old Orsetta ‘Brown Bread’, engaged to Lucietta’s brother Beppo, and 17-year-old Checca ‘Milk Curds’… who is jealous of Lucietta. Nicknames matter in Chioggia.

The women are chatting about the weather, with an eye to the expected return of the fishing fleet, when the young boatman Toffolo ‘The Squirrel’ upsets everything by offering slices of roasted pumpkin to one side of the street, but not to the other. To compound his fault (and to make Checca jealous) he goes and sits beside Lucietta, an engaged woman (!) on the pretence of being interested in her lace. This minor event leads to snide remarks, which lead to angry remarks, which lead to a full blown quarrel. The two sides then each relate an edited version of events to their menfolk when their boats return, leading to even more turbulence. Titta Nane breaks off his engagement with Lucietta, Beppo breaks off his engagement with Orsetta, and both the fishermen vow vengeance on Toffolo. After a skirmish on the street, Toffolo runs to the magistrate with yet another twisted version of events. As the law is not expected to be either fair or unbiased, this action has the potential to make things much worse; the men go into hiding, while the women try to win over the magistrate, or rather his stand in, young Isidoro (perhaps a representation of Goldoni himself).

Isidoro is a Venetian, patronizing towards, and exasperated by, the Chioggians, though amused enough by their antics to try and resolve their quarrels. Although his initial interventions only make things worse, with the women too now coming to blows, in the end he is able to sort things out. Lucietta marries Titta Nane, Orsetta marries Beppo, and Checca marries Toffolo. Isidoro rather fancies Checca, and finding her a compliant husband is one of the reasons he got involved in the first place. However, the last word goes to Lucietta, who tells Isidoro:

You see sir, you’re not from here, and you’ll be off some time or another, and we wouldn’t want you to spread the story that the women of Chioggia are squabblers. All that you’ve seen and heard, that’s just been an accident, sir. We’re decent women, sir, honourable women; but we’re merry, too, aren’t we, sir? And we want to live merry, we want to laugh and to dance, and we want everyone to say “Long live the women of Chioggia, long live the women of Chioggia!”

Lace is not a constant topic of the play, but it does play its part. Toffolo’s pretended interest in Lucietta’s lacemaking starts the whole quarrel, and later, when Lucietta is furious with Titta Nane and determined not to look at him, she justifies her behaviour by her need to keep her eyes on her pattern. The characters of the women are implied by their different lace skills: Pasqua makes cheap and easy lace, whereas Lucietta is working on a much more complex and expensive pattern. Checca, meanwhile, is making very slow progress on her pillow (though she claims that she has saved up fifty ducats from the profits of her work towards a dowry). That Isidoro has an eye for the ladies, and might be manipulated, is suggested by the fact that he pays twice the going rate for Lucietta’s lace.

Which raises an interesting conundrum for any future production… where do you find five actresses who can make lace? Or should they just pretend, as in this Italian production (the whole thing is on youtube)? Mutating lacemaking into knitting, as it appears some have done, we’d say is really not good enough!

 

Chioggia from the air. According to the play, 40,000 people lived on the island, and as this picture demonstrates, living quarters were cramped!

Chioggia from the air. According to the play, 40,000 people lived on the island, and as this picture demonstrates, living quarters were cramped!

Charlotte Yonge and The London Illustrated News

In Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family, the fraud practiced on Rachel Curtis by the plausible Mauleverer is discovered when Rachel’s would-be suitor reveals that the woodcut images of lacemakers, supposedly engraved by the apprentices of the Female Union for Englishwoman’s Employment, had actually been cut out of the London Illustrated News.  The deception is discovered by Rachel’s would-be suitor, Captain Keith, who recognized the images from a magazine he had read while convalescing in South Africa from his wounds received during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  We wondered whether any such images had appeared in this popular magazine, founded in 1842.  We did not find anything quite matching the ‘Ideal/Real’ contrasted images that are the alleged products of F.U.E.E., but in February 1859, roughly the date of Captain Keith’s convalescence, a relevant article and an image on pillow-lace working did appear in the London Illustrated News.  We reproduce them below.

The image is a distant relative of the one described by Yonge in the novel as representing “The Ideal” and depicting “a latticed cottage window, with roses, honeysuckles, cat, beehives, and all convention rural delights, around a pretty maiden singing at her lace pillow”.  However, if this is what Yonge had in mind, there is an irony in the fact that Mauleverer’s apprentice wood-engravers, former lacemakers both, could not have produced an image that depicted such a woeful ignorance of the actual practice of bobbin lacemaking. 

