In a 1994 article on the literary image of the lacemaker, Nichola Anne Haxell complained that she had found only four relevant works: “These four texts have to bear the full weight of my analysis: considerable investigation has failed to bring forth any other texts which situate a lacemaker in or near the centre of the narrative.” Her four were Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor (1846, though published in 1857), Gérard de Nerval’s “Sylvie” (1853), Pascal Lainé’s La dentellière (1974, and, despite the title, not actually about a lacemaker), and Chantal Chawaf’s Retable: La Rêverie (1974).
If we say that we know of about forty it will sound like boasting, but really it’s a testament to the wonder of search engines. And it has to be said that many of our authors are not particularly well known. But Charles Dickens certainly is a canonical writer, how could his contribution be overlooked in a “considerable investigation”? The answer to that depends on whether you have heard of “Mugby Junction”, a set of stories written by Dickens and collaborators for the Christmas 1866 edition of the magazine All The Year Round. We hadn’t until a search engine led us to it. It may be familiar to Victorian steam enthusiasts as most of the stories are in the voices of railway employees: the engine-driver, the signalman, the engineer, the boy who serves in the refreshment room… But there is also a frame story about a character known as “Barbox Brothers” on the basis of the label on his luggage, or the “Gentleman for Nowhere”, as he hangs around Mugby Junction station without taking a train. His name, however, is Jackson; he got off a train from London at Mugby in the middle of the night with no particular object. He develops the plan of travelling all the lines that meet there. Dickens creates here an opportunity for many spin-off stories, though in fact only one, Jackson’s visit to Birmingham, ever materializes. “Mugby”, as you may have guessed, is Rugby in Warwickshire, then still a rural market town with a large railway junction attached, rather than the industrial centre it would become a decade or two later.
“Mugby Junction” is not, to be frank, a very good story. Jackson is rather like Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, a man oppressed by his bigoted upbringing and the moneygrubbing tedium of his work in the City. Having sold his business, he is searching for some purpose to his life, but has no clue how to find it. He wanders the streets and surrounding countryside until he encounters an odd sight: the fragile but bright face of a young woman, with her cheek on a cottage windowsill. “And now there were a pair of delicate hands too. They had the action of performing on some musical instrument and yet it produced no sound that reached his ears.” His walks over the following days are all directed past this cottage which he observes also serves as a village school. From one of the children he learns that the sideways woman is called Phoebe, who sings in order to instruct.
A few days later, having introduced himself through the window, Jackson visits Phoebe who, unable to walk, lies on a couch all day. “She was engaged in very nimbly and dexterously making lace. A lace-pillow lay upon her breast; and the quick movements and changes of her hands upon it as she worked, had given them the action he had misinterpreted” as playing an instrument. When he explains his mistake she replies “That is curious… For I often fancy, myself, that I play tunes while I am at work.” Jackson, unused to any form of human contact, is at a loss for further small talk, but “there was a kind of substitute for conversation in the click and play of its pegs… The charm of her transparent face and large bright brown eyes, was, not that they were passively resigned, but that they were actively and thoroughly cheerful. Even her busy hands, which of their own thinness alone might have besought compassion, plied their task with a gay courage that made mere compassion an unjustifiable assumption of superiority, and an impertinence.” Jackson cannot help but compare this young woman’s pleasant outlook with his own melancholy. He had loathed his work whereas she loves hers, both her teaching and “my lace-pillow… it goes with my thoughts when I think, and it goes with my tunes when I hum any, and that’s not work. Why, you yourself thought it was music, you know sir. And so it is, to me.” Her father, a railway worker that Jackson has already met, adds that Phoebe is “Always working – and after all, sir, for but a very few shillings a week – always contented, always lively, always interested in others, of all sorts.”
Dickens had a penchant for women who suffer while retaining their vivacity and compassion. Like Phoebe, Little Dorrit was a textile worker (a seamstress). One suspects that, if the”‘Mugby Junction” story had been taken further, it would have been Phoebe’s role to save Jackson from himself, as Amy Dorrit saves Arthur Clennam. It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century fiction that women’s pain redeemed men.
Lacemaking appears like playing an instrument, lacemakers hum and sing as they work. The idea of music is bound together with Phoebe’s lace, and her character. We have often encountered this image of the singing textile worker, contented with her domestic lot. But Dickens introduces a novel synonym for lace, “those threads of railway”, that Phoebe can observe from her window, but not follow. Jackson undertakes to explore them and report back on what he discovers. As she weaves her threads so he will weave narratives for her.
Much of this coincides with Haxell’s “paradigm of the lacemaker” derived from her four texts. In most of these, and especially those authored by men, “a lacemaker is a young woman of humble background or reduced circumstances who attempts to make her way in the world through patient and unassuming craft. Although she has little formal education, there is a modest desire within her for self-improvement. Beneath her demure manner, she often demonstrates qualities and modes of behaviour which make her an outsider to the lowly class and social position where her occupation situates her. A lacemaker will inevitably enter into an emotional relationship with a smug young man, socially and educationally superior to her. He will be attracted initially to her docility and “naturalness”, which correspond to his personal ideal of femininity.” Jackson may not be young, nor particularly smug, but otherwise the literary model is replicated. However Dickens might have allowed for a happier ending than that permitted in Nerval’s ‘Sylvie’ or Lainé’s La Dentellière.
What did Dickens know about lacemaking? Rugby borders the Northamptonshire lace districts, and Dickens had other opportunities to see lacemakers at work, for instance when he covered the 1835 by-election in Kettering (we know how important the lace interest was in that town). He returned quite often to Northamptonshire to visit his friends the Watsons at Rockingham Castle. However, we are not aware of any other text in which he showed any interest in this manufacture. We are also a little doubtful about Phoebe’s prone position as an effective way to work on a lace pillow. Certainly the illustrator of the American edition of Dickens’ complete works, Arthur Jules Goodman, had difficulty picturing the scene.
 Nichola Anne Haxell, ‘Woman as Lacemaker: The Development of a Literary Stereotype in Texts by CharlotteBrontë, Nerval, Lainé, and Chawaf’, The Modern Language Review 89 (1994): 545-60.