Tag: buckinghamshire

Of Saints, Queens and ‘Cattern Cakes’: Saint Catherine’s Day, the Lacemakers’ Holiday

25 November is the Feast of Saint Catherine, and historically a holiday for the Midlands lacemakers, particularly those in Buckinghamshire and some northern parts of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. (Lacemakers in the southern and central parts of the latter counties tended to celebrate Saint Andrew’s Day instead; we deal with this holiday on his feast, 30 November.)

According to the ‘official’ legend — and we’ll see that lacemakers, and in fact almost everybody else who celebrated her feast, told a rather different story — Saint Catherine was a virgin martyr from early fourth century Alexandria in Egypt. Her father was the Roman governor of the province, but Catherine was a philosopher and Christian convert. She refused to submit first to the persecutions of Emperor Maxentius, then to his lascivious attentions, declaring that she was the bride of Christ. Infuriated, Maxentius ordered that she be broken on a wheel, but the device fell apart at her touch. Finally he had her beheaded.

 

Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1504-9, 'The Martyrdom of St. Catherine'. The painting is in the collection of the Ráday Library of the Reformed Church, Budapest (source Wikipedia Commons)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1504-9, ‘The Martyrdom of St. Catherine’. The painting is in the collection of the Ráday Library of the Reformed Church, Budapest (source Wikipedia Commons)

 

Although there is little historical evidence for Catherine, she was one of the most popular saints in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and her cult clearly survived the Protestant Reformation in England. Because her attribute is the wheel, she became the patron of wheelwrights, and by extension carpenters, as well as ropemakers and spinners. She was the patron of both young women and old maids (spinsters in another sense), and as these groups formed the labour force for the needle trades, her patronage extended to all involved in textile production. The ‘bal de Sainte Catherine’ is still an important event in the calendar of the Paris fashion houses.[1]

 

A 'Catherinette' celebrating Saint Catherine's Day in early C20 France. We might explain the significance of the hat and the colours yellow and green in a future blog. For further examples of how the French celebrate Saint Catherine's Day, see Guy Larcy's pinterest board 'Fête Sainte Catherine'

A ‘Catherinette’ celebrating Saint Catherine’s Day in early C20 France. We might explain the significance of the hat and the colours yellow and green in a future blog. For further examples of how the French celebrate Saint Catherine’s Day, see Guy Larcy’s pinterest board ‘Fête Sainte Catherine’.

 

In England, ‘keeping Cattern’ —that is celebrating Saint Catherine’s Day — was by no means confined to lacemakers. Even after the Reformation, women in the workhouse would receive a dole in order to ‘keep Cattern’.[2] In some towns, such as Ware and Peterborough, women — in the latter town principally the female inmates of the workhouse — paraded behind their own ‘queen’, singing:

Here comes Queen Catherine, as fine as any queen,
With a coach and six horses, a-coming to be seen,
And a-spinning we will go, will go,
And a-spinning we will go.

No doubt this was an opportunity to raise money for a feast later in the day.[3] In other parts of the country, particularly Worcestershire (though the custom has been recorded elsewhere), it was young children who used this day as an opportunity to tramp from house to house collecting apples and ale, aided by a rhyme such as this one:

Catherine and Clement be here, be here,
Some of your apples and some of your beer;
Some for Peter, and some for Paul,
And some for Him that made us all.
Clement was good old man,
For his sake give us some,
None of the worst but some of the best,
And God will send your soul to rest![4]

Saint Clement’s feast falls on 23 November and was another important holiday, though usually observed in different regions to Saint Catherine’s. A Sussex version of this rhyme names ‘Cattern’ as the mother of ‘Clemen’, an unlikely relationship for a virgin saint![5] Other indications of her widespread popularity are a recipe for a Cattern pie from Somerset,[6] and Cattern Fair held outside Guildford, where Cattern cakes were sold well into the nineteenth century.[7]

