Category: Lacemakers in Poetry

‘The Young Girl at the Window’: Mystic Realism from a Dead City

Léon Frédéric (1856-1940), ‘The Flemish Lacemaker’, 1907.

A post for a rather depressing winter.  Some Flemish literature is written in Dutch, and some is, or at least was, written in French.  Despite his name, Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913) identified as Flemish; yet, as was true of most of the Belgian upper classes at the time, his chosen mode of expression was French.  At the turn of the twentieth-century he was probably Belgium’s most famous author, and the most notorious in the country after his appearances before the courts for literary offences against public morality.  He was compared to Émile Zola not just for his social realism (or ‘naturalism’ as people termed Zola’s school) but also for his unabashed explorations of sexual desire, religious fervour and mental breakdown.  He was as frequently coupled with the French decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans.  In fact, Lemonnier embraced several literary fashions in turn, including symbolism.  But if one had to pigeon-hole him, perhaps one could locate him in the distinct Flemish school of turn-of-the-century ‘mystic realism’ which also includes Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898) and Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916).

Alfred Stevens (1823-1906), ‘Camille Lemonnier in the artist’s studio’, c. 1900. Fondation Roi           Baudoin, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Lemonnier was a great promoter of Belgian painters.

Lacemakers do not feature often in Lemonnier’s fiction, nor even in his non-fiction guides to his native country.  The one exception is his prose-poem ‘La jeune fille à la fenêtre’, which appeared in the Parisian radical literary review Gil Blas in January 1892.  The setting is Bruges – the ‘dead city’ of Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, a crumbling labyrinth of medieval relics, dissolving into the waters of its silent canals.  Here the past, with its vanished promises and enduring regrets, weighs so heavily on the present that it crushes all life, all hope.  The population’s only motive force is the monotonous repetition of Catholic rituals.

Karel Boom (1858-1939), ‘The Lacemaker’. Medievalism was one facet of the symbolist movement, in art as well as literature.

The heroine of Lemonnier’s poem is a young lacemaker who we observe alternately working on her pillow or pensively watching evening fall across the city.  Although the precise nature of her heartache is not specified, it is clear that she has loved and lost.  She is working on a bridal veil she will never wear.  The bridal veil is a common theme in the literature of lacemaking, harking back to the legends of the origins of lace, whether located in Venice (another aqueous ‘dead city’) or Flanders.  Only one year before, in 1891, a younger albeit more traditional French poet, Charles Fuster (1866-1929), had told a very similar story in his poem ‘La dentellière de Bruges’.  Fuster’s lacemaker is employed by very person on whom she has set her heart to make a veil for his bride: she dies, of consumption, just as she completes the task, and her lace instead serves as her shroud in a ‘wedding of the dead’ (a custom we have discussed in a previous blog).  It seems likely that Lemonnier knew Fuster’s poem not least because it was regularly performed on the stage as a dramatic monologue.

Henri Le Sidaner (1862-1939), ‘ A Canal in Bruges at Dusk’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Le Sidaner’s crepuscular townscapes capture some of the symbolist enthusiasm for the ‘dead city’.  Courtesy of ArtUK.

Death approaches Lemonnier’s lacemaker too, though the source of the danger is less clear.  The young working-class woman whose life-chances are cut short was a stock character of nineteenth-century literature – think of the Parisian seamstress Mimi in La Bohème.  But whereas social realists fulminated against the economic and sexual exploitation that caused these tragedies, symbolists luxuriated in their aesthetic possibilites, just as they relished the spectacle of the dead city (Rodenbach even campaigned against any modernisation of Bruges).  The church viewed through the lacemaker’s window is, as we have seen before in another blog post, a commonplace of nineteenth-century visual art.  But for the symbolist poet the exterior world is a projection of the protagonist’s interior, explicitly so in this poem where the young lacemaker’s heart is also a chapel, the mirror of the one she can see across the canal, and inhabited by the same sad and desperate characters who come to plead with the plaster saints.  Women’s suffering, infused into the making of lace, heightened the value of the lacemakers’ art for these fin-de-siècle writers.

Firmin Baes (1874-1943), ‘The Lacemaker’s Dream’.

Like Fuster’s poem, Lemonnier’s was also meant for the stage: the first performance of the monologue was given by Marguerite Rolland at the Salon des XX, an art exhibition, in Brussels in 1892.  Later it was set to music by the Belgian composer Eugène Samuel (1862-1942, better known as Samuel-Holeman after he added his dead wife’s name to his own in 1905), first as a simple piano accompaniment in 1903, then for an ensemble in 1906.  The piece remained quite popular both in Belgium and France through the first three decades of the twentieth century, but it has only been recorded once, in 2019, by the mezzo-soprano Pauline Claes, accompanied by Mathias Lecomte on piano and the Sturm und Klang ensemble.

The composer Eugène Samuel-Holeman, 1922.

Despite his fin-de-siècle celebrity, very little of Lemonnier’s work has been translated into English.  The translation offered below is our own, and we make no claims for its poetic qualities.  It is based on the version of the poem published in Lemonnier’s 1898 collection La petite femme de la mer.  The text utilized by Samuel-Holeman was a little different (and a translation of that is provided in the booklet accompanying the Sturm und Klang cd).

LA JEUNE FILLE A LA FENÈTRE (THE YOUNG GIRL AT THE WINDOW) BY CAMILLE LEMONNIER.

Par l’entre-bâillure des mousselines, à travers la vitre comme étamée d’un soir d’hiver, un canal s’aperçoit.  De l’autre côté du canal, les maisons sont bordées par un quai.  Une vieille arche de point, un peu au delà vers la gauche, érige un crucifix.  Il neige.  Dans la reculée, un chevet d’église s’ecorne, cassé par la perspective.

LA JEUNE FILLE A LA FENÈTRE, faisant de la dentelle.

Mes mains, mes petites mains, mes pâles mains jamais nuptiales, les avez-vous fait danser toute cette après-midi, les fuseaux!….  C’est ma triste vie qui, fil à fil, s’enroule autour des épingles d’or, et les fils sortent de mon coeur, les fils vont de mon coeur à mes doigts, les beaux fils couleur de neige qui retiennent mon coeur captif.

Mes soeurs, s’il ne vient pas, Celui que j’attends, vous enlèverez les épingles, vous détacherez la dentelle, vous l’éploierez sur la nuit de mes yeux…  Je l’ai commencée avec les fils de mai…  Il neigeait alors de l’aubépine, les soirs avaient des tuniques blanches de petites filles; dans l’église, les orgues du mois de Marie chantaient.  Et mon coeur aussi était une église où, derrière les vitraux sous la petite lampe, mon Jésus resplendissait.  Son sourire me regardait avec la forme de mon propre coeur; et je lavais doucement ses plaies avec des larmes qui n’avaient pas encore pris le goût du sel!

Mes mains, mes joyeuses mains jamais lasses, c’était mon voile de mariée qu’en ce temps vous fleurissiez de marguerites et d’étoiles…  Le prêtre a quitté la chapelle; l’enfant de choeur a éteint les cierges de l’autel; les orgues se sont tues dans les soirs.  L’hiver était venu; et j’ai continué mon beau voile avec des fils de neige.  Mes mains ont filé la neige qui tombait dans l’hiver de mon coeur, elles en ont fait le fil avec lequel maintenant s’achève le triste voile.

Mon coeur est une église où, après la messe, il passe des visages aux yeux vides comme des chambres de trépassés.  Des mères intercèdent à genoux pour leur enfant malade.  Une très vieille jeune fille porte son coeur dans ses doigts et l’offre aux Saintes miséricordes.

Je suis cette mère, Seigneur, intercédant pour mon amour malade, je suis cette vieille jeune fille, Seigneur!  Je remets entre vos mains l’offrande douloureuse de mon coeur inexaucé.  Dévidez-vous, les fuseaux!  Mes larmes à la longue ont durci de leurs cristaux le fil; la dentelle sous mes larmes s’est gelée en dures et brillantes fleurs de givre.

Dites, dites, mes soeurs, le voile, en l’éployant, sera-t-il pas assez long pour s’étendre de mon visage à mon coeur?

(Les cloches sonnent à l’église.  Elle regarde s’allumer les vitraux dans le choeur.  Des mantes noires passent sur le pont.)

Je les reconnais: ce sont toujours, depuis que je travaille à cette fenêtre, les mêmes visages de soir et de prières; l’hiver aussi a neigé sur ces âmes.  Mes espoirs, vous vous êtres usés comme les genoux qu’elles vont fléchir devant les autels…  Chaques soir, elles passent au tintement de la cloche dans leurs grands manteaux; elles se signent devant le crucifix; elles vont vers les cierges et les chants, comme des oiseaux battant de l’aile du côté des volières.  Mon coeur, comme elles, porte une sombre mante…  Mon coeur passe sur un pont, mon coeur va vers une chapelle dont le prêtre est mort il y a longtemps.  Nulle lampe ne brûle plus par delà les verrières, nul encens ne fume plus sous les voûtes; et cependant mon Jésus y est couché parmi l’or et les aromates.

Silence!  Mon coeur a frappé à la porte; la porte ne s’est pas ouverte, la porte jamais ne s’ouvrira.  Ah! sonnez, les cloches! sonnez, mes glas!  Mes prières connaissent une chapelle muette comme un tombeau.

(Elle a laissé retomber les bobines et rêve, les yeux distraits, perdus dans la neige qui floconne lentement.)

Nous étions alors autour de la table quatre petites soeurs.  Une est partie, un soir qu’il neigeait comme à présent; elle n’avait pas quinze ans.  Celle-là sans doute, dès le berceau, avait été fiancée à un beau jeune homme pâle dans la lune…  Et ensuite, la table est devenue trop grande pour les trois autres.  Annie! ma chère Annie, pourquoi ne suis-je pas couchée à votre place dans la petite bière où vos lys ont fleuri pour l’éternité?  J’étais l’aînée de nous; il n’eùt fallu qu’un peu plus de bois au cercueil…

Et tant qu’elles furent quatre, les soirs, dans le jardin, les petites soeurs dansaient une ronde en chantant: “Il était un beau prince, et ri et ri, petit rigodon…”  Ah! je ne veux plus chanter cela.  Une princesse au fond d’une tour espère la venue du beau prince…  Le beau prince a passé par le pays; il a passé devant la tour; la petite princesse est morte de chagrin parce que le beau prince n’a pas trouvé la clef de la tour…  Annie, ma chère Annie, est-ce-que quand il neige, ce ne sont pas les pleurs gelés des pâles jeunes filles qui tombent des étoiles – des pauvres jeunes filles pleurant le bel amant qui n’est pas venu?  Dites, bonne Annie, est-ce que ce n’est pas la charpie que des petites mains de jeunes filles effilent au fond des étoiles pour panser les blessures de celles qui sont demeurées?

