Crafty Women and Artful Misses: Femininity, Feminism and Female Crafts in the Nineteenth-Century Novel

Clare Walker Gore is a postgraduate student at Selwyn College, Cambridge. She has recently submitted her PhD thesis, which explores disability in the Victorian novel. When she isn’t making grand plans for her next project on life-writing and disability in the nineteenth century, she is mostly to be found knitting and novel-reading. You can find her page here and on twitter here.

I suspect that my twin passions for Victorian novels and feminine crafts can both be traced back to Joan Aiken’s fabulous neo-Victorian children’s thriller, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I first read it at about seven, and was utterly enthralled. Among the many words and phrases for which I demanded explanation, or stored up for later use in my own literary endeavours –posset, pelisse, fowling-piece – one in particular stands out in my memory. Perhaps strangely, it is the catalogue of feminine accomplishments which Sylvia fondly remembers being taught by her Aunt Jane: ‘crewel-work, purse-netting and making paper doilies’.[i] What, I remember wondering, was crewel-work? If it was a skill required by a Victorian heroine, then I was determined to acquire it. I subsequently discovered that it is, in fact, a kind of free embroidery, worked in fine wool rather than silk; my Grannie showed me pieces she had worked herself, flowers with satin stitch petals and centres of French knots, the leaves delicately veined in fly stitch, with birds hovering above, wings finely shaded in long-and-short stitch. It took me some years to graduate from cross-stitch to crewel work, and I am still a far less capable needlewoman than my Grannie (or, I suspect, than the fictional Aunt Jane). But I remained fascinated with these crafts that linked my childhood not only to my Grannie’s but also, apparently, to that of my beloved Victorian heroines, and it is a fascination that has persisted into my adulthood. Alongside my passion for Victorian novels, which finds an outlet in my academic research, I am an avid knitter of cardigans, crocheter of throws, and embroiderer of cushion covers.

For a long time, this was something of a guilty pleasure, particularly insofar as it inflected my novel-reading. Even at the tender age of seven, I realised that the reader was supposed to identify with feisty Bonnie, who shoots at wolves and dons boys’ clothing, not with sweet Sylvia and her stitching. This arrangement of girls in pairs, feminine good girl and rebellious tomboy, is a recurrent feature of children’s books, and sewing is frequently used to signal which girl is the conventional (and therefore helpless) one. The trouble was, despite knowing that no self-respecting reader should, I couldn’t help identifying with the girls who shared my sedentary and shamefully ‘feminine’ hobbies. I was continually, secretly, siding with the wrong girl. If any of my readers preferred Meg to Jo in Little Women, or had a sneaking sympathy for Enid Blyton’s Anne, they will know the shame of which I speak.

As is so often the way, it was a barnstorming second-wave feminist who released me from this uncomfortable state of double-think – specifically, Rozsika Parker and her fabulous feminist history, The Subversive Stitch. Published by the Women’s Press in 1984 and waiting for me on my Mum’s bookshelves, Parker’s polemical history of stitching is the book every crafting girl (and woman) should read. ‘To know the history of embroidery’, she proclaims, ‘is to know the history of women.’[ii] All those hours I had spent knitting, sewing, crocheting and quilting no longer appeared to me as small betrayals of the feminist movement, but as a precious connection between myself and my foremothers of which I had no need to be ashamed, skills which could not only be reconciled with but could actually be a cornerstone of feminist thought and activism. Happily, Parker’s view is one which has prevailed in feminist circles; taking up your knitting in an organising meeting is, in my experience, positively encouraged. These days, craftivists embroider messages to send to politicians, knit uteruses and ‘yarn bomb’ public places. Crewel-work can, it turns out, be put to uses which would have appalled Sylvia’s Aunt Jane. But is the idea of feminine craft as subversive activity such a new one? Is Sylvia’s crewel-work as unthreatening as I assumed it to be? A closer look at needle-wielding women in the Victorian novel suggests otherwise.