Nineteenth-century images of single young women making lace at cottage doors are quite common; a similar image was used to illustrate an article on Honiton lacemaking in The Lady’s Newspaper of Saturday 20 September 1851; and indeed the Illustrated London News article and image were reused in their entirety in the Penny Illustrated Paper in February 1866.  However, we’ve not been able to trace a pre-1864 image akin to the “Real” picture described in the novel as showing “a den of thin, wizened, half-starved girls, cramped over their cushions in a lace-school.”  If anyone can help us track down an original that Yonge might have seen, we would be interested.

Conviction of Charlotte Barratt for stealing. The Bedford Times & Bedfordshire Independent, Saturday 7 July 1860. Copyright: The British Library Board.

The illustration accompanying the article in the London Illustrated News.  ‘Ideal’ or ‘Real’?

 

 

Illustrated London News, Saturday, 5 February 1859; issue 958, p. 133.

Pillow-Lace Working in Bedfordshire

In pleasant parts of Bedfordshire, Kent, and other southern counties, agreeable pictures are formed by the lacemakers in gardens, at cottage doors, and in neat apartments, where, although the furniture is homely, the cleanness of everything and the tasteful display of flowers in their season give a bright and cheerful aspect to the place.

There are few hand-wrought fabrics which look more beautiful than the delicate and cunningly-wrought lace, which was the pride of our ancestors of both sexes, and which seemed to have reached its greatest state of perfection in the reign of Charles I., when marvellous prices were paid for this elegant personal decoration.  Portions of lace of this date, of fine design and wonderful execution, are still preserved in many families, and handed down as heirlooms from one generation to another.  When looking at the intricate patterns of both old and modern lace, we have been puzzled to know by what magic it had been produced, and were glad to have the opportunity, in autumn last, of witnessing the process.

The pillow-lace is so called in consequence of being made on a pillow, or cushion, in the manner shown in the Engraving.  These cushions are generally of rich and harmonious colours, and form a foil to the “greenery” which is generally near.  The neat dresses of the lacemakers, old and young, and the fanciful designs and ornaments on the bobbins, are also pleasant to the eye.

On the pillow, which is stuffed with straw and raised to a convenient height on a wooden frame, the pattern of the lace is pounced through parchment, in the same way as the card-sheets formerly so much used for stencilling rooms.  This pattern is generally about the third of a yard long, and on the quality of the design the beauty of the lace depends.  The thread used is of remarkable fineness and strength.  This material is wound in proper quantities by a simple machine on the upper part of fifty or sixty bobbins, which are about the thickness and length of uncut blacklead pencils.  At the End opposite to that on which the thread is wound are rings strung with glass beads of various colours, and in some instances old silver coins and other simple keepsakes.  These matters are needed to give weigh to the bobbins, and to cause them to be moved with ease and precision.  Great fancy is shown in the fitting of these lace-making tools.  The bobbins used by one old lady had belonged to her grandmother, and were probably as old as the reign of Queen Anne.  Some of these were elaborately carved, turned, and decorated with silver and gold.  Some were of ivory: one was the gift of a “dear Robert” long since buried.  Each of the numerous bobbins seemed to have attached to it some cherished memory of the past.

The bobbins being properly charged with thread, the ends are joined and fixed to the top of the cushion in the centre of the upper part of the parchment pattern.  Here is also fixed a case thickly stuck with very small pins, which, as the work goes on, are placed in the interstices of the pattern cut in the parchment.  Round the pins, when rightly fixed, the thread is thrown and woven together by the bobbins, which are moved by both hands with remarkable quickness.

Although hand-lace weaving does not, after the pattern is prepared, require much artistic or mental ability, it needs great care, patience, and much practice to follow up the pattern, and leave in the proper places the different degrees of thickness of thread.  The process is very slow; and, during upwards of an hour that we watched the progress of a worker, not more than three-quarters of an inch in length and inch in breadth was completed.  It would take about four days’ close work to complete one yard in length.  The sum paid for this is about 1s 8d. a yard, and the thread has to be paid for out of it.