(Une lampe s’allume dans une des maisons en face.)

La bonne dame tout à l’heure descendra son chien à la rue, elle le regardera un instant courir dans la neige; ensuite elle le rappellera.  Et, à travers la mince guipure blanche, je verrai la bonne dame passer l’eau sur son thé, ajouter quelques points à sa tapisserie… (Ah! toujours la même depuis de si longues années!)… puis s’endormir, son petit chien sur ses genoux: ils n’ont pas connu le poids léger d’une chair d’enfant.

(D’autres fenêtres s’allument.)

Ah!  Des lampes encore!  Des lampes comme des yeux rouges de pleurs!  Des lampes comme des regards d’aveugles derrière la vitre d’un hôpital!  De vieilles gens sans doute, des âmes lasses d’infinies résignations!  D’anciennes douleurs de jeunes filles regardant neiger le silence à travers le cloître de leur coeur.  “Il était un beau prince!  Et ri et ri, petit rigodon!”  Pourquoi la triste chanson me revient-elle surtout ce soir?  Pourquoi grelotte-t-elle à la porte comme un vieux pauvre chargé des reliques d’un autre âge?  Il y a si longtemps qu’elle est morte, la princesse: le beau prince sans doute n’en a jamais rien su…  Mes mains, séchez les pleurs de mes yeux.

(Sur le pont tout à coup quelqu’un apparaît, un homme don’t on n’aperçoit pas le visage à travers la neige et la nuit.  Il s’arrête près du crucifix et regarde du côté de la fenêtre.  Elle rit.)

Le voilà, mon prince Charmant…  Il y a six ans qu’il passe sur le pont, tous les soirs, à la même heure.  J’ignore son nom; je sais seulement qu’il a des cheveux blancs.  Il passe, il regarde; nous ne nous sommes jamais rien dit.  Mes soeurs l’appellent: l’ange des dernières pensées du jour.  Et ensuite ce n’est plus qu’une ombre au bout de ce canal…  Il s’en ira dans un instant comme il s’en est allé tous les autres soirs.

Ah! qui aurait dit, quand nous étions quatres petites soeurs chantant cette antique ballade, qu’un si vieux monsieur s’arrêterait devant ma tour et que je serais la princesse des espoirs qui ne doivent pas se réaliser!  Je ne tiens plus au monde pourtant que par cette charité d’un regard qui se tourne vers ma vitre…

(L’inconnu fait un geste et quitte le pont.)

Parti!  Et ce geste encore depuis six ans, ce geste dont toujours il semble se résigner et prendre à témoin le ciel de l’impossibilité de franchir la distance qui nous sépare…  Il n’y a cependant là qu’une flaque d’eau, il n’y a que des silences d’un peu d’eau qui dort!  Mon coeur est une maison au bord d’un canal, avec une fenêtre derrière laquelle veille mon amour et où se réfléchit le regret d’un passant.

(La nuit est entièrement tombée; une douceur de sommeil pèse sur la ville.  Là-bas, les hautes fenêtres de l’église se découpent, étincelantes.)

Seigneur, je mêle ma voix à celles de vos humbles servantes…  Seigneur, prenez en pitié ma longue peine…   Donnez-moi la force de continuer jusqu’au bout ce voile de mariée, afin que, n’ayant pu servir à ma vie, il serve au moins à ma bonne mort…  Et vous, mes mains, mes pauvres mains flétries, si, à force de vider les bobines, le fil venait à vous manquer, prenez les lins de mes cheveux, prenez à mes tempes les fils sur lesquels a neigé l’hiver.

(Elle ferme les rideaux, allume sa lampe et se remet à sa dentelle.)

A gap in the curtains reveals, through a window, frosted as on a winter’s evening, a canal.  The houses on the other side border on a quay.  To the left, the arch of an old bridge, and on it is erected a crucifix.  It is snowing, in the distance the apse of a dilapidated church is visible, distorted by the perspective.

THE YOUNG GIRL AT THE WINDOW, making lace.

My hands, my little hands, my pale hands, never a bride’s hands, you’ve kept the bobbins dancing all this afternoon!….  It’s my sad life that winds itself, thread by thread, around the golden pins, and the threads are drawn from my heart, the threads stretch from my heart to my fingers, the beautiful threads that hold my heart captive.

My sisters, if he doesn’t come, the One who I’ve been waiting for, you must pull out the pins, you must detach the lace, and you must spread over my darkened eyes…  I started it with the threads of May…  It was snowing then with hawthorn blossom, the evenings were full of little girls in white dresses; in the church, the organs sang the Month of Mary.  And my heart, too, was a church where, behind the stained-glass windows, under a little lamp, my Jesus was radiant.  He smiled at me with the true form of my own heart; and I gently washed his wounds with tears that had not yet acquired the taste of salt!

My hands, my joyous hands that are never tired, this was my bridal veil which, back then, you decorated with daisies and stars…  The priest has left the chapel; the choirboy has extinguished the candles on the altar; the organs are silent in the evenings.  Winter had come; and I still made my beautiful veil with snow-white threds.  My hands spun the snow that fell in the winter of my heart, they first made the thread with which they now complete the sad veil.

My heart is a church where, after mass, faces with blank eyes like the rooms of the dead pass by.  Mothers plead for their sick child.  An aged spinster carries her heart in her fingers and offers it to the merciful Saints.

I am that mother, Lord, pleading for my sick love, I am that old spinster, Lord!  I commit into your hands the sad offering of my unfulfilled heart.  Empty the bobbins!  My tears have long since hardened the thread into crystal; the lace has frozen under my tears into brilliant, callous frost flowers.

Tell me, tell me, my sisters, will the veil, when it is spread out, be long enough to reach from face to my heart?

(The church bells ring.  She watches as the stained-glass windows light up in the choir.  Cloaked figures cross the bridge.)

I know them, they’re always the same, ever since I’ve worked at this window, the same evening faces, the same prayers: winter has fallen on these souls too.  My hopes are as worn out as their knees inclined before the alters…  Every evening they pass by covered by their large cloaks as the bells ring; they make the sign of the cross before the crucifix; they flock towards candles and hymns like birds flapping beside their aviaries.  My heart crosses a bridge, my heart approaches a chapel where the priest died long ago.  No lamp burns behind the windows, no incense drifts under the vaults; and yet my Jesus lies amidst gold and sweet-smelling herbs.

Silence!  My heart knocked on the door, the door did not open, the door will never open.  Oh! ring out you bells! ring out my death knell!  My prayers know a chapel as silent as the grave.

(She lets the bobbins fall and dreams, her gaze distracted, lost in the snow falling slowly in flakes.)

There used to be four of us, four little sisters around a table.  One left, on an evening when it was snowing just like now; she wasn’t even fifteen.  No doubt she had been, since she was in her cradle, afianced to a handsome young man as pale as the moon…  And then the table became too big for the other three.  Annie! my darling Annie, why am I not lying in your place in the little bier where your lilies flower for all eternity.  I was the eldest; it would have only needed a little more wood for the coffin…

When there four, in the evenings, in the garden, the little sisters danced a round singing “There was a handsome prince, tee hee, little rigodon…”  Oh! I don’t want to sing that any more.  A princess hidden in a tower hopes for the arrival of a handsome prince…  The handsome prince passed close by; he passed right by the tower; the little princess died of heartache because the handsome prince did not discover the key to the tower…  Annie, my darling Annie, when it snows, aren’t those the frozen tears of pale young girls falling from the stars – the poor young girls crying for the handsome lover who never came?  Tell me, sweet Annie, isn’t it the little hands of young girls that spin the lint up there in the stars to bind the wounds of those who have been left behind?

(A lamp lights up in the house opposite.)

The good lady will soon come down with her dog into the street, she will watch him for a moment running around in the snow, then she’ll call him back.  Then, through the thin lace curtain, I will see that good lady pour hot water on her tea, add a few stiches to her tapestry… (Ah! always the same one these long years!)… then she’ll fall asleep, her little dog on her knees: they have never known the light weight of a child.

(Other windows light up.)

Ah!  More lamps!  Lamps like eyes red with weeping!  Lamps like the eyes of blind people behind hospital windows!  Old people, no doubt, their souls worn out by countless renunciations.  The timeworn sorrows of young girls watching the snow fall in silence through the cloister of their heart.  “There was a handsome prince! Tee hee, little rigodon!’  Why does that sad song haunt me this evening?  Why does it tremble at the door like an old beggar burdened with the relics of another age?  She died so long ago, the princess: the handsome prince doubtless never knew anything about it… My hands, wipe away the tears from my eyes.

(Suddenly someone appears on the bridge, a man whose face is indistinguishable through the snow and the gathering night.  He stops by the crucifix and looks up at the window.  She smiles.)

There he is, my prince Charming…  For six years he has crossed the bridge, every evening at the same time.  I don’t know his name; I only know he has silver hair.  He’s going past, he looks up; we’ve never exchanged a word.  My sisters call him: the angel of the day’s last thoughts.  And then he’s nothing more than a shadow at the end of the canal…  He’ll be gone in a moment just as he does every other evening.

Oh! who could have known, when we were four little sisters singing that outmoded ballad, that such an old gentleman would stop before my tower and that I would be the princess of hopes that can never be fulfilled!  I am indifferent to the world except for the kindness of that glance up towards my window…

(The unknown man makes a gesture and leaves the bridge.)

Gone! And that same gesture all these six years past, a gesture that seems to say he is resigned and takes Heaven as his witness to the impossibility of surmounting the distance that separates us…  Yet it’s nothing but a pool of water, there’s just silences and a little stretch of motionless water!  My heart is a house by the edge of a canal, with a window behind which my love keeps watch and in which are reflected the regrets of a passer-by.

(Night has fallen completely; a sweet sleep enfolds the town.  Further away, the high windows of the church stand out, glittering.)

