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A lavender sachet with an embroidered rabbit

A lavender sachet with a rabbit, embroidered by the author

I thought for today’s post, I’d elaborate a little on my February post about needlework, and talk about the social aspects of needlework. As any crafter knows, there is an immense satisfaction in gifting your work to your friends and family (especially when they actually appreciate handmade things). I love giving handmade blankets and softies to the children of my friends, and among the women of my grandmother’s generation, embroidered handkerchiefs were popular presents.

Like today, needlework often served as a means to strengthen (female) relationships in the Regency era. And in 19th-century literature this is nowhere better reflected than in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford stories. They were first published in the early 1850s, but most of them are set at a much earlier date, in the 1830s and 40s, and the genteel, yet impoverished ladies of Cranford maintain rules of etiquette that are remnants from even earlier decades.

With Cranford, Gaskell entered a contemporary debate about whether women were able to form and maintain true friendships with members of their sex. As female friendships and female communities form such an important part of the Cranford stories, it perhaps not surprising that we are granted a much more detailed glimpse at the domestic life and work of women than in other literary works of the time.

In the village of Cranford it is the little kindnesses that help to maintain and strengthen the community, and those kindnesses often take the form of handmade things or homemade remedies. In Chapter 2, the narrator tells us:

I had often occasion to notice the use that was made of fragments and small opportunities in Cranford; the rose-leaves that were gathered ere they fell to make into a potpourri for someone who had no garden; the little bundles of lavender flowers sent to strew the drawers of some town-dweller, or to burn in the chamber of some invalid.  Things that many would despise, and actions which it seemed scarcely worth while to perform, were all attended to in Cranford.

The women in Cranford keep in touch with absent friends by writing letters, and needlework plays an important role in forming new friendships and deepening existing ones. Thus,

Miss Pole and Miss Jessie Brown had set up a kind of intimacy on the strength of the Shetland wool and the new knitting stitches […].

And similarly, the relationship between Miss Pole and Mary, the narrator, who is only an occasional visitor to Cranford, deepens thanks to crochet:

There was Miss Pole, who was becoming as much absorbed in crochet as she had been once in knitting, and the burden of whose letter was something like, “But don’t you forget the white worsted at Flint’s” of the old song; for at the end of every sentence of news came a fresh direction as to some crochet commission which I was to execute for her.

As a result of those crochet commissions, Miss Pole invites Mary to stay with her at the beginning of Chatepr 3, and again, needlework is featured prominently:

There was all the more time for me to hear old-world stories from Miss Pole, while she sat knitting, and I making my father’s shirts.  I always took a quantity of plain sewing to Cranford; for, as we did not read much, or walk much, I found it a capital time to get through my work.

When Peter, Miss Matty’s long-lost brother, returns to Cranford towards the end of the collection, he brings with him a beautiful Indian muslin gown. But because Miss Matty has grown too old for such finery, the gown is reserved for Miss Jessie Brown’s daughter and thus becomes yet another means to strengthen the cross-generational bonds. This gives us a glimpse of how fabric could become imbued with love and kinship. In Miss Weeton: Journal of a Governess 1811-1825 we find a letter from Ellen Weeton to her daughter, where she describes the bundle of fabrics she is sending along with the letter to be made into a patchwork quilt:

Print for patchwork is sold  by weight, in small bits such as I have sent you. I purchased it at Prescot market […] The piece of patchwork is out of an old Quilt I made above 20  years ago […] The Hexagon  in the middle was a shred of our best bed hangings; they were Chintz, from the West Indies, which my father brought home with him from one of his voyages.

As we can see, fabric was not only repurposed and passed down in the family, it could also become the carrier of family stories and histories – a process that will be no doubt familiar to many modern quilters!

And that was it from me for this month. When I post the next time, in March, I’ll have some big news to share with you, involving, among other things that cute red-haired woman below. 🙂

And now, let’s hear it from you: Do you have any kind of handmade item that is part of your family history or reminds you of a dear friend?

Red-haired woman, digital art by Sandra Schwab

Last week I blogged about favorite books when I was a kid including at least one writer loathed by teachers. That got me thinking about books forced upon me at school that nearlyput me off the authors for life. And in fact I recently re-read one of them, Cranford, and loved it (thanks, Pam Rosenthal, for suggesting it). I was wondering what other books, or authors, others encountered at the wrong time and place, school or elsewhere, and how you’ve come to terms–or not–with them.