In the country a number of those who practice lace-making do so as a means of occupying spare time, and do not depend on it for a living, the young girls having in view the purchase of a new frock or bonnet.  In those districts, however, where lace-working is made a trade of by large numbers, children are put to it at the early age of five years; and, as is the case with most other departments of labour which can be soon learnt by young persons, the prices have declined.  Thirty or forty years ago a young girl could earn a shilling a day by this employment; a similar person will now, with difficulty, earn fourpence a day; and we are told that, notwithstanding the extraordinary demand which the present fashion of the ladies’ dresses has caused for this material, and although the price of thread has increased, wages have not improved.  The pillow-lace has a rich and artistic appearance and texture which is not to be equalled by other means; but the imitation is cheap, looks well at a distance, and is in progress of improvement so that, in all probability, the operation of lacemaking will, like the spinning-wheel and other matters once so familiar, soon become a thing of the past.

English Lacemakers in Fiction. Charlotte M. Yonge and ‘The Moloch of Lace’ in ‘The Clever Woman of the Family’ (1865)

In her Victorian heyday Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) was as popular and as prolific a novelist as Dickens and Trollope.  She has fallen out of fashion somewhat since, despite the efforts of the excellent Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship, whose website we recommend.  Although a witty and lively writer, especially of dialogue, it was Yonge’s social and religious opinions which drove her plots, and explain why they feel so dated.  This can be illustrated by the example of The Clever Woman of the Family, but our reason for including it in this series of blogs on lacemakers in fiction is because it also offers a picture of the Devon lace industry in the high Victorian period.

 Charlotte Mary Yonge, by George Richmond, 1844.


Charlotte Mary Yonge, by George Richmond, 1844.

Yonge’s novel opens in the early 1860s on Rachel Curtis’s twenty-fifth birthday.  She is the daughter of a gentry family in the fictional Devon fishing and resort village of Avonmouth and, in her own opinion at least, the clever woman of the family.  But she can find no outlet for her intelligence and her energies because she is “tethered down to the merest mockery of usefulness by conventionalities.  I am a young lady forsooth! — I must not be out late; I must not put forth my views; I must not choose my acquaintance; I must be a mere helpless, useless being, growing old in a ridiculous fiction of prolonged childhood”.

The primary objects of Rachel’s desire to be useful are the “hard worked, half-stifled little girls” in the local lace schools: “cramped in soul, destroyed in body, that fine ladies may wear lace trimmings”.  It galls her that a charitable bequest by one of ancestors in the seventeenth century actually pays for the girls’ apprenticeships.  At the moment the only support she is able to provide is by purchasing their products, even though she describes lace as “cobwebs of vanity” (while her mother detests “that black lace thing, that looks fit for your grandmother” which she is obliged to wear as a consequence of her philanthropic consumption) and reading to the lacemakers in their schoolroom.  This location is a “black-hole under the stairs” without windows where the local lace mistress keeps seven children in rigid silence for ten hours a day.  Rachel reads them something religious, something improving, and a bit of a story, alongside mental arithmetic which, according to the author “was about as interesting as the humming of a blue-bottle fly” to its “well-broken” denizens.  The idea that one must be “broken to lace” recurs throughout the book.

Rachel is particularly exercised by the fate of one intelligent girl, Lovedy Kelland, whose mother had refused to sacrifice her little girl “to the Moloch of lace” but instead sent her to school.  There were even hopes she might become a trainee teacher.  But when her mother dies, the girl is adopted by the lace-mistress “with the resolve to act the truly kind part by her, and break her in to lace-making.”  But while Rachel is infuriated by Lovedy’s fate, her real ambition is to attack “the system… that chained girls to an unhealthy occupation in their early childhood, and made an overstocked market and underpaid workers”.  “Lace and lacemakers are facts,” she explains to her distracted cousin Fanny, “but if the middle-men were exploded, and the excess of workers drafted off by some wholesome outlet, the price would rise, so that the remainder would be at leisure to fulfil the domestic offices of womanhood.”  However, her wealthy neighbours have no desire push up the price of lace, and the lacemakers themselves are drawn to Primitive Methodism to escape the well-meaning interference of local do-gooders; they only tolerate Rachel because of her family’s historic position in the community.

Her opportunity to act comes through a chance encounter with Mr Mauleverer, a philanthropic lecturer and, it is implied but never quite established as fact, a clergyman unable to find a position because of his modern “opinions”.  With his encouragement she launches the Female Union for Lacemaker’s Employment (the initials are not inconsequential, and the name is later changed to the Female Union for Englishwoman’s Employment or F.U.E.E.), gathering funds from near and far to support an Industrial School for the former lacemakers where, as Rachel explains “some fresh trades might be taught, so as to lessen the glut of the market, and to remove the workers that are forced to undersell one another, and thus oblige the buyers to give a fairly remunerative price.”  A magazine is launched under the banner “Am I not a Sister?” (a reference to the famous slogan of the slave emancipation movement at the turn of the century, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”).  Premises are found nearby, a matron employed, and two lacemakers, including Lovedy Kelland, are taken in with the promise of becoming wood-engravers.

