We were wrong to claim that Goldoni’s Le baruffe chiozzotte (The Squabbles in Chioggia) is the only play to feature lacemakers as its main characters. Frans Carrein’s Elisa de Kantwerkster (Eliza the lacemaker) puts one of them even more firmly centre stage. This piece of musical theatre was first performed in Bruges in 1859 by the Flemish amateur dramatic society Yver en Broedermin (Zeal and Brotherhood). Such ‘chambers of rhetoric’, as they were known, had a long history in the Low Countries as promoters of middle-class sociability and civic ideals. In the nineteenth century they were, additionally, important vehicles for Flemish as a language of culture in Belgium. Yver en Broedermin, for example, organized the first competition for new plays in Flemish in 1835.
Yver en Broedermin, founded in 1822, was more socially open than its relatively exclusive rival in Bruges, the Maatschappy van Vaderlandsche Taal en Letterkunde. Frans Carrein (1816 Eernegem – 1877 Ostend) was typical of its urban artisan and clerk membership. His day-job was a pastry chef, but literature had become his passion. He had started in a rival society, Kunstliebe, in 1843 (Kunstliebe had broken away from Yver en Broedermin in 1841, no doubt largely as a vehicle for personal ambitions, but it also took a more radical position on the language question). Carrein’s initial dramatic excursions, in which he often acted himself, were translations of French melodramas and vaudevilles, which were staple fare for Flemish chambers of rhetoric at the time. But Carrein had ambitions to foster a native Flemish theatre. The nineteenth century witnessed the deliberate creation of repertoires of ‘national’ dramas which drew their inspiration from moments of national history. Flanders was no exception, and so Carrein’s first major work told the story of Pieter Lanchals (1849), the leader of the Bruges Revolt against the Emperor Maximilian of Austria in the 1480s. This is evidence of the tremendous influence of Hendrik Conscience’s 1838 novel – effectively the first Flemish novel – De Leeuw van Vlaanderen, which took as its inspiration an earlier revolt of the Flemish cities against their overlords. The late medieval period was central to the Flemish Movement’s cultural memory.
However, Carrein soon shifted towards a theatre of social criticism; a transition from romantic to realist drama in other words. So contentious was his 1851 play Arm en Ryk (Poor and Rich) that it was banned by the mayor of Bruges. Arm en Ryk was set in a Flemish village of weavers and spinners; the villain of the piece is a linen-merchant and also, as it happens, mayor of the village, who not only exploits the weavers but also opposes the love between his son and a weaver’s daughter. All ends happily but the depiction of social conflict, including a crowd of weavers threatening death to the cowering merchant, was uncomfortable viewing in Flanders in the mid-nineteenth century. The 1840s had witnessed the catastrophic collapse of the once dominant linen trade in Flanders as handloom weavers and spinners succumbed under the dual effects of factory-made competition from Britain and harvest failure. The crisis gave rise to widespread hunger and even starvation. A similar set of circumstances had led to armed rebellion among the weavers of Silesia in 1844 (the theme of Louise Otto’s novel Schloss und Fabrik which has a rather similar plotline to Carrein’s play, see our blog entry); the ‘Hungry Forties’ were part of the background to the Europe-wide series of revolutions in the spring and summer of 1848. Belgium did not witness any similar outbreak of violence; instead the Belgian government responded by setting up lace schools in the Flemish countryside, in the hope that lace might take the place of spinning as a means of supporting the population. But the mayor of Bruges may have feared that the play could enflame social conflict. After all, the revolt that had led to the creation of the state of Belgium in 1830 had itself started at the theatre. In the absence of fully democratic institutions, theatre was a locus where protest could be voiced and rebellion enacted.