O Lord, I entwine my voice with those of your humble servants…  O Lord, take pity on my long suffering…  Grant me the strength to finsh this wedding veil so that, never having served me in life, it will at least serve me in death…  And you, my hands, my poor jaded hands, if after you’ve emptied the bobbins, you lack thread, takes threads from my hair, take from my temples the threads on which winter has snowed.

(She closes the curtains, lights her lamp, and takes up her pillow again.)

 

Lacemakers in the Poetry of the First World War

‘Remember Belgium’. American poster from 1918, by Ellsworth Young.

As we are not far off the final centenary commemorations of the war on the Western Front (1914-1918), it might be worth highlighting the place of lacemakers in the poetry of the First World War.  Why do lacemakers appear there alongside mud and shrapnel and barbed-wire?  Because lace was already associated with Belgium – even serving as a metonym for the country on postcards – and Belgium’s sufferings at the hands of the occupying German army were a key theme in Allied propaganda, particularly during the first year of the war.  It is important to state that these sufferings, and these atrocities, were real;[1] however, the way they were presented for propaganda purposes meant that the lacemaker occupied a particular place in the wartime imaginary.  The invasion of a neutral country was repeatedly described as ‘the rape of Belgium’, and the event was visualized as the assault of defenceless women by German soldiery.[2]  Lacemakers were usually pictured as either young apprentices or older women, and therefore seen as particularly vulnerable; they were associated with nuns, convents and beguinages – places of peace despoiled by the invaders; and the delicacy of their creative work made an arresting contrast with the destructive jackboot.

Louis Raemaekers, ‘Seduction’, 1916. Raemaekers was a Dutch illustrator whose anti-German cartoons were widely distributed in the first years of the First World War.

Alongside the violence perpetrated on civilians, propagandists also emphasized the destruction of cultural treasures, such as the deliberate burning of the library of Louvain University.  As lace was one of Belgian’s principal cultural exports, the fate of the product and its producers under occupation was a live issue throughout the war.  In November 1914 the wife of the American ambassador, Mrs Brand Whitlock, helped set up the ‘Brussels Lace Committee’, through which supplies and orders from American women philanthropists were channelled to Belgian lacemakers, starved of work and  resources.[3]

Much of this propaganda was aimed at the United States, and it seems to have had an effect, to judge by the two poems below, both written in 1915-16 by North American poets.  Neither, as far as I am aware, had any direct experience of the conflict; they were not writing from the trenches.  However, both were well-travelled and may have known the Belgian cities they evoke from first-hand experience (although I have not been able to document this).

Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) was a Canadian academic and occasional travel writer who had visited Europe before the war.  His poetry is moderately well-known in Canada.  ‘The Lace-Maker of Bruges’ appeared in his collection In a Belgian Garden in 1917.  (It may well have appeared before in a magazine, but if so I have not traced it.)  It was reprinted in his more overtly modernist collection Acanthus and Wild Grape in 1920, when the date August 1915 was added.  Presumably the anniversary of the invasion prompted the poem: Bruges had been occupied since October 1914 so the tread of trampling German feet was no new event in August 1915.  Although Bruges largely escaped physical destruction, it became a German military (in fact naval) base and was subjected to the barrage of measures that made civilian life increasingly miserable in occupied Belgium.[4]  Call’s poem invokes pre-war literary theme of Bruges as an ancient and decayed city — Bruges-la-Morte as it was titled by the francophone Flemish writer Georges Rodenbach — a place where sunbeams go to die.[5]  Everything here is dim, grey, silent, peaceful; even the lacemaker’s hands are idle – an odd image in poetry, where the rapidity of lacemakers’ fingers usually invoke awe.  Or at least it was peaceful until the irruption of German noise and violence.  This lacemaker appears old, and as we have already seen in our post on Guido Gezelle, it seems difficult for writers to imagine Bruges lacemakers at any other age.  This is how they appeared on postcards, and in novels such as Gustaaf Vermeersch’s Klosjes, klosjes (1903).  The connection between lacemakers and religious monuments such as the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Notre-Dame) in Bruges, was, as we have seen in previous posts, well established in visual culture.

Josephus Laurentius Dyckmans (1811-1888) ‘The Old Lacemaker’ (1844).  This is one of the first images we have found in which a lacemaker is portrayed with a view of a church through her window, but it would become a commonplace by the First World War.  Note too the flowers on her windowsill.

 

The Lace-Maker of Bruges
By Frank Oliver Call

Her age-worn hands upon her apron lie
Idle and still. Against the sunset glow
Tall poplars stand, and silent barges go
Along the green canal that wanders by.
A lean, red finger pointing to the sky,
The spire of Notre Dame. Above a row
Of dim, gray arches where the sunbeams die,
The ancient belfry guards the square below

One August eve she stood in that same square
And gazed and listened, proud beneath her tears,
To see her soldier passing down the street.
To-night the beat of drums and trumpets’ blare
With bursts of fiendish music smite her ears,
And mingle with the tread of trampling feet

August, 1915

 

George Tucker Bispham (1881-1948) is less well known as a poet than Call: offspring of a wealthy Philadelphia family, he made only an occasional foray into literature.  After Princeton and a spell at Oxford he took a radical change of direction and set up the White Grass Dude Ranch in Wyoming.  Various of his pre-war poems appeared in journals connected to Princeton.  ‘The Lacemaker of Ypres’ appeared in the American journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1916.  As in Bruges, so in Ypres, lacemaking was the most important source of work for women before the war.  But unlike Bruges, Ypres, though unoccupied, was in the front line, for most of the war.  The remaining civilians were evacuated in May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, incidentally the first battle in which the Canadian Corps played a substantial part.  Thereafter the city was a ruin.  This poem utilizes some of the same tropes as Call’s.  Again the lacemaker appears old (or at least she has known her songs ‘for many a year’), and is placed in visual rapport with a church, here St Martin’s Cathedral.  She lives hard by Ypres’ flower-market, not as famous as that of Brussels, but nonetheless a location that connects the lacemaker to beauty and delicacy (some forms of lacemaking were known in Flanders as ‘bloemenwerk’ [flower work]).  As we know lacemakers were famous for singing while they worked, and Ypres lacemakers in particular had an extensive repertoire of ballads, some of which had been published around 1900.[6]  But lacemaker’s song is choked off in a ‘last scream’ as war eradicates all these feminine attributes of peace and fragility.

Poster for an exhibition of Belgian lace, to raise money for Belgian war orphans, held in Amsterdam in 1917. Note the church towers (drawn from a number of cities) that the lacemaker can see from her window. The flowers still retain their place on the windowsill.

 

Much of Ypres was rebuilt after the war, including the main market square and St Martin’s cathedral.  But despite the attempts of American and Belgian patrons, its lace industry could not be revived.

The Lacemaker of Ypres
By George Tucker Bispham

“Most of the houses in the Grande Place are in ruins.  The town is uninhabited.  Only the dead are left.  But the enemy keeps on bombarding – apparently to pass the time.”

She passed the hours
In a friendly solitude;
Heard the voices, wrangling shrewd,
In the market-place of flowers;
Clatter of cart-wheel; sounds that drifted—
From her open window, saw uplifted
Her cathedral towers.

While passed the hours
Her thoughts would find some little song,
Loved for many a year and long
In the market-place of flowers;
When days of summer drifted, drifted—
And in the peaceful sky were lifted
Ypres’ cathedral towers.

To pass the hours,
Since her last scream was choked in dust,
Shot and shrapnel spend their lust
In the market-place of flowers;
Smoke is drifted, drifted, drifted—
Lonely in the sky are lifted
Christ’s cathedral towers.

 

[1] John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2001).

[2] Nicoletta F. Gullace, ‘Sexual Violence and Family Honor: British Propaganda and International Law during the First World War’, American Historical Review 102:3 (1997): 714-747.

[3]  The work of the committee is discussed by Charlotte Kellogg in Bobbins of Belgium: A Book of Belgian Lace, Lace-Workers, Lace-Schools and Lace-Villages (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co, 1920).

[4] Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Bastion: Occupied Bruges in the First World War (Veurne: Hannibal, 2014).

[5] Donald Flanell-Friedman, ‘A Medieval City as Underworld: George Rodenbach’s Bruges-La-Morte’, Romance Notes 31:2 (1990): 99-104.

[6] Albert Blyau and Marcellus Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek: Teksten en Melodieën 2 vols (Ghent: J. Vuylsteke, 1900).

‘I love to watch you making lace…’ Guido Gezelle’s ode to a lacemaker

Guido Gezelle (Bruges 1830 – Bruges 1899) was the most important poet of the nineteenth century to use the Flemish language.[1]  He is often compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins and not just because he too was a Catholic priest.  Both poets took a Franciscan delight in God’s creation; both steeped themselves in the possibilities of language, all but inventing words to help the alliteration flow.  In the case of Gezelle, he really was forging a new language.  French was dominant culturally in the new Belgian state and even poets from Flanders, like Émile Verhaeren, frequently preferred it.  Flemish was in danger of becoming a rural dialect, the kind of thing that the poetry-consuming class only used to speak to their servants.  The cultural activists of the Flemish Movement were determined to rescue the language but, as we’ve seen in some earlier posts on this site, they were too often trapped in a simplistic language suitable for their moralizing precepts.  Gezelle too was a fierce advocate for Flemish, but he was also determined to reshape the language for literary purposes.  Modern Dutch would not do for him because it was the language of Calvinism, so he drew on the West Flemish dialect of his native Bruges.  Yet one cannot label him a dialect poet: he rather used the spoken vernacular to construct a new, and idiosyncratic, poetic language.

Guido Gezelle in Courtrai, 1898.  From the Stichting de Bethune.

One is less likely to encounter human beings in Gezelle’s poetry than animals, flowers, God, or all together in a celebration of the divine manifested in nature.  However, one exception is the lacemaker to whom the poem Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne is addressed.  Below we give the Flemish text and an, admittedly very rough, English translation.  The poem was first published in 1893 in the Bruges review Biekorf which Gezelle had helped to found.  The poem uses some well-known tropes associated with lacemakers, such as the ‘bolglas’, the focusing bottle of pure water which concentrated a light source onto the pillow, which we have already encountered in the poetry of John Askham.  However, he avoided one stereotype, for his lacemaker is not old but clearly a young woman or girl.  So strong has the expectation become that a lacemaker should be old that when Bruges Municipal Library acquired the manuscript poem in 2009 they described it as ‘Gezelle’s masterful description of an old woman lacemaking by the dim light of an oil lamp’!  Given that the poet calls the lacemaker ‘kleene’ (‘little one’) and ‘lieve’ (‘sweetheart’), we suspect that the lacemaker in question was considerably younger than even this example, pictured by the Belgian painter Firmin Baes.