Sadly, Mauleverer turns out to be a con-man who pockets the monies raised by Rachel, while the matron is a vicious tyrant who starves the girls while forcing them to make sprigs day and night, beating them with a stick if they failed to fulfil their quota.  The deception comes to light when Mauleverer presents two woodcuts, which he claims were engraved by the F.U.E.E’s trainees, jointly entitled “The free maids that weave their thread with bones” (the Shakespearean description of lacemakers).  One woodcut, depicting a pretty maiden outside a cottage door with roses, honeysuckles and other “conventional rural delights” is labelled “Ideal”; the other, showing “a den of thin, wizened, half-starved girls, cramped over their cushions in a lace-school” is labelled “Real”.  Rachel’s friends prove to her that in fact both images had been snipped out of an old copy of the London Illustrated News.  However, this revelation comes too late for the beaten, emaciated Lovedy who dies of diphtheria soon after her release.  Her last words to Rachel as watches over her deathbed are “Please tell me of my Saviour”, but Rachel finds she cannot, so far has she drifted from the verities of the established Church.  (On the whole the poor in Yonge’s novels do not provide moral lessons to the rich, as they do in Charlotte Barnard’s work: this scene is an exception.)  Lovedy’s death is only one of several shocks to Rachel’s image of herself as “the clever woman of the family”, but it is the most brutal.

Before the end of the novel Rachel will learn that only by submitting herself to patriarchal authority can she fulfil her life’s purpose.  Male superiority appears first in the shape of her husband, but he is but a stepping stone to the masculine font of all authority, the Church.  She will discover that the social conventions against which she railed at the beginning were instituted for her well-being, and even her fashion sense must be submitted to her husband (who has as low an opinion of her charitable lace purchases as her mother).  In the second half of the novel the sufferings of the poor are largely forgotten and in as much as Rachel still feels that “every alley and lane of town or country reeks with vice and corruption”, the implicit argument of the novel is that not much could or should be done about it, or at least not by women alone uninstructed by pious men.  After all, as Rachel explains at the end, one never knows whether one is doing more harm than good.  “I had a few intellectual tastes, and liked to think and read, which was supposed to be cleverness; and my wilfulness made me fancy myself superior in force of character in a way I could never have imagined if I had lived more in the world.  Contact with really clever people has shown me that I am slow and unready.”

“Lady Temple carrying off Lovedy and Mary”. Adrian Stokes’ illustration from the 1880 edition of The Clever Woman of the Family depicts the moment when Rachel’s cousin intervenes to rescue two girls from “the Moloch of lace”.

“Lady Temple carrying off Lovedy and Mary”. Adrian Stokes’ illustration from the 1880 edition of The Clever Woman of the Family depicts the moment when Rachel’s cousin intervenes to rescue two girls from “the Moloch of lace”.

Yonge sincerely believed in male superiority, and for many years opposed developments in women’s education.  This is surely one reason that her works have fallen out of fashion.  She was a tireless proselytizer for the Church of England in its most High Church, Oxford Movement garb.  Although her characters are more rounded than Barnard’s and More’s ciphers, the moral message of her work is hammered home in chapter titles and epigrams.  But perhaps even more off-putting is her absolute acceptance not just of social inequality — even for the exemplar of modern intellectual trends Rachel Curtis, class hierarchy is a given — but also social conventions.  This is a novel in which the characters can spend the best part of the chapter discussing whether it is appropriate for a young widow to play croquet.  Although in the text the partisans for the game carry the day, the author reveals her own allegiances when later the initiator of the craze in Avonmouth, a fashionable but wilful and selfish young woman, is killed in a freak croquet accident.