Carrein, however, was not really a revolutionary. Workers’ violence, Carrein believed, was a consequence of ignorance, especially among the poor. Ignorance could be combated through literature, which would impart moral guidance as well as knowledge. As society became more democratic and not ruled by a single class, it was vital that the masses be provided with instruction. But for this campaign to be successful, literature had to be in the common tongue, that is in Flemish. Carrein set out this programme in a speech to the third Congress dedicated to Dutch Literature, held in Brussels in 1851, where he proposed the foundation of a society for the distribution of pamphlets to the people, and which would also support the writers of such works. (Carrein spoke immediately after Jan van Beers, whose own contribution to the literature of lacemaking, ‘Begga’, will be discussed in another blog.)
The fate of Arm en Ryk seems to have left Carrein a little bitter; or at least it was several years before he tried his hands at theatre again. In the introduction to his next piece, Elisa de Kantwerkster, Carrein took his Flemish audience to task because they only had a taste for for comic pieces and songs. Nonetheless he bent to the fashion, and Eliza is a relatively light piece with lots of music provided by P. Cools. In a way he was proved right because Elisa was certainly his most popular work, repeatedly restaged in Ypres, Ghent and Brussels as well as Bruges. It was a standard in the repertory of the company De Vlaams Ster who were still performing it in the 1900s. And as if to bear out Carrein’s words, when it put on in Brussels in March 1862, ‘the public heartily laughed’. However, Carrein explicitly wanted the play to achieve something more than amusement: it was meant as a critique of the way the lace industry was run, based on his own observations and interviews with lacemakers. In particular he attacked the practice of advancing money to workers as a means of making them dependent. They could not change employer while they remained in debt, and there were all kinds of tricks to keep them in debt.
The play opens with Elisa Nolf sitting at her pillow before dawn. She has a lamp and a waterfilled flask beside her to concentrate light on her work, and a firepot to keep her feet warm, the standard accoutrements of the lacemaker. She is singing, but her song is a lament: the lacemaker works from early morning to late into the night, damaging her eyes for a pitiful salary, while duchesses and baronesses wear her work to balls and grand dinners, she suffers in body and soul. Elisa is an orphan: her father died not long before, and to pay for medicine during his last sickness she borrowed thirty francs from the lace-merchant Gierbaert (‘vulture beard’; Carrein played this part when the play was first performed). Until she has cleared this debt she cannot work for anyone else. She has also been left with the care of a younger brother, Joseph, a bravehearted lad but not entirely reliable. He has in fact just been sacked though Elisa does not know this. She sends him to the baker for a loaf, but Joseph has to tell her that the baker won’t give them credit anymore (they are two francs and thirteen centimes in debt), not now Elisa has a rich boyfriend. The baker’s implication is that Adolf, the writer-friend of Elisa’s father, is visiting too often for her reputation. Elisa is horrified. She has been slaving away, denying herself all pleasures, preserving her virtue as best she can, and yet is still the subject of the neighbours’ gossip. Unfortunately Adolf himself appears at exactly this moment, and Elisa, in her shame, sends him away.
Adolf leaves, and Rooze Dorn (there is no rose without a thorn), an elderly neighbour (played by a man) arrives to sit and work with Elisa. Her language is colourful and plebian, and includes bits of English (eg: ‘nottink’). The women plan to sing while they work because, as Elisa says, ‘song makes the work lighter; it gives spirit and courage’. However, before they sit down, Joseph whispers to Rooze that ‘magerman is kok’ (‘lean man is the cook’; in other words they have had nothing to eat). Rooze hurries off to get bread, leaving her pillow. Elisa chides Joseph: time is the only precious thing that the poor have, and if Rooze is giving up her time for them, then she should make up time for her. She picks up Rooze’s pillow and starts on her pattern.