However, by the late nineteenth century, lacemakers were almost the only group to still hold her in honour. Occasionally in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire the mummers who put on the traditional drama of Saint George and the Turkish Knight in the run-up to Christmas were called ‘Katterners’, though any specific memory of Saint Catherine seems to have been forgotten.[8] Newspaper accounts suggest that ‘Cattern’ was still kept by carpenters in Chatteris (Cambridgeshire) in the 1860s,[9] and the farmer Mr Lot Arnsby of Raunds (Northamptonshire), though a Baptist, still treated his labourers to cakes and ale on Saint Catherine’s Day in the 1870s.[10] In both cases, the feast was held on 6 December, ‘Old Saint Catherine’s’, that is date of her feast before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Britain in 1752 had entailed the loss of eleven days. These examples are very isolated compared with the numerous newspaper mentions of lacemakers ‘keeping Cattern’, sometimes on Old and sometimes on New Saint Catherine’s Day. In fact the feast seems to have undergone periodic revivals among lacemakers, often sponsored by local landowners and patrons of the lace industry.

Although there are references to women ‘Catherning’ or ‘keeping Catterns’ from the seventeenth and eighteenth century,[11] the earliest reference we have so far found to this day as a special feast among lacemakers is in a short article in Notes and Queries for May 1862 by ‘A.A.’ (we have not identified the initials) reporting that:

In Buckinghamshire, on Cattern Day (St. Catherine’s, 25th of November,) these hard-working people hold merry-makings, and eat a sort of cakes they call ‘wigs,’ and drink ale. The tradition says it is in remembrance of a Queen Catharine; who, when the trade was dull, burnt all her lace, and ordered new to be made.[12]

Although A.A. asked readers who this Queen might have been, the topic went quiet in that journal until in 1868. Interest was revived then by a review in The Quarterly Review of Mrs Bury Palliser’s 1865 A History of Lace, in which the author claimed (and in this the reviewer was following Mrs Palliser’s lead) that:

Catherine of Aragon, according to tradition, introduced the art of making lace into Bedfordshire during her sojourn at Ampthill in 1531-33. She was a great adept in the arts of the needle. Until quite lately the lace-makers kept ‘Cattern’s-day’ as the holiday of their craft, in memory of the good Queen Catherine.[13]

On what authority did Mrs Bury Palliser make this statement, asked J.M. Cowper in Notes and Queries?[14] The several responses did not resolve that issue, but they did provide plenty of evidence for lacemakers ‘keeping Catterns’. For example, John Plummer, who originally came from Kettering, reported that the feast

is known to be kept, for several generations, throughout the whole of Northamptonshire lace-making districts, as well as in those of Bedfordshire. By some it is called ‘candle-day,’ from its forming the commencement of the season for working at lacemaking by candle-light.[15]

He reiterated the tradition that ‘Queen Katherine was a great friend to the lacemakers’, but suggested that instead of Catherine of Aragon, Catherine Parr was meant, because the Parrs were a Northamptonshire family. However later in the same month A.A. returned to the topic and reiterated his story, this time definitely identifying the lace-burning queen as Catherine of Aragon.[16]

Readers will have noticed that, so far, there is no reference to a saint in any of these lacemakers’ celebrations, only queens. Two different stories were told. The oldest, though how old we are uncertain, concerns a queen burning her lace in order to create more work for lacemakers. A ballad, claimed as traditional (though we have our doubts) was apparently sung at a Kattern Day revival in Marsh Gibbon in 1905:

Queen Katherine loved to deck with lace
The royal robes she wore;
But though she loved to wear her lace,
She loved the lace-folk more.
So now for good Queen Katherine’s sake
Put bones and sticks away,
And keep the yearly festival
And sing on ‘Kattern Day.’[17]

As one recent historian has written, this story encapsulates a feminine, utopian economy which completely denies the laws of supply and demand, and in which the great existed to provide work for the small, and ‘harmoniously brings together the otherwise separate processes of production and consumption.”’18]