Lace-making is a background theme of the novel – the motor of Rachel’s enlightenment rather than a topic in itself, and it fades out completely in the second half of the book.  Nonetheless it is clear that Yonge knew something of the trade.  Her family came from Devon and she often holidayed there.  She was certainly familiar with the vocabulary of the Honiton lace industry, such as “sprigs” for the patterns made by the lacemakers, and “gapsies” for the illicit breaks observed in the lace school.  But if some knowledge came from direct observation, it is likely that she had also read the report of Commissioner John Edmund White on the lace industry (1864) as part of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Trades and Manufactures not already Regulated by Law.  White confirms, for example, the importance of the apprenticeships to lace mistresses in Devon (compared with the Midlands).  Apprentices would be trained for a year and half or so before they could start making money on their own account.  Yonge’s description of a lace school is also similar to those visited by White.  For instance, Mrs Besley’s lace school at Seaton was an annexe to her cottage, “nearly square, a little over seven feet each way, and six feet six inches high, and containing, in fact, a little over 330 cubic feet, and there is no fireplace or means of warming”.  This tiny space was shared by seven pupils, the mistress and her three daughters, working from early morning till at least 10:00pm, and often much later or even all through the night.  As another lace mistress, Mrs Croydon, put it, “If you promise the work, you must do it” regardless of what strain it caused the young girls.  Yonge’s Mrs Kelland would doubtless have agreed.

Girls started in these lace schools as young as four or five, though they were normally not expected to do a full day’s (and night’s) work until aged seven.  Work would start at six or seven in the morning, and those mistresses like Mrs Copp of Beer who closed at ten in the evening, summer and winter, obviously considered themselves philanthropic for not keeping the girls later.  The term school is something of a misnomer as most appear to have provided no education beyond lace skills.  Hence the effort that Rachel Curtis puts into night schools and Sunday schools, where lacemakers might learn their letters, even though she felt that such efforts were only “scratching the surface”.  Commissioner White was shocked by the levels of ignorance he encountered: for example, thirteen-year-old Emily Westlake, whom he interviewed at Mrs Besley’s school, “Knows the letters (and no more), but no figures (when shown) except ‘1’.”  Yonge highlights this mental cramping in the character of Susan Kelland, daughter of the lace-mistress, “who was supposed to be a sort of spider, with no capacities beyond her web.”  White highlighted the deleterious health effects of such children “crumped up” (to use the local term) over pillows in such ill-ventilated, stuffy rooms, alternatively too cold or too hot, for hours on end.  The girls suffered from headaches, they damaged their eyes, and in some cases even died of brain fever from over-taxation.  All this to earn between a shilling and, at most, even for the most adept, three shillings six pence a week (by way of comparison, in this region of very depressed wages, a male agricultural labourer might earn eight shillings a week on average).

The description of the lacemakers’ sufferings at the hands of the F.U.E.E.’s matron Mrs Rawlins –beaten, forced to work through the night, and in effect starved to death – also recalls accounts of the Barratt case of 1856, which Yonge may have read; it was certainly covered in her local newspaper.  Like the Barratt’s sister and parents, Mrs Rawlins would be tried for manslaughter at the assizes, and in her case sentenced to one year’s hard labour.

Charlotte Mary Yonge, c. 1860. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery

Charlotte Mary Yonge, c. 1860. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery

Yonge is sniffy about Rachel Curtis’s desire to reform the system (“everything was a system with Rachel”) rather than, at most, relieve the symptoms of poverty (a much more proper activity for upper-class women).  However, The Royal Commission’s report made it obvious that manufacturing’s reliance on child labour could not be ameliorated by private charity alone, it could only be addressed through legislation.  Its first fruit was the Workshop Act of 1867, which stated that no child under eight could be employed, that children between eight and thirteen could work no more than six hours a day, and all employed children should get ten hours of formal schooling a week.  Further regulation of workshops, together with new educational requirements, would effectively kill off the lace schools over the next two decades.

Further Reading

British Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, First Report of the Commissioners on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Trades and Manufactures not already Regulated by Law.  1863.  As far as lace manufacturing is concerned, the findings of the Commission are usefully summarized in a more accessible pamphlet: Alan Brown, Take the Children: How Victorian Lace Girls Lived and Worked in the Honiton and East Midlands Districts — This is their Story, as Told to the 1862 Royal Commission (Sawbridgeworth, c. 2000).

Janice Fiamengo, “Forms of Suffering in Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family”, Victorian Review 25:2 (2000); 85-105.

H.J. Yallop, The History of the Honiton Lace Industry (University of Exeter Press, 1992).

