Category: Lacemakers in Novels

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 her 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?”  For another novelist who drew connections between lacemaking and slavery, see our post on Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans).  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.’

 

English Lacemakers in Fiction: Mrs Caroline Barnard’s ‘The Prize: or The Lace-makers of Missenden’ (1817)

As far as we know, Caroline Barnard’s The Prize: or The Lace-Makers of Missenden (1817) is the only substantial work of British fiction that is set entirely among lacemakers.[1]

The novels of Caroline Barnard (possibly a pseudonym) were part of a wave of improving literature which swept through British culture at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.  Many of the writers were associated with the revivalist Evangelical movement in the Church of England, and many were women.  The most famous name associated with this literature is Hannah More (1745-1833), whose prodigious output of “Cheap Repository” tracts taught “the poor in rhetoric of most ingenious homeliness to rely upon the virtues of content, sobriety, humility, industry, reverence for the British Constitution, hatred of the French, trust in God and in the kindness of the gentry” (as the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica put it).  

Barnard’s rather smaller canon was similar in tone and, like More’s, was in part aimed at a juvenile market.  The title of her first book was The Parent’s Offering (1813, and labelled as “Intended as a companion to Miss Edgeworth’s Parent’s assistant”, a reference to Maria Edgeworth, another female novelist, moralist and educationalist).  Her Lace-makers of Missenden was recommended as suitable for ten to sixteen year olds by another exemplar and champion of female education, Elizabeth Lachlan (née Appleton, c. 1790-1849): “A very engaging work, and worthy of being placed in the child or youth’s library, with his best authors.  Nothing of the kind can be more interesting than the progress of this beautiful, simple story, and the moral is perfect, as the conclusion is satisfactory.”

The frontispiece to Barnard’s The Prize depicts the prize-giving ceremony, and the moment when it appears that Rose’s rival Rachel Skinner will carry off the prize for the best lace

The frontispiece to Barnard’s The Prize depicts the prize-giving ceremony, and the moment when it appears that Rose’s rival Rachel Skinner will carry off the prize for the best lace

Like Hannah More’s famous The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain (1795), Barnard’s stories were often set among the rural working class.  The poor could give moral lessons to the rich because, as the Reverend Legh Richmond, another of these Evangelical writers, explained, “Among such, the sincerity and simplicity of the Christian character appear unencumbered by those obstacles to spirituality of mind and conversation which too often prove a great hindrance to those who live in the higher ranks.”  However such books were also intended as a means of controlling the growing numbers of literate labourers.  With the radicalism of the 1790s still very much in mind, and aware of growing labour unrest again at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, middle and upper class commentators were concerned that the fabric of the social order was fraying.  They feared revolution, and were attempting to inoculate the population with Christian morality.  The message of Barnard’s The Prize – that one should not aspire above one’s station, and one should avoid new-fangled ideas coming from the cities – chimed exactly with this generally conservative political outlook.  

Given these characteristics it is perhaps surprising that Mary Shelley (née Godwin) – daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankestein – has been put forward as the real author lurking behind the pseudonym “Mrs Caroline Barnard”.  The identification is most forcibly articulated by Emily Sunstein, and other Shelley scholars have proved sceptical.  It is true that Barnard was published by Mary’s father, William Godwin; it is also true that the Shelleys moved to Marlow (Buckinghamshire), not too far from Missenden, in 1816, and while there took an interest in the lives of the local lacemakers.  Mary wrote later, “Marlow was inhabited (I hope it is altered now) by a very poor population. The women are lacemakers, and lose their health by sedentary labour, for which they were very ill paid… The changes produced by peace following a long war, and a bad harvest, brought with them the most heart-rending evils to the poor.  Shelley afforded what alleviation he could.”  Admittedly the case for identifying Mary Shelley as Caroline Barnard is circumstantial at best, but it is intriguing to find in the diary of her step-sister, Claire Claremont, that when the Shelley ménage was at Bagni di Pisa, on 19 August 1820, she was reading The Parent’s Offering.

Although its characters exist largely to illustrate moral lessons, The Prize is quite a lively read, and demonstrates some knowledge of the lace business.  The protagonists are Rose Fielding, fifteen, and her younger sister Sally, who have to support their invalid and widowed mother and their grandmother through their lacemaking.  The grandmother had, in her youth, won a prize for lace, “the finest bit of lace that has ever been made in all Buckinghamshire!” as she never fails to remind her granddaughters.  The prize was awarded by Lady Bloomfield whose patronage encouraged the lace industry, but “my lady Bloomfield is dead, and times are altered now, and girls are growing idle and good for nothing.”  Grandmother’s grumbles are directed less at Rose, who is utterly dutiful and conscientious, than at Sally, who though she promises to make a yard of edging a day (at two shillings a yard), is constantly distracted, her lace gets dusty and her bobbins tangled.

The main source of distraction is the unkempt, gossipy and superstitious shopkeeper Mrs Rogers, and her niece Eliza Burrows, recently arrived from “Lonnon” to set up a millinery business in the village shop, now advertising the “newest fashion, from the most elegantest varehouse in all Lonnon”.  Eliza quite turns Sally’s head with her “Wellington hat” and “Spanish cloak”, “epaulets” and “hussar sleeves” (fashions brought back with the victorious army from the Peninsula), and the promise that “you was intended to be genteel”.  In vain does Rose warn her sister that “you are not a lady, nor ever will be, and that therefore you need not try to look like one”.

Also recently arrived in the village is the new squire, Sir Clement Rushford and his bride.  Unlike their immediate predecessors – respectively a miser and wastrel – the Rushfords interest themselves in the life of the village.  Lady Rushford and her niece Letitia Lenox take Rose Fielding under their wing.  Inspired by the stories of Granny Fielding, the Rushfords re-establish not only the lace school in the village, but the lace Prize.  But if the lace produced on her pillow had not reached the regulation length by Prize Day, the girl’s name would be struck off the school list.  Rose, “a main good hand at her pillow” is presumed the most likely winner, though she has a rival in the form of sulky Rachel Skinner.  But Rose is distracted both by teaching a neighbouring pauper child to read and by having to finish her sister’s lace as well as her own (for despite Sally’s claim that “I have never yet looked off my work from the time I have begun of a day”, her length is only half done).  Come the moment of truth, the judges – not the gentry but local expert lacemakers – acknowledge Rose’s skill but report her lace fell short by two or three yards (consternation all round and hysterics from Granny).  However, it turns out that wicked Eliza had stolen four yards of Rose’s lace to trim a “Regency ‘elmet” she intended to wear to a “melo-drame” performed by the officers of the 58th regiment garrisoned at Amersham.  All is discovered, Eliza is dispatched back to London as “not fit for the country”, and Rose receives the Prize, “A SILVER TIME-PIECE”, engraved with Lady Rushford’s name.  And to cap it all, Letitia’s father, Dr Lenox, announces he can cure widow Fielding of her lameness.  

The moral of this story almost matches every characteristic of More’s tracts, including the “the kindness of the gentry”.  However, Barnard is careful to show that there are irresponsible gentry just as there are undeserving cases among the poor.  The Rushfords renew a social contract that had been unfulfilled for two generations.  Lace, it appears, has always been an appropriate target for aristocratic benevolence.  When, much later in the nineteenth century, the lace associations were founded by leisured, titled ladies to preserve the virtues of domestic industry, they were reviving a tradition of philanthropy, not inventing it.  One wonders what they might have been reading in their formative years.

Barnard’s The Prize: or the Lacemakers of Missenden is freely available to read thanks to Google Books.

[1] This was our first post, back in 2015.  We could now point to several!

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