Firmin Baes, ‘The Lacemaker’, 1913.  We found this image on Pinterest and do not know its current location.

Gezelle, an anglophile, wanted to become a missionary to England (he had good connections to the British Catholic community in Bruges, and he was serving as chaplain to the English Convent in the city when he died).  This ambition was quashed, apparently because his prominence on language and social questions had annoyed the ecclesiastical authorities.  In consequence, Gezelle passed his entire life in the lace-making regions of West Flanders – Bruges, Roeselare, and Courtrai.  However, it is not clear how much this poem was based on direct observation.  Gezelle was intimately connected with the movement to preserve and revive Flemish folk culture and was familiar with the growing literature on lacemakers’ traditions and songs whose influence one can observe in this poem.

One source was the collection of songs recorded by Adolphe-Richard Lootens (Bruges 1835- London 1902) from his mother Catherine Beyaert (born 1795), a Bruges lacemaker.  Lootens, who worked as a surveyor before his move to London, was certainly acquainted with Gezelle.  He contributed articles to the antiquarian and pious journal Rond den Heerd that Gezelle co-founded in 1865, and Gezelle reviewed Lootens’ collection of folktales taken down from his mother: Oude Kindervertelsels in den Brugschen Tongval (1868).  Perhaps surprisingly, Gezelle was not very enthusiastic about Lootens’ attempt to represent Bruges dialect.[2]  Published in 1879, Lootens’, or rather his mother’s songs are present in this poem.  Gezelle refers to the lacemakers’ custom of pricking their forehead with each pin before placing it in the pillow, in memory of Christ’s crown of thorns.  This practice was recorded by Lootens as the accompaniment to a particular song sung by Bruges lacemakers at the end of the end of the eighteenth century: it continued for seventy-seven pins, the traditional number of thorns in Christ’s mock crown.[3]

Gezelle likewise invokes the lacemakers’ practice of singing songs, and specifically ‘tellings’ as they count pins, which was described by Lootens.  However, none of the songs referred to are directly taken from Lootens’ collection.  The one telling he names, ‘Een is eene’ – a direct parallel with the English song ‘One is one and all alone’, actually comes from an earlier collection made in and around the town of Bailleul in French Flanders by the judge and antiquarian Edmond de Coussemaker.[4]  Lootens’ mother knew a version of this verse catechism but it did not include this line.[5]  She also knew a ballad about ‘Heer Alewijne’, another song mentioned in Gezelle’s poem; however her version did not end with the knight/prince murdering the king’s daughter (as Gezelle would have it), but rather returning from the Crusades to find his fiancée abused by his mother.  It is his mother he kills, not the bride to be.  As Lootens noted, this song is very different from the standard version of ‘Heer Halewijn’, the text of which could be bought from ballad singers in the marketplaces of Bruges even in the 1870s.  However, although the mysterious knight in that song certainly intends to kill the king’s daughter, in fact it is she, by cunning, who ends up beheading him and returning to her castle in triumph.  (Lootens’ mother sang a version of this in which the anti-hero was named Roland.)[6]

Illustration to the ballad ‘Heer Halewijn’ by Henricus Jansen, 1904. The ballad, though only recorded in modern times, is assumed to have a medieval origin.  Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The last five verses of Gezelle’s poem are in the voice of the young lacemaker, singing a song in praise of the Virgin Mary, protector of lacemakers like her mother Saint Anne (the patron of lacemakers in Bruges), and refers directly to the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Perpetual Virginity.  We might suspect that such a doctrinally informed text owes more to the priest than to folk traditions.  Certainly I have found no song that exactly matches these verses, though a praise song addressed to the Immaculate Conception, and recorded by Coussemaker in Bailleul, is thematically very close.[7]  In West Flanders religious orders were very active in lace-teaching.  In Bruges itself the leading lace-school was run by the Apostolate Sisters.  Gezelle’s assumption that lacemaking was a holy craft, and that it might serve as an apprenticeship for life in a religious order, was widely shared.  Indeed this message was inculcated in the lace-schools through the medium of song.  According to a legend (of recent, literary origin, but widely disseminated), Mary herself had inspired a Bruges girl, Séréna, to invent the craft of lacemaking.[8]

The final vow to Our Lady of the Snows concerns a cult held in particular honour among lacemakers, and not only in Flanders but also in Catalonia .  The story originates in early Christian Rome when a couple, intending to dedicate their wealth to the Virgin Mary, asked her to reveal how it should best be disposed.  Snow falling in August on a nearby hill led to the building of the Basilica of St Mary Major there.  However, the cult really took off with the Counter-Reformation.  Before the French Revolution, Brussels lacemakers carried their lace to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows in that city to place their work under her protection and thus preserve its whiteness.[9]  According to an article in Rond den Heerd Bruges lacemakers did the same on 5 August before a statue of a similar statue of Mary in the Cathedral of Bruges.[10]

Guido Reni, ‘Our Lady of the Snows’ with Mary Magdalen and Saint Lucia (1623).  Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Gezelle’s poem encapsulates a particular vision of lacemaking, which in part explain’s the Catholic Church’s continuing efforts, in the late nineteenth century, to defend women’s home work in general and lacemaking in particular.  The Church was not only the patron of most lace schools but was a substantial purchaser of lace as well.  For Gezelle lace was a tradition that linked contemporary Flanders to its medieval glory days when songs like ‘Heer Halewijn’ were composed.  And the medieval was preferable to the modern above all because it was an age of faith.  Lacemakers earned little but, in this version at least, enough to supply their basic needs and thus save themselves from prostitution, the inevitable consequence of female poverty in the eyes of the Church.  And lace itself was almost a holy textile: white like the head-dress of the Virgin herself, white like miracle snows in August.  Lace and its producers were under the protection of Mary and her mother Anne.  Those engaged in its production were materially deprived but spiritually rich, and would remain so in Gezelle’s eyes as long as they too remained ‘onbevlekte’, virginal, immaculate.

Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne,
vingervaste, oudvlaamsche deerne;
die daar zit aan ‘t spinnen, met
‘t vlugge allaam, uw kobbenet.
Vangen zult g’… hoe menig centen
in die looze garenprenten,
die grij neerstig, heen en weêr
krabbelt, op uw kussen neêr?

Schaars genoeg om licht en leven
schamel dak en doek te geven
u, die kanten wijd en breed
werkt aan ‘t koninginnenkleed.

Vangen zult ge, o, schatten geene;
maar mijn hert, dat hebt ge, kleene,
vast gevangen in den draad,
dien gij van uw’ stokken laat.

Geren zie ‘k uw lantje, al pinken,
nauwe een leeksken olie drinken,
en u, ‘t bolglas doorgerand,
volgen, daar ge uw’ netten spant.

Spellewerkster, wat al reken
spellen zie ‘k u neêrwaards steken
in uw kussen, slag op slag,
meer als ik getellen mag!

“Ieder steke maakt me indachtig
hoe men ‘t hoofd van God almachtig”
zegt ge, “en tot zijn bitter leed
vol van scherpe doornen smeet.”

“En ik rake, alzoo ‘t voorheden
altijd mijns gelijken deden,
eerst mijn hoofd, een spelle in d’hand,
eer ik ze in mijn kussen plant.”

Zingen hoor ik u, bij ‘t nokken
met uw’ honderd spinnerokken,
wijla een lied wel, lieve: och laat
mij eens hooren hoe dat gat.

En zij zong, de maged mijne,
‘t liedje van Heer Alewijne,
hoe, vol wreedheid ongehoord,
‘s konings dochter hij vermoordt.

Dan, den ‘teling’ zong zij mede,
na der spellewerkers zede,
“Een is een”, dat oud gezang,
van wel dertig schakels lang.

Zingt mij nog, mijn lieve kleene,
van de Moeder maged reene,
van sinte Anne, die gij dient,
als uw’ besten hemelvriend.

Zong zij dan, al twee drie hoopen
stokken deur malkaar doen loopen,
weêr een liedtjen, op den trant
van heur spellewerkend hand:

“Reine maged, wilt mij leeren,
na verdienste uw’ schoonheid eeren,
die, van Gods gena verrijkt,
versh gevallen snee gelijkt.

Onbevlekt zijt ge, en gebleven
reine maged, al uw leven:
wit als snee’ zoo, Moeder mijn,
laat mij, laat mijn handwerk zijn.

Laat mij, een voor een, de vlassen
webben aan malkaar doen wassen,
die ge mij beginnen zaagt,
te uwer eere, o Moeder Maagd!

On bevlekte, nooit volprezen,
laat ‘t begin en ‘t ende wezen,
van al ‘t gene ik doe en laat,
als dit maagdelijk gewaad.

Dan, wanneer mij garen, stokken,
webbe en al wordt afgetrokken,
zoete lieve-Vrouw-ter-snee’,
spaart mij van ‘t onendig wee!”

 

I love to watch you making lace
You sure-fingered true Flemish lass;
There you sit, the bobbins flying,
As you weave your spider’s web.
You’ll get, how few centimes
From the clever design of threads
that you rapidly scribbleack and forth on your pillow?

Barely enough to earn your keep,
a light, a roof and clothes for your back
You, whose acres of lace
adorns the queen’s own dress.

You will certainly not gain riches
But, little one, you have captured my heart,
Caught fast in the thread
that you release from your bobbins.

I love your lamp that flames
as it drinks up a drop of oil
and which follows you through the flash glass
where you stretch your lace net.

Lacemaker, how many pins
have I seen you stick down
In your cushion, one after the other
Many more than I can count!

You say ‘Each prick reminds me
how the head of God almighty
was, for his bitter suffering,
heaped with sharp thorns.

‘And so, just as in the past
my peers have likewise done,
I touch the pin in hand to my forehead
before I plant it in my pillow.’

Sometimes I hear you as you weave
with your hundred twirling bobbins
sing a song, sweetheart: Oh let
me hear again how that goes.

And she sang, this maid of mine
The ballad of Sir Halewijn,
how, in his unfathomable cruelty
he kills the king’s daughter.

Then she also sang a ‘telling’
as the lacemakers do
‘One is one’, that old song which lasts
for at least thirty links in the lattice.