The second story, crediting Queen Catherine of Aragon as the original teacher of lace in England, is slightly later in origin but far more widespread, as it was regularly repeated in newspaper accounts in the late nineteenth century, became the focus of W.I. lectures and pageants in the twentieth, and is now regularly repeated on the web. This continuing tradition owes everything to Mrs Palliser’s reputation as a reliable historian of lace, it has no basis in any oral tradition linking that queen with the genesis of the lace industry. Mrs Palliser inferred from rather vague lacemakers’ traditions concerning a ‘good queen who protected their craft’, that the art of lace-working, as it then existed, was first imparted to the peasantry of Bedfordshire, as a means of subsistence, through the charity of Katherine of Aragon.’[19] To return to J.M. Cowper’s question in Notes and Queries — on what authority had this claim been advanced — the answer is on no greater authority than Mrs Palliser’s romantic inference. However, her invention has proved enormously popular, for it invoked a tradition of royal patronage of lace that was, at the time, still vital to the trade.

 

Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte. now in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch (a Northamptonshire landowner; according to Rev Lindsay of Kettering, in the 1860s the then Duke of Buccleuch was responsible for promoting Katterns). From Wikipedia Commons.

Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte, now in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch (the dukes of Buccleuch were Northamptonshire landowners as well as Scottish aristocracy; according to Rev Lindsay of Kettering, in the 1860s the then Duke of Buccleuch was responsible for promoting Katterns in that town). From Wikipedia Commons.

 

 

We doubt that Catterns had a connection to any English queen; rather it was the continuation of a Catholic saint’s day feast in Protestant England. We cannot say when and where the tradition turned the saint into queen: it may have been a post-Reformation defensive measure, for it was permitted to celebrate royalty when Catholic saints had fallen into disrepute. However, it is worth pointing out that in the popular culture of Catholic Europe, Catherine was always imagined as a queen, or at least a princess. The first line of a song popular throughout Spain, France and Italy, and indeed much further afield, tells us that Catalina/Catherine/Caterina was a ‘hija de un rey’ (in Spanish), ‘fille d’un roi’ (in French), ‘figlia di un re’ (in Italian).[20] Sometimes she is specifically identified as the daughter of the king of Hungary; in all cases it is her father, not a Roman emperor, who is responsible for her martyrdom. And while Saint Catherine was not usually the named patron of European lacemakers, nonetheless European lacemakers knew and sang her story. For example, in an audio recording made by Jean Dumas in 1959, you can hear Virginie Granouillet, a seventy-year-old lacemaker from Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire), accompanying her bobbins with a version of the song.[21]

 

Virginie Granouillet, lacemaker and singer of Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire). The photo, c. 1960, was taken by the song collector Jean Dumas. Dumas' recordings of 178 of Virginie's songs, including 'Sainte Catherine', are now available online on http://patrimoine-oral.org/

Virginie Granouillet, lacemaker and singer of Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire). The photo, c. 1960, was taken by the song collector Jean Dumas. Dumas’ recordings of 178 of Virginie’s songs, including ‘Sainte Catherine’, are now available online.

 

How did lacemakers ‘keep Catterns’? There are vague references to an earlier period when women dressed up in male attire and indulged in unfettered merry-making, including amorous (or violent) advances to passing men, a moment of female license, but we have no specific information.[22] The fullest description comes from Mrs Frederica Orlebar of Hinwick House, Podington (Bedfordshire) who wrote an account of an attempted revival in 1887 — which would form the template for further revivals in 1906 and 1937.[23] The Orlebars were landed gentry who had provided leadership to the county, as magistrates, M.P.s and masters of the hunt for several generations. Their patronage of the lace industry was part and parcel of this paternalistic concern for their tenants and electors. Catherine Channer used the manuscript ‘Orlebar Chronicles’ to write her 1900 account:

Cattern Tea.