Cranford by Mrs. Gaskell was chosen by educators for its length, I think. It’s a very short novel, mainly a series of vignettes about life among the spinsters of a small provincial English town in the 1840s. I can’t really find any other reason to inflict it on a bunch of teenage girls who were fantasizing about marrying John, Paul, George, or Ringo. We were totally clueless about what the novel was even about or when it was set. I had the vague impression it was set in America, as there was a reference early on to “the railroad” and not railway–apparently an early Victorian term. I think we’d have responded much better to Wives and Daughters (yes, I’m always going on about Wives and Daughters), which is so romantic (but long), and with a decidely modern outlook on mother-daughter relationships. And then there’s always the hero and his famous knobstick in North and South (which I tried to re-read recently but found heavy going).

Continuing the catalogue of literary disasters, we were also inflicted with Silas Marner by George Eliot. Guess what: it’s short. It’s a very difficult book. It’s particularly tedious if you’re trying to guess the inseam measurement of Mick and the boys. Now I think we would have loved the teenage angst of Mill on the Floss (not my favorite), or Dorothea and her toyboy Ladislaw in Middlemarch. Or even the uberhot Daniel Deronda (though he is fairly boring) and naughty Gwendolyn Harleth.

Sadly, Thomas Hardy was represented by Under the Greenwood Tree. I still have no idea what it was about. I remember a lot of smock-clad yokels pontificating away about life, the universe, and everything, and a scene the teacher (bless her heart) described as being extremely risque, when the heroine appears at an open window with her hair down (the hopeless tart). It’s so sad. To think we could have had the rampant romanticism of Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Far from the Madding Crowd (both made into terrific movies).

Tell us about your near misses!

The book jacket of my edition of North and South states that “Critical generalizations about Mrs Gaskell have tended to portray her either as an essentially feminine novelist, full of charm, tenderness and little else, or as a pioneer of the ‘social problem’ novel. Neither view does sufficient justice to her best novels…”
I agree. This book should not be pigeon-holed based on either the romantic elements or the social issues, but apparently, this sort of categorization was happening long before bookstores divided books into “romance” and “fiction.”  Personally, I love how Gaskell fused these elements in this story. Characters don’t exist separate from the issues of their times.
When I first joined RWA, I heard a lot of advice on how to write the romance that sells, which included “No saving the whales”, i.e. don’t address any controversial issues. At the time I was glad that my Regency ideas were tugging more strongly at me, since my only idea for a contemporary romance involved marine biologists.
The purpose of a romance novel isn’t to preach, and I do understand the marketing rationale involved, but this feels very limiting. I like a romance where the characters have more interesting goals than the pursuit of wealth or sexual pleasure for its own sake (though even those goals can be interesting if it turns out they mask something deeper). They could be less controversial goals like caring for family or solving a mystery, but they could be the pursuit of a cause, as long as it’s integral to the characters.
Some of our Risky books and other historical romances have done this. I suspect social issues are a little easier in historical romance, since the issues have changed form in modern times. I doubt anyone in mainstream society would openly support slavery. But I think things like this are still with us in many ways, so maybe touching on them in historical romance is a subversive way of addressing them.
Anyway, maybe the industry prohibition against issues is thawing. I can’t remember when I read that there were some romances that dealt with wildlife preservation. I made a mental note to check some of them out, but life intervened, so I don’t know how well they worked. And indie authors can try things traditional publishers might not.
I think it would be tricky to have the hero and heroine on opposing sides of an issue, since it’s hard to make both sympathetic unless it’s an issue (unlike racism) where both sides have some merit and where compromise or creative solutions are a good answer. Otherwise, the cause could be something that unites the hero and heroine rather than the source of their conflict.
What do you think of issues in romance, historical or contemporary?  Any books that made the mix work particularly well?

First of all, this week is Banned Books Week! Everyone go and read a banned book–or any book at all, really. Reading is rebellion! Reading is, well, risky!