Sing for me again, my poppet,
about the pure virgin mother,
and of Saint Anne, who you serve
your best friend in heaven.

Then she sang, as she made the bunches
of bobbins run through each other
another little song, to the rhythm
of her lacemaking hands.

‘Oh pure Virgin, please teach me
how to honour your beauty gracefully
You who, enriched through God’s bounty
ressemble freshly fallen snow.

‘You are, and will remain, immaculate
Virgin pure, all your life:
Oh Mother mine, let me and my handiwork
always be as white as snow.

‘Let my linen chains one by one
join each other and grow the work
that I began in your sight
and in your honour, Virgin Mother!

‘Immaculata, never praised enough,
Let the beginning and end
Of all that I do and make
be like this virginal garment.

‘Then, when my threads, bobbins,
net and everything is taken from me,
Our sweet Lady of the Snows
save me from unending pain!’

 

[1] For an English biography of Gezelle see Gustave L. Van Roosbroeck, Guido Gezelle: The Mystic Poet of Flanders (Vinton, 1919).  A recent bilingual edition of his poems is freely available: Paul Vincent (ed.) Poems of Guido Gezelle: A Bilingual Anthology (London, 2016).  His collected works in Flemish are all online at the ever useful Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL).

[2] On Lootens and his relationship to Gezelle and other Bruges clerical antiquarians see Hervé Stalpaert, ‘Uit de Geschiedenis der Vlaamsche Volkskunde: Adolf-Richard Lootens, Brugge 1835-Londen 1902’, Volkskunde: driemaandelijksch Tijdschrift voor de studie van het volksleven 46 (new series 5, issue 1) (1946): 1-21; and Hervé Stalpaert, ‘Bij een honderdste verjaring Lootens’ kindervertelsels’, Biekorf 69 (1968): 273-5.

[3] Adolphe-Richard Lootens and J.M.E. Feys, Chants populaires flamands avec les airs notés et poésies populaires diverses recueillis à Bruges (Bruges, 1879), pp. 262-3: ‘De Doornen uit de Kroon’.

[4] Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands de France (Ghent, 1856), pp. 129-33: ‘De Twaelf Getallen’.

[5] Lootens and Feys, Chants populaires flamands, pp. 260-1: ‘Les Nombres’.

[6] Lootens and Feys, Chants populaires flamands, pp. 66-72: ‘Mi Adel en Hir Alewijn’; pp. 60-6: ‘Roland’.

[7] Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands, pp. 60-2: ‘D’ onbevlekte ontfangenisse van Maria’.

[8] The story originates in a collection by Caroline Popp, Récits et légendes des Flandres (Brussels, 1867), pp 163-205: ‘Légende de la dentelle’.  Popp was the first female newspaper editor in Belgium, and her paper, Le journal de Bruges, was francophone and Liberal in its politics.  It is therefore surprising to find that she and Gezelle shared a similar set of ideas about lace.  However, Popp allows her heroine to give up her vow of virginity and marry, which Gezelle would definitely not have thought an appropriate ending.

[9] Baron Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique: Descriptions des fêtes religieuses et civiles, usages, croyances et pratiques populaires des Belges anciens et modernes (Brussels, 1870), vol. 2, p. 74.  Despite stiff resistance from local lacemakers, the chapel was demolished during the French occupation.

[10] Rond den Heerd 5, no. 36 (July 1870): p. 282 ‘Dagwijzer’.

Jan Van Beers’ ‘Begga’ (1868): A Lacemaking Cinderella

‘Facades on the Handschoenmarkt, Antwerp’ by the Antwerp painter Hendrik Frans Schaedels (1827-1904). Begga and her family lived in an upper-floor appartment in such a street.

‘Begga’ was the name of a seventh-century Merovingian noblewoman and saint, an ancestor of Charlemagne.  Beguines, those pious women who had a significant role to play in the lace industry in the Low Countries, sometimes claimed her as their founder.[1]  But another Begga, a lacemaker, was the eponymous heroine of a poem by the Belgian writer Jan van Beers (1821-1888).[2]  ‘Begga’ is probably his best known poem, in part because of its powerful invocation of the author’s stumbling return to the Roman Catholic faith of his youth: ‘”he felt his soul overwhelmed with a holy trembling”, on entering the imposing temple [Antwerp cathedral] to which his mother had once taken him as a child, and where she had taught him to call the eternally Inscrutable, whose ineffable name the whole universe scarce dares to stammer, Our Father.’  Thus the theologian Cornelius Tiele quoted ‘Begga’ at length when making the argument that ‘religion always begins with an emotion’ in his influential Elements of a Science of Religion (1899).[3]

Saint Begga, often named (though incorrectly) as the founder of the Beguines. This statue adorned the Begijnhofkerk in Hoogstraten, near Antwerp. The image comes from the online resource of Hoogstraten’s museum:
www.erfgoedbankhoogstraten.be

Jan van Beers was an important figure in the Flemish Movement (‘Vlaams Beweging’) which, starting in the middle years of the nineteenth century, sought to establish a place for the Flemish (Dutch) language in the Belgian state, but just as importantly, make it a vehicle for cultural expression.  In the Romantic period, in which the Flemish Movement had its roots, the poet was envisaged as a vehicle channelling the voice of the people, of the nation even.  Naturally it could therefore only be expressed in the language of the people.  Beers contributed not just as a poet, but as a teacher of Dutch, as the composer of the lyrics for an oratorio by the Flemish composer Peter Benoit (‘De Oorlog’, 1873), and as deputy librarian for Antwerp city (he would marry Henriette Mertens, daughter of the chief librarian, and a Flemish salonnière).[4]  But Beers was also one of the generation of writers that turned from Romanticism towards Realism.  His early poems drew on history for their inspiration, but his later works depicted the life he saw around him on the streets of Antwerp.

Jan van Beers (1821-1888). Image from Wikipedia.

‘Realism’ does not necessarily mean an authentic depiction of the hard lives of Flemish working poor.[5]  Beers was a teacher and a trainer of teachers, and his writings were meant for, and were used in, schools.  He had a moral as well as an aesthetic purpose: virtue must be rewarded and faith defended.  Although ‘Begga’ is subtitled ‘a story from Flemish folk life’, it more closely resembles a folk tale: in fact it is Cinderella rewritten in a realist mode.

The poem opens with its heroine Begga lovingly overseeing the night-time prayers of her little half-brother, before taking up the pillow again to which she has been chained since the morning.  The sounds of celebration drift up from the street for it is Whitmonday, the great fair of Antwerp.  Her stepmother and half sister Coleta are enjoying the dance while she is forced to work.  Her stepmother hates Begga.  She had been the childhood sweetheart of Begga’s father, but then he had married another, who had soon died.  Moved as much by pity for the infant Begga as by love for the man, she became his second wife.  But when she too had a daughter she wondered why her husband gave Begga more kisses, why he dangled her on his knee longer than Coleta.  When she heard him whispering to Begga that she was the ‘adorable image of your dear, blessed mother’, her sympathy turned to hate.  Coleta and Begga, meanwhile, were loving sisters, until they become rivals for the affections of their neighbour Frans, the cooper’s son.  Coleta, urged on by her mother, not only dances with him at the ball, he also escorts her and her mother home.  All seems going swimmingly until Frans insists on saying goodnight to Begga too and in a burst of enthusiasm, before the astonished trio, declares his love for her.  This brings on a crisis: for the sake of her own daughter, the stepmother must dispose of Begga.  Hysterically alleging all kinds of wrongdoing, she throws her out of their lodgings.

Frans meanwhile is mooning about the town, failing to join in with his friends at the archery club or at the inn (archery was a popular sport among Flemish urban artisans and a continuing vehicle for municipal pride).  He loves Begga but she is poor; will his father approve?  In the end, though, it is the cooper who, guessing the cause for Frans’ mood, forces the issue.  He takes the occasion of a feast on their shared name-day (Saint Francis, 4 October) to drag the truth out of his son.  Striking while the iron is hot – it’s the same phrase in Dutch – he steps over the road to ask the stepmother for Begga’s hand, only to be told she has been sent packing.  With a pretence at reluctance, the stepmother admits that Albert, the son of the lace factoress (the woman who acted as an intermediary between the lacemakers and the wholesale dealers) for whom all three women work, had been making excuses to visit them, and he and Begga had been carrying on right there in her home.  Disgusted, she had sent her packing, and last heard she was sharing a room in the city with Albert.

Begga had indeed taken a room with money from Albert.  When she lost her home she went to the factoress’s house to get work, and Albert gave her a ‘voorschot’ – an advance.  But this was not just kindness: soon Albert is calling regularly on the pretext of seeing how the lace advances, but really to make advances to her.  Begga refuses his cajoling, and even his violence, but she is in a terrible plight.  As she has taken money from the factoress, she cannot take work from anyone else until the debt is cleared: she is tied to Albert and there is nothing she can do to escape.

In desperation Begga goes to the cathedral, the occasion for van Beers’ nostalgic rhapsody that so struck Tiele.  It is the feast of All Souls, when we remember the dead.  But death haunts the city: an epidemic of cholera, ‘the Blue Death’ as it was known at the time, had broken out.  This is the only incident that allows us to date these events.  A decining port with a decrepit, not to say non-existent system of public sanitation, Antwerp was an ideal breeding ground for cholera, and city was affected regularly in the nineteenth century.  The most recent outbreak occurred exactly when van Beers was composing his poem, in 1866, and it had killed nearly 3000 people in city, that is one in every forty of the population (these are the official statistics, which often undercounted).  However that was a summer outbreak, and by the 1860s lace was a moribund trade in Antwerp.  Earlier outbreaks, in 1832 and 1848-9, also seem unlikely because they took place against the backdrop of political upheavals which find no mention in the poem.  Perhaps van Beers had either the 1853 or 1859 outbreak in mind.[6]

‘The Interior of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady, Antwerp’, by Peeter Neefs The Younger (1620-1675) and Frans Franken III (1607-1667). The image was taken from Wikipedia Commons and the original hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. According to the theologian Cornelius Tiele, it was van Beers’ emotional response to this architecture, which he describes in ‘Begga’, which prompted his own reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

 

After everyone has left the Church Begga remains on her knees, effectively praying for death as a release from her sufferings.  A priest emerges, followed by a sacristan carrying a ciborium.  Someone is about to be administered the last rites.  Almost a ghost herself, Begga follows them through the winding streets to her stepmother’s door.  Coleta lies dead, and her little brother has also been taken ill.  Begga rushes in and cradles her brother despite her stepmother’s rages, which are overtaken by signs that she too is succumbing to the disease.  As she lies on the same bed where Coleta died, Begga nurses her.  The stepmother’s heart melts and in her last act she calls the cooper and his son to her, and reveals that she lied about her stepdaughter.  Angels in heaven could not be purer.  After her death Frans and his father take Begga and her little brother into their house, which from now on will also be hers.