English Lacemakers in Fiction:  Rosamond Lehmann’s ‘Invitation to the Waltz’ (1932)

Rosamond Lehmann was born in 1901 at Bourne End in Buckinghamshire, on the southern fringe of the lacemaking districts.  Her father, Rudolph Lehmann, had been editor of Punch and, briefly, liberal MP for Harborough.  The Lehmanns, originally from Germany, were an artistic dynasty: two of Rosamond’s great-uncles were painters, an aunt was a composer, one sister became an actress and her brother was editor of the influential periodical New Writing.  The Curtis family, protagonists of her third novel Invitation to the Waltz (1932), are of a rather different background, a settled rural manufacturing dynasty whose fortune derives from paper mills.  Nonetheless, Lehmann modelled this fictional household on her own.  The lead character, Olivia Curtis, is a portrait of the novelist as a young woman, indicated by her frequent flights of imagination.  The novel is set in 1920, and opens on Olivia’s seventeenth birthday; it relates her anticipation of, and then participation in, the dance held by the local gentry family, the Spencers.

Bucks Lace Collar (Image provided by David Hopkin)

Bucks Lace Collar (Image provided by David Hopkin)

The Curtises know the Spencers but are not intimate with them.  They are separated by fine but significant class distinctions: for instance Olivia and her older sister Kate do not ride, they cannot be ‘county’.  Attracted and intimidated by the manners of the upper classes, Olivia experiences trepidation, embarrassment but also an occasional intimacy in her contacts with her social superiors.  She is also sensitive to the barriers that separate her from the labouring population of the village.  The first part of the novel consists of various encounters in which class distinctions are performed – with the dressmaker Miss Robinson, with the impertinent children of the sweep, and with the household servants.  Olivia cannot readily assume the character of superiority that she knows is expected of her.  Her awkwardness can develop into fear, even hatred.  A tacit element in this antagonism is potential rivalry for the attentions of men, given the decimation caused by the War.  These tensions underlie her interview with the lace girl.

Fashion and dress play a large part in the novel.  They are the means by which Olivia and Kate establish their independent identities (though in the case of Olivia, her vision for herself is only partially fulfilled).  But when it comes to lace, Olivia is forced to renounce her individuality, symbolized by her own plans for her ten bob birthday present, and assume a social role.  Lehmann paints a plausible portrait of lace-selling at the tail-end of the handmade lace industry, when even the philanthropic lace associations were becoming moribund.  However, her lace girl has imbibed many of those associations’ ideas about the values implicit in lace.  She is careful to distinguish her products as ‘real lace’, as opposed to the machine-made alternative one might buy at Evans for a tenth of the price.  She appeals to Olivia’s connoisseurship, or rather the connoisseurship that a real lady should possess, but Olivia does not.  She attempts to establish a personal relationship with the Curtises, who as local notables and employers really ought to patronize the lace industry.  She invokes the family values of domestic manufacture through her ability to support and comfort her invalid mother.  Yet all the time one is aware that the lace-girl is relying on the philanthropy of the well-to-do.  Almost in passing she mentions her hardships, her misfortunes: Olivia is obliged to part with her ten shillings, and she bitterly resents it.   However, middle class status has its compensations as well as its responsibilities.  The scene ends with Olivia expecting a (servant cooked and laid) meal: the matchstick legs of the lace-girl suggest she may not be getting any lunch.

Further Reading:

Rosamond Lehmann, Invitation to the Waltz.  First published by Chatto & Windus Ltd in 1932.

Shusha Guppy, ‘Interview with Rosamond Lehmann: The Art of Fiction No. 88’, The Paris Review 98 (1985).

Vike Plock, ‘“I just took it straight from Vogue”: Fashion, Femininity, and Literary Modernity in Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz’, Modern Fiction Studies 59:1 (2013).

 

Extract:

[It is the morning of Olivia’s seventeenth birthday.  She has just returned home after visiting the dressmaker in Little Compton, when she encounters the maidservant Violet in the hall.]

‘Please, Miss Livia, there’s a young person to see you.’

‘To see me?’

‘Well, she wanted the one or the other of you.  Madam’s out and I couldn’t find Miss Kate.  So she said she’d wait.’

‘Is it one of the Miss Martins?’

‘Oh no, it’s a young person.  Carries a case.  I don’t know what she’s come after.  I showed her into the servants’ ‘all.  Will you see her?’

‘Yes, I suppose so.’  How queer.

Violet disappeared, returned, said coldly: Come this way please; and grudgingly made way for a short slight girl of about twenty, dressed neatly and shabbily in a fawn hat and coat, and carrying a suit-case.

‘Good morning’, she said.  Her voice and smile anticipated antagonism.