In Podington and neighbouring villages the lacemakers have, within the memory of middle-aged people, ‘kept Cattern’, on December 6th – St. Catherine’s Day (Old Style).
I believe it was Catherine of Aragon who used to drink the waters of a mineral spring in Wellingborough, and who (as is supposed) introduced lace-making into Beds. The poor people know nothing of the Queen, only state that it was an old custom to keep ‘Cattern.’
The way was for the women to club together for a tea, paying 6d. apiece, which they could well afford when their lace brought them in 5s. or 6s. a week. The tea-drinking ceremony was called ‘washing the candle-block,’ but this was merely an expression. It really consisted in getting through a great deal of gossip, tea, and Cattern cakes – seed cakes of large size. Sugar balls went round as a matter of course. After tea they danced, just one old man whistling or fiddling for them, and ‘they enjoyed themselves like queens!
The entertainment ended with the cutting of a large apple pie, which they divided for supper. Their usual bedtime was about eight o’clock.[24]

This may be more staid than earlier celebrations, but some of the elements referred to here come up in other accounts too. The first is that it was a communal women’s festival: a man might provide the music but the lacemakers danced with each other. Money was pooled to provide food, drink and entertainment: rabbit or steak with onion sauce, followed by pies and cakes. Cattern pies — sometimes containing mincemeat, sometimes apples (as we have seen, Catterners collected apples) — might be arranged in the shape of a wheel, with partakers being offered a ‘spoke’.[25] Mrs Orlebar quoted a rhyme, apparently sung by the nightwatchman of Kettering, which made the pies the centrepiece of the celebration:

Rise, maids arise!
Bake your Cattern pies!
Bake enough, and bake no waste,
So that the old bell-man may have a taste!

Cattern cakes appear to be a different thing to a Cattern pie: the cakes come in various descriptions but the recipes almost always contain caraway seeds, which connects them to the ‘soul cakes’ consumed at Halloween in other parts of the country. The drink mentioned in connection with these festivities was methleglin, a honey mead termed ‘meytheagle’ in the Bedfordshire dialect.[26]

The term ‘washing’ or ‘wetting the candle-block’ explains why Plummer called this a ‘candle-day’. The holiday was not just the celebration of the patroness of lacemakers, it was the ritual marking of an important moment in the lacemakers’ year, for this was the day when candles, objects of enormous expense, could legitimately be used for evening work. These kind of candle feasts, opening and closing the period of neighbourly winter evening work gatherings, were quite common all over Europe. Among English lacemakers the closing day of the season appears to have been Candlemas (2 February), though it was not celebrated as much as Catterns.[27] This practice of working together to share light and heat also explains why Catterns was a communal feast. A candle-block provided light not for one lacemaker but many: a single candle would be mounted in the centre of several glass globes or flasks filled with snow-water, which would concentrate the light on the pillows of several lacemakers (the highest number of users of a single candle that we have so far encountered is eighteen!). But lacemakers did not only symbolically ‘wash’ the candleblock, they also leapt over it. According to John Aubrey, back in the 1680s, Oxfordshire girls (not specifically lacemakers) would ‘set a candle in the middle of the room in a candlestick, and then draw up their coats into the form of breaches [another hint at cross-dressing], and dance over the candle back and forth, with these words’:

The tailor of Biciter [Bicester] He has but one eye
He cannot cut a pair of green galagaskins
If he were to die.

Aubrey thought the custom was obsolete even in his time, but in fact the same game, and the same rhyme, have been recorded as late as 1910.[28]

Thomas Wright notes a different song being chanted by pupils jumping the candlestick in the lace schools at Wendover:

Wallflowers, Wallflowers, growing up so high,
All young maidens surely have to die;
Excepting Emma Caudrey, she’s the best of all.
She can dance and she can skip,
She can turn the candlestick.
Turn, turn, turn your face to the wall again[29]

Given the height of a lighted candle on a block players ran significant risks during this game. It is interesting to observe that even on holiday, lacemakers insist on the presence of death.

 

A lacemakers' candle block or 'flash stool', with central candle and four light condensing flasks or 'flashes'. This one is from Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney. Catterns and Tanders were 'candle days', the official beginning of the season of evening work by candlelight.

A lacemakers’ candle block or ‘flash stool’, with central candle and four light condensing flasks or ‘flashes’. This one is from Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney. Catterns and Tanders were ‘candle days’, the official beginning of the season of evening work by candlelight.