Lace, I must admit, plays a rather small part in Begga’s story.  She works long hours for small wages; she shares a home with other lacemakers; these elements of the poem draw on life.  She embodies some of the themes that would recur in Flemish literature on lacemakers in which poverty and suffering go hand-in-hand with redemption and piety.  But the only element of her trade that is important to the plot is the issue of advances.  Lacemakers almost always needed credit, but by taking advances from the lace dealers they were effectively changing their status from free artisans to dependent workers.  This proletarianization of women worried nineteenth-century commentators in Belgium, both Liberals and Catholics (van Beers fell between these two political poles that dominated Belgian political life).  A worker could not free herself from the dealer or factor until she had paid back the advances; but the dealer could ensure – by charging too much for the thread or by reducing the price paid for her work – that she was never in a position to do so.  The lacemaker could be economically abused, but also sexually abused: this latter theme is also recurrent in nineteenth-century Flemish literature.  As we have seen, it was the central plot-device in Frans Carrein’s Elisa de kantwerkster.

 

 

[1] Incorrectly, but the Beguines’ celebration of her cult certainly helped maintain the status of Saint Begga in Belgium.  The origin of the Beguines was a matter of lively debate in the nineteenth century: see, among others, Eduard Hallmann, Die Geschichte des Ursprungs der belgischen Beghinen (Berlin, 1843).

[2] Jan Van Beers, Gevoel en Leven: Poëzie (Antwerp,1869), pp. 3-86.

[3] Cornelis Petrus Tiele, Elements of the Science of Religion (Edinburgh, 1897-99), Vol. 2, pp. 10-15.

[4] Considerable biographical information on Jan van Beers, like all Flemish writers, is available on the DBNL, digitale bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren.  See also Steven van Impe, ‘The Librarian as a Nation Builder: Frans Hendrik Mertens (1796-1867) and the Antwerp City Library’, Quaerendo 42 (2012): 221-30; G. Schmook, ‘De “Mertensen” en de “Van Beersen” uit Antwerpen, XVIII e -XX e eeuwen’, Mens en Taak, 25 (1982): 88-113.  Their descendants include several prominent contributors to Belgian culture and politics including: Jan van Beers the younger (1852–1927), a risqué society painter and scandalmonger; Henri de Man (1885-1953), a Flemish socialist politician and intellectual who collaborated during the Second World War; Paul de Man, a literary theorist.

[5] For which see Catharina Lis, Social Change and the Labouring Poor, Antwerp 1770-1860 (New Haven, 1986).

[6] Karel Velle, ‘België in de 19de eeuw : Gevolgen van de “blauwe dood”’, Geschiedenis der geneeskunde 4 (1997): 95-105.

John Plummer’s Northamptonshire ‘Lace Songs’

Walter Bonner Gash: ‘Mill Lane Farm’. One of Plummer’s walks around Kettering. Used with permission of Alfred East Art Gallery, Kettering. http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mill-lane-farm-46011

We have already met the Kettering staymaker John Plummer (1831-1914): he was one of the contributors to the Notes & Queries series on ‘Catterns’.  Plummer was also an example of an ‘English labouring-class poet’ (like John Askham of Wellingborough, who featured in an earlier post).[1]  Plummer published only one volume of poems – Songs of Labour, Northamptonshire Rambles and Other Poems (1860) – but he is probably better known than Askham.  That is not necessarily because he was a better poet.  Although some of his more lighthearted pieces work well, Plummer too had a weakness for highfalutin language and poetic clichés, so all mothers are ‘angels’, all earls are ‘belted’…  But Plummer led a more adventurous and combative life than Askham, and above all was more politically engaged, which brought him public attention.

John Plummer, photo by J. Hubert Newman of Sydney: State Library of New South Wales P1/1365

Given his interest in lacemaking, the title Songs of Labour led us to hope that lacemakers would feature prominently.  Sadly, they are not mentioned even once; nonetheless, their influence may still be detected, as we will explain at the end of this post.

Plummer was born in the East End of London, where his father worked as a staymaker.  His youth was marked by periods of poverty, and made more difficult by partial deafness and lameness, consequences of a childhood illness.  Despite receiving almost no schooling, he became obsessed with the written word, seeking out books wherever he could find them.  He started writing poetry in the wake of the revolutionary events of 1848, inspired by reading the Chartist poet Gerald Massey’s ‘Song of Welcome’ to the exiled Hungarian rebel Kossuth.  In 1853 he and his father took jobs at a Kettering stay factory, but he quickly established a second career as a local newspaper commentator on a range of political and social issues.[2]  In 1860 he married Mary Ann Jenkinson, a milliner from Kettering, and soon after the couple moved to Hackney to work for publishing house Cassell & Co., which specialized in improving literature aimed at the working class.[3]  In London Plummer pursued a new career as journalist and newspaper editor.  He became quite well known, corresponding with Lord Brougham (to whom his book of poems was dedicated) and John Stuart Mill: the latter described him as one of ‘the most inspiring examples of mental cultivation and high principle in a self-instructed working man’.[4]  (Mary Ann Plummer, meanwhile, was a signatory of Mill’s petition in favour of women’s suffrage in 1866.[5])  In 1879 the Plummer family emigrated to Australia where John became editor of the Illustrated Sydney News among many other activities.  Northamptonshire was not, however, forgotten: his house in Sydney was named after the village near Kettering where he had married, and about which he had written a poem, Thorpe Malsor.[6]

This background, and the title Songs of Labour, might lead one to think that Plummer’s politics were radical.  And in lots of ways they were: Plummer’s poems condemned poverty, war and the tyranny of kings, and celebrated the virtues of the labouring classes.  However, he first came to national prominence when he wrote in support of his brother Japheth who had attempted to set himself up as a shoemaker in the teeth of a closed shop operated by the powerful Northamptonshire shoemakers’ trade union.  Japheth was eventually driven out of the neighbourhood (he became a soldier) while John was burnt in effigy.  Plummer was not entirely hostile to trade unions, but his ideal social type, which he celebrated in poems such as ‘The Poor Man’s Dream’ and ‘The Emigrant’s Song’, was the homesteader.  In North America the working man could find land of his own to farm and be beholden to no one, neither aristocratic landlord, nor factory owner nor even his fellow worker.  As a political economist Plummer supported technical innovation such as steam engines and factories, but in his poems he fled the ‘smoke-dried teeming Cities, where/ Is often heard the low and wailing sob/ Of Labour mourning in despair’ for the ‘grassey lea’ of Thorpe Malsor.  Education, self-help, sobriety, Christian charity, these were his regular themes.  Australia, another pioneer society, suited him admirably.

In 1878, the ever prolific Plummer wrote three articles on ‘The Northamptonshire Lace-Making Industry Past and Present’ for the Northampton Mercury.[7]  This is a rather useful series because, while Plummer made use of existing printed material such as the Children’s Employment Commission reports, he also included anecdotes told to him and his own observations.  For instance he cites the local names given to lacemaking equipment and to common patterns.  The picture he paints of the industry in the past was largely negative: lacemakers were impoverished, unhealthy and immoral.  He had few hopes for its future either.  But he does offer little insights into their social history, such as lacemakers were prone to a ‘nervous twitching of the fingers’, that they were good at mental arithmetic because of counting pins, and that they were proud of the tools of their trade such as their spangled bobbins and their cushions.  One story he tells concerns a deceased lacemaker whose daughter was presented with a bill which she believed her mother had paid even though she could find no receipt.  The creditor sent bailiffs to seize the lacemaker’s property, but the daughter was determined to hold onto her mother’s pillow as a memento.  During the struggle, the cover of the pillow was torn and out fell the missing receipt together with other documents and some coins.

Like almost every other commentator on Midlands lacemaking, Plummer tackles the topic of ‘lace songs’.  He quotes the usual sources such as the Notes & Queries articles, and includes the unavoidable Shakespearean reference, but he also mentions that while living in Kettering he ‘formed a small collection of lace-makers’ songs, which has, unfortunately, become lost.’  Nonetheless, he could recall some of the contents.  They included the gruesome ‘Little Sir Hugh’ which we discussed in a previous post, and in general Plummer observed that ‘the more horrible and revolting the details, the greater the popularity’ of lace songs.  He also cites ‘Long Lankin’ and ‘Death and the Maiden’, which are both well known songs, and mentioned by other collectors of lacemakers’ oral traditions.  However, the rest are much more difficult to identify and to date we have been unable to trace any text or tune for the following seven listed by Plummer as ‘lace songs’.

1) ‘’The Lord of Burleigh’. This ballad narrates a kind of She Stoops to Conquer in reverse.  It is the same story as Tennyson’s 1835 poem, in which a rich lord pretends to be poor in order to win a woman’s heart.  Both were inspired by the 1791 marriage of Henry Cecil (first Marquess of Exeter and eponymous Lord of Burghley House in Cambridgeshire) to Sarah Hoggins, a farmer’s daughter from Great Bolas in Shropshire. The opening stanza went ‘A noble lord a-wooing went,/ A-wooing went my lord;/ She was a maid of low degree,/ And would not speak a word’.  That is all that Plummer tells us, other than it was considerably ruder than Tennyson’s version.
2) ‘Blackberry Nan’. The first lines ran ‘Blackberry Nan, Blackberry Nan/ Killed a cat in her milking can.’
3) ‘The Squire’s Ghost’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.  There are some well-known folksongs that might fit this rubric.
4) ‘Christian and the Money-lender’. The title is all the information Plummer provides which is particularly unfortunate, as this is a theme evoked in lacemakers’ songs in France and Flanders, so there may be a connection.
5) ‘Betsy’s Dream’. The title is all the information Plummer provides.
6) A ballad which alludes to Simon de St. Liz (or rather Simon de Senlis, first earl of Northampton and 2nd earl of Huntingdon, one of William the Conqueror’s knights).  A medieval legend tells that William intended that Simon should marry Judith, widow of the executed Earl of Northumbria Waltheof, but she refused him on account of his lameness.  Furious, Simon pursued Judith until pacified by her daughter Maud’s promise to marry him instead.  Maud’s influence was supposed to have turned the old soldier into something of a saint.
7) A song celebrating the lacemakers’ patron Saint Catherine that commenced ‘On Cattern’s Day we sing and play,/ And wear our Sunday gown’.