She was a rather pretty anaemically pink-and-white girl with small regular features, blue circles round her eyes, and an appealing air of goodness.

Olivia said nervously:

‘Do sit down.’

She sat on the edge of a chair, laid her case down, and spoke in a modest and genteel voice.

‘I’ve brought a few things to show you – some of my work – thinking you might be interested.  Are you interested in lace? – handmade?’ She smiled brightly.

‘I’m afraid I’m… I don’t know anything about it.’  Olivia’s heart sank.  She blushed deeply.

‘Well, if I might just unpack my case.  Real lace is so nice, I think, don’t you?  It looks nice on anything.  And of course it’s quite a rarity these days.’

She knelt on the floor, opened her case, and began to rustle about swiftly, with tiny narrow hands, among sheets of tissue-paper.

Now was the moment to say it was no good, that one didn’t want any lace, had no money with which to buy it.  Oh, cruel fate! Any other day that would have been true.  To-day Uncle Oswald’s ten-shilling note seemed to crackle audibly in her pocket, refusing for its late master’s sake to be denied.

Now was the moment to enquire searchingly into her credentials.  She feebly ventured:

‘Did you make it yourself?’

‘Oh yes all myself,’ said the girl softly, lightly.  Clearly she was gaining confidence.  Not often could she have had such an auspicious start.  ‘You see, I have my mother to keep.  She’s a total invalid, of course – paralysed; so not being able to go out to work I took up lace-making.  This is my biggest piece – a bedspread.’  She unfolded it, held it up in both arms.  ‘It took me six months, this did.’

‘Did it really?’

And instead of coldly glancing before handing it back, one found oneself examining it, murmuring sympathetically:

‘Doesn’t it tire your eyes?’

‘Oh yes, they get ever so strained.  That’s the worst of it.  My eyes aren’t strong, and if they were to give out, well, I don’t know where we’d be.’  She gave another bright smile.  ‘Of course I have my regular customers, but his time of year I go round and try to earn a bit extra, just to get Mother some little comforts for Christmas.  It’s for her I do it.  It isn’t very nice really to have to go round – you know what I mean.  You feel you come at an awkward time and – it’s ever such a drag and –‘

‘Yes, it must be.’ Picture of door after door being shut in her face by haughty parlour-maids.  ‘How awful for your mother.’

‘Yes, and she’s ever so patient – never a grumble.  This is a little tea-cloth.  You can’t have too many tea-cloths, can you?  A table set – centre-piece and six mats.  These little mats are all the rage now, aren’t they?  — so much daintier than a tablecloth.  A nightdress case.  Some little traycloths – they’re nice.  A set of doylies…’

‘They’re beautiful… But I’m rather afraid they wouldn’t be quite what I… not very much use…’

‘Not for Christmas presents?  She was gently surprised.

‘Well, yes, of course.  Only, as a matter of fact I haven’t really started to think about Christmas yet.’

‘Hadn’t you?  I always think with Christmas shopping it’s best to get it done in good time, don’t you?  Then it’s off your mind.’

The case was nearly empty now.  Olivia said suddenly, with a show of firmness:

‘I believe it would be best if you could call again later – after lunch, perhaps – when my mother’ll be in.  I’ll tell her.  I’m sure she’d like to…  She’d know better than me.’

‘I’m afraid I couldn’t do that.’ Her voice was gentle but decided.  ‘I’ve a long way to go.’

‘Yes, I suppose you have.’

She saw through that all right.

‘Oh, this insertion will interest you.  For trimming underwear.  In different widths.  Ladies always like my insertion.  It’s strong, yet dainty.’

‘I don’t wear lace on my underclothes, I’m afraid.’

‘No – really?’ She raised her eyebrows, politely shocked, incredulous.

‘No, I don’t like it.’

Firmer and firmer.  Silence fell.

‘A little collar.’  She took the last package from the case and placed it upon a chair; with hesitation, with a sudden collapse of assurance.

Silence again.  She knelt on the floor among a litter of white paper, lace and linen, her hands loosely folded in her lap, her head drooping.  Then slowly she started to fold up the bedspread, then the teacloth, the centre-piece, to smooth out the tissue-paper, to put everything back in the old suit-case; with meek gestures, with silent disappointment folding up, laying away her unwanted handiwork.

It was too much.  Olivia picked up the collar.

‘This is very pretty.’

The girl glanced up.

‘Yes, it’s a nice little collar.  It’s so uncommon.’  She went on packing.

‘I think I’d like… It would be so useful.  How much is it?’