 

 

We can’t leave Catterns without giving a recipe for Cattern cakes. In 1948, Podington, Hinwick and Farndish Women’s Institute provided a recipe for the Cookery Book of Traditional Dishes which accompanied the ‘Home Produce Exhibition’.[30] We have not been able to track down a copy of this, so we have borrowed a recipe from the North Downs Lacemakers’ website[31]:

Ingredients

  • 9oz /275g self raising flour
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 oz/25g currants
    2oz/50g ground almonds
  • 2 teaspoons caraway seeds
  • 7oz/200g caster sugar
  • 4oz/100g melted butter
  • 1 medium egg, beaten
  • A little extra sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling

 

Instructions

  • Sift the flour and cinnamon into a bowl and stir in currants, almonds, caraway seeds and sugar.
  • Add the melted butter and beaten egg, mix well to give a soft dough (add a little milk if too dry).
  • Roll out on a floured board into a rectangle, about 12×10 inches/30x25cm.
  • Brush the dough with water and sprinkle with the extra sugar and cinnamon.
  • Roll up like a swiss roll and cut into ¾ inch/2cm slices.
  • Place on a greased baking tray spaced well apart and bake for 10 minutes. Oven set at 200 degrees C /400 degrees F/Gas 6.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

We’ve tried it, and the results were very tasty, though they didn’t look as much like Catherine Wheels as we had intended.

 

A sampling of David's Cattern cakes. They were quite popular.

A sampling of David’s Cattern cakes. They were quite popular.

 

 

[1] See Ann Monjaret’s wonderful study, La Sainte Catherine: Culture festive dans l’entreprise (Paris, 1997).

[2] Robert Gibbs refers to an entry in the Aylesbury overseers’ accounts for 1672: A Historyof Aylesbury with the Borough and Hundreds, The Hamlet of Walton, and The Electoral Division. Aylesbury, Bucks Advertiser, 1885

[3] A. R. Wright, British Calendar Customs, ed. T. E. Lones, (Folk-Lore Society, 1936), iii. 108, 144. The tune, presumably, is ‘A begging we will go’. Pete Castle recorded a version of the song on the album ‘False Waters’. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABjMfqjl2pQ

[4] James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of England (London, 1849) p. 238. For a map of ‘Catterning’ in the West Midlands See Charlotte S. Burne. ‘Souling, Clementing, and Catterning. Three November Customs of the Western Midlands’, Folk-Lore 25:3 (1914), p. 285.

[5] William Douglas Parish, A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect and Collection of Provincialisms in Use in the County of Sussex (Lewes, 1875), p.25: ‘Catterning’.

[6] Margaret Baker. Folklore and Customs of Rural England (Newton Abbot, 1974), p. 132.

[7] A.J.M. ‘Catherine Hill in Surrey’, Notes and Queries 7th series II, 14 August 1886.

[8] Walter Rose, Good Neighbours. Some Recollections of an English Village and its People, Cambridge UP, 1943, pp. 131-5 (based on his experiences in Haddenham, Bucks). Fred Hamer recorded the same usage in Bedfordshire, though the ‘Folk Play Distribution Map: Actors’ Names’ on Peter Millington’s Master Mummers Website suggests it was quite rare even in this region: http://www.mastermummers.org/atlas/ActorsNames.php?maptype=outline&go=Go+%3E%3E

[9] Cambridge Independent Press, Saturday 8 December 1860.

[10] Peterborough Advertiser, 13 December 1879.

[11] Charles Lamotte, An Essay upon Poetry and Painting, with Relation to the Sacred and Profane History (London, 1730), p. 126.

[12] A.A., ‘Lace-Makers’ Custom: Wigs, A Sort of Cake’, Notes and Queries 3rd series I, 17 May, 1862, p. 387.

[13]History of Lace, by Mrs Bury Palliser’, review in The Quarterly Review 125 (July-Oct., 1868): pp. 166-188, p. 168.

[14] J.M. Cowper, ‘Cattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II, 29 August, 1868, p. 201.

[15] John Plummer, ‘Kattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II. 3 October, 1868., p. 333.

[16] A.A. ‘Kattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II, 17 October, 1868, p. 377.

[17] Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, Saturday 2 December 1905.