We would be delighted if anyone was able to provide us with more information about any of these, or even better Plummer’s manuscript of lacemakers’ songs.  But in the meantime it might be worth mentioning that two of these themes had already been used by Plummer in his poems.  After ‘Songs of Labour’, Plummer had a section dedicated to ‘Northamptonshire Rambles’ which took their cue from some item of local history or a recent event.  One retold ‘The Legend of Burleigh House’; another the story of ‘Simon de St. Liz’.  Is it impossible that these topics were suggested to him by songs he heard lacemakers sing?

 

Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter, and his wife Sarah (née Hoggins) by Sir Thomas Lawrence,
From Wilipedia Commons. The subject of a lacemakers’ song?

 

 

[1] Although this label is retrospective, this group does have some coherence, not least in the interest its members had in each others’ work.  Askham named his house after John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’; while Plummer actually went to visit Clare in his asylum in 1861.

[2] Most information on his early life comes from the ‘autobiographical sketch’ that served as an introduction to his Songs of Labour.  Another short biography was included in a collection edited the penal reformer Matthew Davenport Hill for the publisher John Cassell, himself one of Plummer’s patrons: Our Examples, Poor and Rich; Or, Biographical Sketches of Men and Women Who have by an Extraordinary Use of their Opportunities, Benefitted their Fellow Creatures (London, 1861), pp. 287-96.

[3] See the post on the website ‘Ringstead People’ dedicated to Mary Ann Jenkinson and her family.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy ed. Jonathan Riley (Oxford, 1994), p. 151.  Mill and Plummer wrote and met with each other regularly in the 1860s and 70s.

[5] On which see the post ‘The South Hackney Connection’ on the blog ‘Woman and Her Sphere’.

[6] Hence Plummer has an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

[7] Appearing on 19 January, 2 February and 16 March 1878.

‘The Old Grandame’ (1868) By John Askham, The Wellingborough ‘Shoemaker-Poet’

Poetry was, in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, a favoured literature among the English working-class.  Poetry fitted more easily than prose into the world of song and recitation which characterised working-class sociability.  Poems were omnipresent in newspapers and other ephemeral literature of the epoch; it was cheaper than three decker novels, and more easily read in the limited leisure time (and limited lighting) available.  So the working classes consumed poetry, and they also produced poetry.  The work of dozens of working-class poets from the nineteenth century survives.  They include familiar figures such as the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare from Northamptonshire, and John Plummer, a staymaker from Kettering (whose own connections to the lace trade we will explore in a subsequent blog).  John Askham known as the ‘shoemaker poet’ of Wellingborough, is now more obscure than either, and whether his poetry is due a revival we will leave the critics to decide.  However Askham, like his peers who turned aspects of their working lives into poetry, was also a chronicler of social history.  And in Northamptonshire that social history includes not just shoemaking but lacemaking.

John Askham, the ‘shoemaker-poet’ of Wellingborough

 

Askham was born in 1825 in Wellingborough; the youngest son of a miller who had turned to shoemaking after losing a leg.  John followed his father’s new trade from the age of ten.  Before then he went to school, but his instruction was, by his own account, less than adequate.  ‘I was sent to the Free School of the town, at that time presided over by an ignorant man, who had far more need of teaching himself than capacity to teach others.  At this school… I have no recollection of learning anything, my most vivid remembrance being of having to stand up with my legs straddled out to their fullest extent in a window recesss, with a tall foolscap on my devoted head.’  Askham’s education was acquired piecemeal from reading and attending lectures in later life.  He was an autodidact, and his poetry bears testimony to his will for self-improvement, including accounts of visits to museums and archaeological digs.  However, in his younger years he had little time for such things: ‘I sometimes try to remember the time when I was free to come and go, and indulge in the sweet amenities of boyhood, but for the life of me I cannot.  Nothing but one long unbroken perspective of toil presents itselt to my memory when I recall the past, varied now and then by truant wanderings among the fields’.

Aged about twenty-five, Askham started composing poetry ‘for the most part in the comparative quiet of the warehouse of a shoe upper manufactory’, though he was keen to make clear that this was on his own time, not the firm’s.  His first published work appeared in the Wellingborough Independent, where it drew the attention of George James De Wilde, editor of the more influential Northampton Mecury and an occasional poet himself.  Askham became the Wellinborough correspondent for the Mercury and other Midland papers.  About this time too he left shoemaking to work for the Singer sewing-machine company, before returning to shoemaking on his own account.  In 1871 he was appointed to the Wellingborough school board (under the new Elementary Education Act), a sign that he was a respected member of the community, and in 1874 he was made sanitory inspector for the town.  He was an active member of the Literary Institute, a bulwark of civic self-improvement.  Although Askham had started writing at the suggestion of an old employer, an ardent Chartist, he himself was not very radical.  He had a keen sense of ‘the dignity of labour’, the subject of his first poem, but his books were paid for by subscription from the rich and well-connected members of Northamptonshire society, including Conservative peers and MPs.  His acceptance into the establishment might be indicated by his shift of allegiance from the congregationalist chapel attended by his parents to the Church of England.

Askham published four books of poems: Sonnets on the Months (1863); Descriptive Poems (1866); Judith, and Other Poems (1868) and Poems and Sonnets (1875).  His poems are mostly short and cover a range of topics; a lot are about work, though nature and religion also compete for space.  The Old Grandame first appeared in the Northampton Mercury for 8 August 1868, and was then reprinted in Judith: it is one of his longer pieces, and the only one that deals directly with lace.  One could read this as another contribution to the Romance of the Lace Pillow – the cottage window, the rush-bottomed chair – these are elements found in nineteenth-century chocolate box paintings.  On the other hand it offers quite a detailed inventory of the lacemaker’s equipment – her pillow with its pockets, the golden pins, the spangled bobbins – ‘her delight and pride’, the flask and taper, the bobbin winder, the yard-wand for measuring the finished lace.  Askham also confirms some of the local terms used in the lace trade, such as ‘down’ for one completed pattern and ‘maid’ for the support that carried the cushion; other terms are less familiar, such as the nicknames ‘Fanny’, ‘Joey’ and ‘Patty’ given to her lace patterns.  Askham clearly had some familiarity with lacemaking.

 

The Old Grandame

The old grandame — over seventy —
With her wrinkled kindly face,
Sits at yon cottage window
Making her pillow-lace.

She weareth an ample bonnet,
And her gown is made of stuff, —
In whose deep, capacious pocket,
Lieth a box of snuff.

She hath used the same great ‘glasses’
More years than I can tell;
Green baize is round the earbits
Of their frame of tortoise-shell.

Since first I can remember
I have seen her sitting there —
Working from morn till evening —
In that old rush-bottomed chair.

You may hear a pleasant rattle
As you pass the window by,
As the long thin yellow fingers
Among the bobbins ply.

Her pillow is large and cumbrous,
Pockets on either side;
And her scores of spangled bobbins
Are her delight and pride:

Beads of all shapes and colours,
And bugles old and rare;
Tokens, and groats of silver,
And ancient coins are there;

Making a gentle music,
As beneath her labours grow
‘Downs’ of delicate net-work
White as the winter’s snow.

You would hardly think those fingers —
Fumbling the pins among —
Could weave such a delicate fabric,
So fragile, yet so strong.

She toileth on winter evenings
By the light of her precious flask;
She says it is sin to be idle,
And deems not labour a task.

Then the flame from her twinkling taper
Falls with reflected ray,
As a star in the midnight darkness
Lighteth the traveller’s way.

There she will sit, with her pillow
Propt with a wooden ‘maid’;
All, save the ray on her parchment,
Cast into sombre shade.

Sometimes her wheel she reaches
From the shelf above her head,
And her bobbins she deftly windeth
With spotless gimp and thread:

In its drawers are hanks of cotton,
Spare bobbins and parchment rolls,
‘Fanny’, and ‘Joey’, and ‘Patty’,
Pricked out on the narrow scrolls.

On a card beneath a napkin
Her precious lace is rolled;
And pins stick around by hundreds,
Yellow and bright as gold.

There — standing in the corner
Beneath her crockery shelf —
Is her brown old-fashioned yard-wand,
Honest and true as herself.

The old grandame loves to prattle
Of the good old times gone by,
When lace was worth the making,
And the worker’s wage was high.

No husband now nor children
Hath the worthy grandame got:
All dead save her darling grandson
He gardens her little plot.

She will tell you, aye! to an hour —
Though thirty years have sped,
Since there in the upper chamber
Her dear good man lay dead;

How she mourned from thence a widow;
And of her children twain:
How the lad went for a soldier,
And came not back again;

And how her only daughter
Married, and pined, and died,
Blessing, with dying blessing,
The first-born at her side.

So prattles and toils the grandame,
As she sits in her wonted place
In the old thatched cottage yonder,
Making her pillow-lace.

 

Askham also wrote a number of prose pieces which appeared in Midlands newspapers and some of which were later collected in Sketches in Prose and Verse (1893).  Lacemakers appear, mostly tangentially, in some of these.  For instance, he wrote a historical account of the ‘holiday’ held in Wellingborough to celebrate the passing of the Great Reform Act on 6 July 1832.  (This was first published in the Northampton Mercury for Saturday 30 June, 1877.)  All the local trades joined in the celebrations which culminated in a parade through the town and great communal feast.  Although the leather trades were at the head of the procession, naturally given the importance of shoemaking in the town, the blacksmiths, braziers, printers and tailors all joined in.  Second in the parade, between the shoemakers and the carpenters, were the lacemakers.  ‘The lace-trade (an important one at that time of day) is represented by a posse of the best looking damsels, dressed in their Sunday gowns, with drop curls, stick-up combs, and bishop sleeves.  At their head is a damsel handsomely attired in a fancy dress, borne shoulder high, and what do you think she is up to?  Why, working at her lace pillow as demure as you please, sticking pins, and rattling spangled bobbins and gimp about, and doing “head” with as much coolness as if there were nobody looking at her, and as if people were not killing themselves by inches shouting “Hurrah! Charlotte Noble!”’  This account of a public display by lacemakers, identified by the tools of their trade, accords with other accounts of processions during elections at Aylesbury and elsewhere.  Whether Charlotte Noble champion lacemaker existed, we cannot tell, though a Charlotte Noble served as moniteress of Wellingborough’s infants’ school in the 1880s.