Just at that moment Gierbaert appears and, spying the other cushion, accuses Elisa of making ‘dievenkanten’ (‘thieves’ lace’, that is lace for another merchant other than the one she owes). Joseph claims that this other pillow is his, and in a song celebrates that men are now doing women’s work. Gierbaert finds Joseph tiresome and, after he leaves, suggests to Elisa that as his own son has been selected for military service, Joseph could replace him and then the debt would be paid. In nineteenth-century Belgium conscripts were chosen by lottery, and if someone unfortunate enough to pull a ‘bad number’ could find, that is buy, a replacement, he did not have to go. Effectively this made military service a burden that fell disproportionately on the poor, and it was much resented. Elisa refuses to sell her brother, but this only brings Gierbaert to the real point of his bargaining. He wants Elisa to become his lover; and perhaps she might be his wife later, when he has first ‘tried on the shoe’. When the indignant Elisa refuses, he explains that ‘your fate is in my hands, believe me’. At this moment Rooze returns to hear the full force of Elisa’s anger: Gierbaert has profited from her misery, now he comes to buy her brother’s blood, her honour and her emaciated body. Gierbaert leaves, threatening that she will soon have news from him.
Rooze herself brings news that she has just seen Joseph step in the path of a run-away coach and horses carrying a woman and children. Joseph follows soon after, safe and sound, having stopped the coach. But he too is followed by a policeman, who tells Elisa that Gierbaert has brought a complaint, and she must accompany him. While Joseph and Rooze argue about what to do, Adolf appears just in time to meet Elisa returning from the magistrate, hopeless and despairing. She has to pay her debt today or she will go to prison. Although Rooze herself has only 30 centimes in the world, she sets off at once to rouse the other lacemakers and see if they can get the money together. Adolf and Joseph both have plans too and leave Elisa. Alone she soliloquizes: is honour just a foppery, something the poor cannot afford? She could now be surrounded by luxury, her sense of honour has led her only to the gates of the prison. Gierbaert overhears some of this and sees his chance. He gives her the note of her debt (telling the audience in passing that it has already been repaid by Rooze and her friends), and while she is overcome with gratitude, pulls her to his chest and strokes her hair. But before things go too far Adolf arrives to defend Eliza.
It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century gender politics that young women could not defend themselves. Law and custom were stacked against them, as Adolf explains. The law, he argues, that enables Gierbaert to send a worker to prison simply for trying to make a living from her work, should properly be described as ‘the white slave law’. It was a relic from more barbarous times, incompatible with the march of civilisation. Adolf, who is described as a writer, is evidently the mouthpiece for Carrein’s own views. He is not impressed by Gierbaert’s surrender of the debt: what he couldn’t obtain by force he is now trying to get through a hypocritical show of generosity, making Elisa’s good heart an accomplice of his wickedness. Gierbaert finally slinks away.
Adolf reveals that the family saved by Joseph was his sister’s. But he also claims to be deeply unfortunate himself. He is love with a young woman, less than half his age; he can’t reveal it for fear of rejection. Elisa urges him to declare his feelings; the woman, of course, is Elisa, who falls into his arms. (Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of Adolf to make Elisa’s feelings of gratitude the auxiliary of his own desires?) At that moment Joseph and then Rooze return: Joseph with thirty francs whose origin he refuses to reveal, but Rooze, who always seems to know what’s up, explains that she saw him at the ‘soul merchant’ (i.e. the man who arranges military replacements). As Elisa begins to lament again Adolf says he will save the man who rescued his sister and her children, and the man who is about to become his brother now that Elisa has agreed to become his wife. They will all be one happy family, and when Rooze pops round they will all sing the song of the lacemaker. The curtain comes down as the actors repeat the chorus of Elisa’s song from the beginning of the show.
Lacemakers’ songs are a common motif in the literature of Flemish Movement. We will meet other examples, but this is one of the earliest songs ascribed to lacemakers to appear in print, and one which would have some influence on later representations of lacemakers, so we reproduce it in full. It is not clear whether Carrein and Cools made up the text himself or were reproducing a song that they had heard sung on the streets of Bruges. It certainly has some similarity to text in the Flemish lacemakers’ repertoire. Unfortunately, the music was not included with the printed text.