[18] Elaine Freedgood, ‘“Fine Fingers”: Victorian Handmade Lace and Utopian Consumption’, Victorian Studies 45 (2003), p. 637.

[19] Fanny Bury Palliser, A History of Lace (2nd edition: London, 1869), p. 326.

[20] The Pan-Hispanic Ballad Project lists 42 versions of IGRH song-type 0126 ‘Santa Catalina’ https://depts.washington.edu/hisprom/optional/balladaction.php?igrh=0126 ; the Coirault catalogue of French folk songs likewise lists numerous versions of song-type 8906 ‘Le martyre de sainte Catherine’; there is no equivalent Italian catalogue of folk-songs, but it is quite a common children’s song: in our experience all Italians know of it.

[21] http://patrimoine-oral.org/dyn/portal/index.seam?aloId=15575&page=alo&fonds=3

[22] Christina Hole. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. Hutchinson, 1976

[23] Northampton Mercury, Friday 14 December 1906; Northampton Mercury, Friday 26 February 1937.

[24] Catherine C. Channer and Margaret E. Roberts, Lace-making in the Midlands, Past and Present (London, 1900), pp. 70-71.

[25] A recipe is offered in Joanna Bogle, A Book of Feasts and Seasons (Leominster, 1992).

[26] ‘Wetting the Candleblock’, Bedfordshire Mercury, Friday 13 December 1912.

[27] Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace PillowOlney, Bucks: H.H. Armstrong, 1919, p. 202.

[28] James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales: A Sequel to the Nursery Rhymes of England (London, 1849), p.231, quoting from the manuscript of Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme; Arthur R. Wright and T.E. Lones, British Calendar Customs: England (London, 1940), vol. 3, p. 178.

[29] Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow (Olney, 1919), p. 195. Obviously the name used depends on the player. A similar rhyme was recorded by Fred Hamer at Biddenham in Bedfordshire.

[30] ‘Women’s Institutes. Traditional Dishes for National Exhibition. Bedfordshire’s Contributions’, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Friday 24 September 1948

[31] http://www.northdownslacemakers.org.uk/features/2007/catterns-day.php A very similar recipe is provided in Julia Jones and Barbara Deer, Cattern Cakes and Lace: A Calender of Feasts (London, 1987).

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

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

Bucks Lace Collar (Image provided by David Hopkin)

Bucks Lace Collar (Image provided by David Hopkin)

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

 

Extract:

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

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

‘To see me?’

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

‘Is it one of the Miss Martins?’

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

‘Yes, I suppose so.’  How queer.

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

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

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

Olivia said nervously:

‘Do sit down.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did you make it yourself?’

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

‘Did it really?’

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

‘Doesn’t it tire your eyes?’

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

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

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

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

‘Not for Christmas presents?  She was gently surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, I suppose you have.’

She saw through that all right.

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

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

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

‘No, I don’t like it.’

Firmer and firmer.  Silence fell.

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

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

It was too much.  Olivia picked up the collar.

‘This is very pretty.’

The girl glanced up.

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

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

She paused, then said:

‘It’s fifteen and six, that one.’

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

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

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

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

The girl continued reflectively:

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

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

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

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

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

Too late, she felt all the necessary resolution.

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

‘I hope it’s not too heavy for you.’

‘It is a bit heavy.’

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

‘Come out this way.’

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

‘Thank you very much.’

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

‘Yes.  Thank you.’

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

‘Good-bye.’

‘Good morning.’

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

 

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

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

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

‘Isn’t it pretty?’

‘Where on earth —?’

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

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

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

‘Don’t you think it’s rather nice?’

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

‘How much did she rook you?’

‘Ten bob.’

‘The whole lot?’

‘Yes.  She reduced it for me.’

After a pause, Kate said:

‘What’ll you do with it?’

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

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

‘Don’t tell Mother.’

‘Of course not.’

‘Bang goes my whole income.’

Kate nodded, murmured:

‘Sickening.’

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

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

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

I don’t know.’

‘Well, how does one tell?…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s not as bad as that,’ said Kate.

Olivia yawned.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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