And so is writing. I finished an “Undone” short story and am on the downward slope toward The End of my second Laurel McKee book (due November 1–wish me luck!), and it seems that is hazardous to my health. My finger seems permanently bent, and my behind is glued to my desk chair (all the Halloween candy I eat as I write is not helping, either). But I’m very happy to take a time out today and celebrate the birthday of author Elizabeth Gaskell, who was born September 29, 1810. (I confess that, aside from reading her book Ruth a long time ago–and remembering nothing about it–I did not come to her books until I saw the TV versions of Cranford, North and South, and Wives and Daughters, but I’m glad I have found them now. And didn’t you know I would find a way to use a pic of Richard Armitage??)

Gaskell was born Elizabeth Stevenson at 93 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, which was then still on the outskirts of London, the 8th and last child of William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Elizabeth, who came from a prominent Midlands family well-connected with other well-to-do Unitarian families. Only Elizabeth and her eldest brother John survived infancy, and her mother died barely 3 months after her birth. Her father sent her to live with her mother’s sister, Hannah Lamb, in Cheshire, and she grew up with her aunt and grandparents. Their town, Knutsford, was later immortalized as Cranford (Her father remarried in 1814 and went on to have 2 more children, but she did not spend much time with them. Her brother John was a frequent visitor to Cheshire, though, and she was very fond of him. He went into the Merchant Navy with the East India Company, and was lost on a voyage to India in 1827).

In 1832 she married William Gaskell, the minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel and a man of literary hobbies. They settled in Manchester, where the industrial setting (and the religious values she grew up with and lived with) offered much inspiration for her writing. They had 6 children, and eventually rented a villa in Plymouth Grove after the publication of Elizabeth’s first novel Mary Barton, and she lived in this house and wrote all her books there until her death 15 years later. The circles the Gaskells socialized with included literary figures, religious dissenters, and social reformers, including Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charlotte Bronte (who is known to have stayed in the villa at loeast 3 times; Gaskell later wrote her first biography).

The best known of her books now are Ruth (1853), Cranford (1853), North and South (1854), and Wives and Daughters (1865), as well as her Bronte bio, but her best sellers in her own life were her Gothic ghost stories, published often in her friend Dickens’ magazine Household Words.
She died at her home in 1865, aged 55.

A few good sources on Gaskell’s life are:
Arthur Pollard, Mrs. Gaskell: Novelist and Biographer
Winifred Gerin, Elizabeth Gaskell
And the website of The Gaskell Society (lots of fun!)

Have you ever read any of Gaskell’s books (or seen the adaptations?) Which are your faves? And what are some of your favorite banned books???

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Unless you’ve been living in an obscure cave you’ll know that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Lincoln. I wanted to tell you about a touching memorial to him in Manchester, UK.

This statue bears the inscription:

This statue commemorates the support that the working people of Manchester gave in the fight for the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War. By supporting the Union under President Lincoln at a time when there was an economic blockade of the southern states the Lancashire cotton workers were denied access to raw cotton which caused considerable unemployment throughout the cotton industry…

Technically, Britain was neutral during the Civil War, but Liverpool, the port where the south’s cotton was unloaded, was a wholehearted supporter of the confederacy. The confederacy headquarters were in Rumford Place, where a US flag still flies.

In an 1863 letter to the “working men of Manchester,” Lincoln termed this action “an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age.”

The other big birthday today is that of Charles Darwin, born in the same year. His mother was a member of the Wedgwood family and the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell was an obscure cousin. Her last book, and one my favorites, Wives and Daughters, was published around the same time as The Origin of Species.

It’s possible that her portrayal of Roger Hamley, the nature-loving hero of the book, is based on her memories of Darwin as a young man:

He had gone about twenty yards on the small wood-path at right angles to the terrace, when, looking among the grass and wild plants under the trees, he spied out one which was rare, one which he had been long wishing to find in flower, and saw it at last, with those bright keen eyes of his. Down went his net, skilfully twisted so as to retain its contents, while it lay amid the herbage, and he himself went with light and well-planted footsteps in search of the treasure. He was so great a lover of nature that, without any thought, but habitually, he always avoided treading unnecessarily on any plant; who knew what long-sought growth or insect might develop itself in what now appeared but insignificant?

For Darwin Day celebrations, check out this site.

There are many Lincoln celebrations taking place across the US. Here’s the link to the Library of Congress’s With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition.

What are you doing today?

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