Askham also mentions, in a comical account of a concert put on by the ‘United Warblers’, that the sound of the clarinet ‘always put me in mind of the old lace schools and lace making’.  If this is a reference to the chanting of lace tells it’s a bit obscure, but it offers just the faintest scrap of evidence as to how they sounded.

 

Further information

Although Askham has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, information about his life is scant.  An article ‘John Askham the Northamptonshire Poet’ in the magazine Leisure Hour for 16 September 1871, is the basis for most subsequent accounts, including the anonymous ‘Biographical Sketch’ that introduces Sketches in Prose and Verse.  The Northampton Mercury regularly carried articles not just by but about this local character, including the obituary in the edition of Friday 2 November 1894.  But these only add some picturesque details.

Louise Otto-Peters and the Erzgebirge Lacemakers (1840-1849)

Louise Otto, German writer and campaigner for women’s rights

 

Louise Otto (1819-1895, often known as Otto-Peters after her marriage to August Peters, writer and revolutionary), was an early and prominent campaigner for women’s rights in nineteenth-century Germany.  Although the author of nearly thirty novels, she is probably best known today for her role as a journalist and founder, in 1865, of the Algemeinen deutschen Frauenvereins (United German Women’s Association which, now under the name Deutsche Staatsürgerinnen-Verband, still promotes women’s issues).  In 1849, in the wake of the 1848 revolutions which briefly brought liberal governments to power in most German states including her native Saxony, she founded one of the first political papers aimed at women, the Frauen-Zeitung whose motto was ‘I recruit female citizens for the Empire of Liberty!’.  Despite constant harassment from the authorities, including new laws banning women from owning or running newspapers in Saxony and Prussia, the journal survived until 1853.

Otto and her sisters grew up in a comfortable middle-class home in Meissen.  Her father was a legal official, her mother had been an embroiderer.  Her feminism bears the imprint of this class upbringing, as her demands for women’s access to education, to the professions, to governmental decision making, were prompted by a belief in women’s special role as wives and mothers.  For Otto, women were possessed of a distinct moral identity, the ‘Eternal-Womanly’, which was needed to correct and guide men’s actions.  She was also spurred on by German nationalism and a degree of Protestant chauvinism (at time when the territory of what would become Germany in 1871 was shared between forty different states loosely bound by the German confederation, but very divided in their religious affiliations).  Nonetheless, she stands out among other feminists of her class and period in her commitment to women’s right to work, and her interest in the plight of women workers.  The ‘Social Question’ – how to integrate the new social classes created by nineteenth-century industrialisation – was as important to her as the ‘Woman Question’.  In her lead article for the first edition of Neue Bahnen (New Ways), the journal of the ADF which she edited from 1865 to her death, she wrote: ‘We declare that work, which is the very corner stone of the new society, is a duty and honour of the female sex, and we therefore demand the right to work and hold it as vital that all barriers which stand in the way of female work should be removed.’

Lacemakers were the first group of women workers that had prompted her solicitude.  She spent the winter of 1840 visiting her newly married sister at Oederan in the Erzgebirge, a mountainous region of Saxony and one of the main centres of handmade lacemaking in Germany.  Her observation of their poverty and misery inspired one of her first literary works, the poem ‘Klöpplerinnen’ (the Lace-Makers).  This was originally published in the Oederaner Stadtanzeiger in 1840, and according to Carol Diethe, Otto’s biographer, the poem ‘took on an almost iconic status in the years preceding the 1848 revolution’, for it directly confronted the leisured classes with their responsibility for the wretched and degraded state of the workers who supplied their luxuries.  One might think of it as a precursor, but an equivalent to, Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ (1843).  Otto returned to the theme of lacemakers’ families in another poem, ‘Im Erzgebirge’, as well as in one of her editorials for the Frauen-Zeitung ‘For the Female Workers’.  Literature was a campaigning force in the nineteenth century, especially for women who were excluded from political organisations.  Poems and novels were attempts to shape public debate and bring about reform.  We will see this again in our contribution on another social activist and novelist and Otto’s contemporary, the Flemish writer Johanna Courtmans-Berchmans (1811-1890), who also addressed the plight of lacemakers in a work of literature.

The 1840s were known as the ‘Hungry Forties’, a period in which European artisans and handcraft workers were being confronted for the first time with mass-produced factory competition, while a series of dismal harvests forced up food prices.  These years witnessed frequent moments of worker unrest, such as the Silesian Weavers’ Uprising of 1844, the background to Otto’s most famous novel Schloss und Fabrik (Chateau and Factory, 1846) as well as the inspiration of Heinrich Heine’s political poem The Silesian Weavers (1844).  But whereas Heine imagined the weavers self-confidently advancing their own cause, Otto’s lacemakers lack any initiative of their own: the appeal is the consumers of lace to act on their behalf.

Below we give the text in German and English, and then a translation of one of Louise Otto’s articles on women’s work.

 

Klöpplerinnen (1840)

Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Die Wangen bleich und die Augen rot!
Sie mühen sich ab für einen Bissen,
Für einen Bissen schwarzes Brot!

Grossmutter hat sich die Augen erblindet,
Sie wartet bis sie der Tod befreit—
Im stillen Gebet sie die Hände windet:
Gott schütz’ uns in der schweren Zeit.

Die Kinder regen die kleinen Hände,
Die Klöppel fliegen hinab, hinauf,
Der Müh’ und Sorge kein Ende, kein Ende.
Das ist ihr künftger Lebenslauf.

Die Jungfrauen all, dass Gott sich erbarme,
Sie ahnen nimmer der Jugend Lust,
Das Elend schliesst in seine Arme,
Der Mangel schmiegt sich an ihre Brust.

Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen,
Sehr ihr die Spitzen, die sie gewebt:
Ihr Reichen, Grossen—hat das Gewissen
Euch nie in der innersten Seele gebebt?

Ihr schwelgt und prasset, wo sie verderben,
Geniesst das Leben in Saus und Braus,
Indessen sie vor Hunger sterben,
Gott dankend, dass die Qual nun aus!

Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Und redet noch schön von Gottvertraun?
Ihr habt es aus unserer Seele gerissen:
Weil wir euch selber gottlos schaun!

Seht ihr sie sitzen am Klöppelkissen
Und fühlt kein Erbarmen in solcher Zeit:
Dann werde euer Sterbekissen
Der Armut Fluch und all ihr Leid!

The Lace-Makers (1840)

See the women making lace
Pallid cheeks and eyes so red!
Tired out, and all for nothing,
Nothing but the coarsest bread!

Grandma’s eyes are blinded now,
Only death will set her free,
Wringing hands, she quietly prays:
God help us in extremity.

The children move their little hands,
Up and down the bobbins fling.
Toil and trouble without end
Is what their future life will bring.

God protect each little Miss
Who nothing knows of youthful zest –
For poverty embraces all;
Want snuggles into every breast.
See the women making lace,
Pillow lace, a work of art;
Rich and famous – do not scruples
Linger in your inner heart?

While they decline, you feast and spend,
And savour life in luxury,
Meanwhile these women starve and die,
Released, at last from misery!

See the women making lace
Is not your faith hypocrisy?
All their belief extinguished now,
They call your faith apostasy!

See the woman making lace,
Have you no mercy for her plight?
For else your final waking hour
Will reap her curse from pain and blight!

 

Translation by Carol Diethe.  In Carol Diethe, The life and Work of Germany’s Founding Feminist: Louise-Otto-Peters (1819-1895) (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), pp. 159-161.

A different translation, by Melanie Archangeli and Patricia A. Herminghouse, based on a slightly different text of the poem can be found in Patricia A. Hemminghouse and Magda Mueller (eds) German Feminist Writings (Bloomsbury, 2001), pp. 61-63.

 

 

Louise Otto-Peters.  ‘For the Female Workers’ (1849).

…What should I say then about the lace-makers in the Erzgebirge [a mountainous region in Saxony]?  Here the going wage per day is three to five pfennig!  Once I came across a lace-maker working onan extremely arduous lace of black silk, and she told me that her eyes can hardly endure winding the thin, dark threads around the shiny needles.  In the evening she is in no state to work on it, but she considers herself lucky to have this work, because the black lace is better paid: she can make a half a yard per day and thus earn one neugroschen without having to continue in the evening, when she can do coarser work.  For her one neugroschen per day was a good wage!  Thus, the buyer paid her two neugroschen per yard, the satin thread to make it cost about as much, and on th market one pays for a yard of similar black satin lace twenty neugroschen.  Just draw your own conclusion!

The quill trembles in my hand whenever I think of the entire abominable system of commerce, manufacturing and its victims!  If only you had seen the girls and women of the upper Erzgebirge!  The children who grew up in gloomy rooms, looking ghostly and pale, with arms and legs wasted away and bodies distended from the only nourishment that they have, the potato.  The father has got himself an early death at the dye works or peddles tubs of nuts or wooden kitchen utensils across the countryside — at home woman and child must work since he cannot provide for them. The little girls must make lace as soon as they can control their little hands.  Then they waste away at the pillow for making lace, where their mother, who could only give birth to feeble children, has already atrophied, at the pillow for making lace where their grandmother went blind!  For the constant staring at the fine threads and pins soon steals the ability to see, and the easy movement of the small bobbins makes their fingers delicate and their arms weak and thin, incapable of any other work.  And now the clever people come and say that the women could do something other than make lace — it is crazy that they insist on doing it!  No, they cannot do something else, because they were never able to build up their strength and have grown weak and completely incapable of performing any heavy work ― even if you could procure it for them.  You can assume responsibility for the children so they can learn something else ― but you cannot take them away from their mother, for no one has that right.

No, you will reply to me: in the mountains the misery is twice as bad ― but in the other cities, large and small, everyone who wants to work, including women and girls, finds sufficient and rewarding employment; indeed they find it, but often only ― in the brothels.

Translated by Melanie Archangeli with Patricia A. Herminghouse.  In Patricia A. Herminghouse and Magda Mueller (eds) German Feminist Writings (Bloomsbury, 2001), pp. 64-66. [section only]

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