Laet rollen de klosjes
Laet rollen de flosjes,
En vlecht met uw draedjes,
En oogjes en naedjes,
Met lustigen zwier,
Op ‘t glib’rig papier.
Zy ritz’len en klotsen,
Zy tuim’len en botsen,
En glyden op ‘t kussen,
En ram’len en sussen;
Zoo ras en gezwind,
Als loof in den wind.
Reeds van in den vroegen morgen,
Zit ik aen het werk met vlyt,
Om myn’ nooddruft te bezorgen,
In dees guren slechten tyd.
Gauw is thans de dag vervlogen,
En het loon is toch zoo kleen;
‘T nachtwerk drukt, verkrent myn oogen,
Als ik by myn lampje ween.
Ach! hoe prachtig en hoe kunstig,
Is hy toch die blanke kant!
By haer die het lot was gunstig
Prykt hy eens naest diamant:
Hertogin of baronnesse,
Praelt er mede op bal en feest;
En ik, arme lyderesse,
Lyd aeen lichaem en aen geest.
Ida von Düringsfeld thought that Elisa gave a ‘good picture of working-class life (Volksleben) in Bruges’, and she also translated the chorus of this song into German (though she kept the Flemish terms ‘Klosjes’ and ‘Flosjes’, two different types of bobbin). Perhaps as a baroness herself she was not so inclined to include the second verse, in which the pleasures of the lace-buying classes are compared with the misery of the lace-producing classes.
Lasst rollen die Klosjen,
Lasst rollen die Flosjen,
Und webt mit den Fädchen,
So Säumchen, wie Näthchen,
Mit Eil und mit Zier,
Auf’s glatte Papier.
Sie fallen und rasseln,
Sie wirbeln und prasseln
Sie gleiten und schwirren,
Sie klappern und klirren,
So seltsam geschwind,
Wie Blätter im Wind.
The Carmerstraat in Bruges, with typical working-class housing of the kind inhabited by lacemakers like Elisa Nolf and Roose Dorn.
 ‘IJver en Broedermin’, openbare bibliotheek Brugge, blog.
 “Letterbroeders zedenvoeders”: De opkomst van Kunstliefde, Brugse toneel- en letterkundige vereniging (1841-1887), Onttoovering blog.
 Most of what we know of Carrein’s early literary career comes from an interview he gave, c. 1860, apparently in the middle of his pastry shop, to the German author Baroness Ida von Düringsfeld: Von der Schelde bis zur Maas: Das geistige Leben der Vlaminge seit des Wiederaufblühen der Literatur 3 vols (Leipzig and Brussels: Lehmann, 1861), vol. 1, pp. 68-71. Carrein adapted and performed in works by French dramatists including Adolphe Poujol, Charles Desnoyer, Eugène Labiche, Adolphe Dennery and Felicien Mallefille.
 Eric Vanhaute, ‘“So Worthy an Example to Ireland”: The Subsistence and Industrial Crisis of 1845–1850 in Flanders’, in Cormac Ó Gráda, Richard Paping, Eric Vanhaute (eds), When the Potato Failed. Causes and Effects of the Last European Subsistence Crisis, 1845-1850 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007).
 Sonia Slatin, ‘Opera and Revolution: La Muette de Portici and the Belgian Revolution of 1830 Revisited’, Journal of Musicological Research 3:1-2 (1979): 45-62.
 Handelingen van het derde Nederlandsch letterkundig congres, gehouden te Brussel, den 30 en 31 Augustus en 1 September 1851 (Brussels: J.-H. Dehou, 1852), pp. 187-91.
 De Toekomst, ‘Stad nieuws’, 6 April 1862, p.1.
 The epigraph to the play, from from the French writer Bernardin de Saint Pierre, states: ‘Ils ont mille ruses pour les reduire à la plus petite paie possible, par exemple, de l’argent d’avance: et quand ils en ont fait des débiteurs insolvables, ce qui est l’affaire de quelques écus, alors ils les ont à leur discrétion.’