She paused, then said:

‘It’s fifteen and six, that one.’

‘Fifteen and six!  Oh, I’m afraid I can’t then – I’ve only got ten shillings – at the moment.’

And quickly, for fear of being suspected again, she drew her purse from her pocket, opened it under the girl’s nose, and extracted its sole contents – the ten-shilling note.

‘There’s a lot of work in this collar.  You can see for yourself.’

‘I know.’  Hope sprang up again.  The miserable offer was to be rejected.  ‘I’m so sorry.  I can’t…’

The girl continued reflectively:

‘Still – I might make you a special price – as you’re a new customer.  I’ll let it go for ten shillings.’

‘Oh, will you?  Well thank you very much.  That’s splendid.’

The girl took the note, put it in a large black handbag, thanked her politely, without warmth, and went on packing.  Suddenly she said with decision:

‘I’d have liked you to have had the tea-cloth.  You’d pay double the price for it in any shop.’

‘No, thank you, I couldn’t.  I’m afraid I must go now.’

Too late, she felt all the necessary resolution.

The girl closed and strapped the suit-case, got up, lifted it with a slight effort.

‘I hope it’s not too heavy for you.’

‘It is a bit heavy.’

And perhaps no lighter by the end of the day…  Dragging herself home late at night…  A weak voice from the pillow, whispering anxiously: ‘Well?…  Brokenly answering: Only one collar…

‘Come out this way.’

She opened the front door.  They smiled faintly at one another.  The girl said with restraint:

‘Thank you very much.’

‘I do hope you’ll be able to get plenty of – of comforts for your mother.’

‘Yes.  Thank you.’

Whatever they were, surely ten shillings would buy a certain amount of them.

‘Good-bye.’

‘Good morning.’

She went down the steps and along the drive, hobbling on irritating matchstick legs, one puny shoulder pulled down by the weight of the suit-case.’

 

[… A little while later Olivia shows her purchase to her older sister Kate.]

‘Like to see what I’ve bought with my ten bob?’ cried Olivia; and she flung down the collar upon the table.

‘Good Lord, what’s that?’ Kate held it up by one corner.

‘Isn’t it pretty?’

‘Where on earth —?’

There was nothing for it but to tell the whole story.

‘Lumme!’ said Kate.  ‘So that’s what that foul Violet came flouncing up here for.  I hid.’

She spread the collar out upon the table and was silent, examining it.

‘Don’t you think it’s rather nice?’

It was looking its worst somehow: exactly as if it ought to be thrown on the fire.

‘How much did she rook you?’

‘Ten bob.’

‘The whole lot?’

‘Yes.  She reduced it for me.’

After a pause, Kate said:

‘What’ll you do with it?’

‘Oh, put it on some frock, I suppose.  It’s bound to come in somehow.  Real lace always does.’

Faintly Kate’s nostrils dilated, but she said nothing.  This was more bad luck than downright folly, and she could sympathize.  Yet Olivia felt her pretences snatched away, Kate’s finger pointing the way inexorably to surrender, to truth.  She said suddenly:

‘Don’t tell Mother.’

‘Of course not.’

‘Bang goes my whole income.’

Kate nodded, murmured:

‘Sickening.’

‘I’ll give it to Nannie for Christmas.  She’ll love it.’  She giggled, blinked back a tear.  ‘Little will she guess what I’ve spent on her.  She’ll think it came from Evans, one and eleven three.’

‘Perhaps it does,’ said Kate, busy with paper and pins.

‘Don’t be absurd.  It’s handmade.  You can see it is…  Can’t you?’

I don’t know.’

‘Well, how does one tell?…’

All supports cracked together.  She threw up her hands, fell.

‘Do you think –’ Kate spoke with unwonted hesitation – ‘she can have been – could it have been a swizz?’

‘Of course not.  She was awfully sort of superior.  And all that about her mother.  She couldn’t have made that up.’

‘I suppose not,’ agreed Kate, starting to cut out.

Olivia sat down and meditated upon the transaction.  I never disliked any one so much, she thought.  The worst was the lack of gratitude.  Ten shillings snatched by compulsion, stuffed into her black bag, sitting there quiet and avid as a spider, then asking for more… asking for more.  No, she was not pathetic.  She was sinister.

She picked up the collar and threw it into the corner.

‘It’s not as bad as that,’ said Kate.

Olivia yawned.

‘Lord, I’m hungry!  It’s been a full morning.’

 

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