'Les Tricoteuses Jacobines' Pierre-Etienne Lesueur (1793)

‘Les Tricoteuses Jacobines’
Pierre-Etienne Lesueur

Perhaps the most famous knitter in nineteenth-century fiction is Dickens’s Madame Defarge – a character it is perhaps fortunate I did not encounter as a child. We never see Madame Defarge without her knitting: it is her defining activity, her raison d’être, and we soon learn why. As Monsieur Defarge explains, her knitting is nothing less than a proscription list, a record of the enemies who are ‘“doomed to destruction”’ come the revolution; it would, he says, ‘“be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase one letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge.’”[iii]

You might think that Madame Defarge’s revolutionary knitting seems sinister principally because of the conventional incongruence of a comforting, feminine craft and a violent political purpose. But in an important sense, Madame Defarge’s revolutionary rage is represented as an aspect of her essential femininity, the result of extreme femaleness rather than borrowed masculinity. It is because of her loyalty to her father, brother and sister that she is determined to avenge their deaths, and this private vendetta feeds her commitment to the wider cause. It is her determination to remember the wrongs of her family that keeps her needles clicking. Knitting to remember is in a sense a quintessentially feminine act: a feminine way of performing the feminine function of preserving cultural and familial memory. Madame Defarge’s loyalty to her family, rather than to the state, arguably recalls the rebellion of Sophocles’s Antigone, and is in this sense a feminine as well as a feminist rebellion. Madame Defarge is so fearsome a figure because she is associated with the forces that male authority cannot tame, ‘knitting…with the steadfastness of Fate’, her unstoppable rage likened to ‘“the Wind and Fire.”’[iv] It is surely no coincidence that, like the spinning crones the Greeks depicted as the Fates, Madame Defarge practices a craft that is both homely and alien to the men around her, a distinctively female activity in which they have no part. If the ideal Victorian woman knitted and sewed for her family, motivated by love and loyalty rather than ambition, then surely Madame Defarge is the nightmare twin sister of the angel in the house, knitting to remember her wrongs, loyalty to the family motivating her to bring down the state.

Nor is she a wholly exceptional character within Dickens’s work. The vicious ‘tricoteuses’ of the French Revolution were well-known and perhaps reassuringly foreign figures, but Dickens created a far more homely version of the same type in Mrs Heep, mother of the villainous Uriah in David Copperfield. She is not the only knitter of the novel – kindly Peggotty knits too – but her knitting is made a sign of her distinctively feminine malignancy. It is her obsessive loyalty to Uriah which, in David’s view, makes her such a formidable enemy, as she works to promote a match between her son and the heroine Agnes. Like Madame Defarge, Mrs Heep embodies feminine feeling running amok, the ‘mother’s eye [that is] an evil eye to the rest of the world’.[v] Her knitting instantiates her scheming, and enables her to pursue it, as she can ‘furtively’ watch Agnes and David while she knits something that ‘looked like a net’, working away ‘like an ill-looking enchantress’,[vi] an image that makes clear the association between witchcraft and handicraft, and in turn between handicraft and craftiness.

In many Victorian novels, a character’s unwillingness to embroider is not (or not only) a sign that she rejects traditional femininity in the rebellious sense – by being a tomboy or a proto-feminist – but that she is a woman who can be trusted, because she does not possess the feminine wiles of her more crafty sisters. George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, for example, cannot stand ‘“fancy-work”’, though she has become proficient at ‘plain sewing’ through economic necessity.[vii] Her unwillingness to embroider is tied in with her unwillingness to embroider the truth, but also, more subtly, with her total inability to manipulate the social system to her own advantage, to scheme, plot, or in any way further her own ends. No wonder her ‘plain sewing and poverty’ add ‘piquancy’ to her beauty in the eyes of Stephen Guest. Admitting that she has no feminine arts makes Maggie even more attractive to the man who – whatever he may say about his intentions – will go on to exploit her trusting nature and ruin her reputation before ultimately marrying her cousin.[viii] In choosing Maggie for his love interest, Stephen is wiser than Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch, who should have been warned by Rosamund Vincey’s embroidery that she is a woman to be reckoned with. She does indeed turn out to be an arch schemer, more than a match for the husband who mistakes her feminine wiles for docility and dutifulness. Ultimately, she tangles Lydgate up in her webs of deceit and manipulation so thoroughly that he is forced to give in to her wishes and become the financially successful, fashionable physician that she wants him to be. If only Lydgate had paid attention to Rosy’s crafting habits, he would have discovered that while she embroiders for pleasure, she sends out her plain sewing to her virtuous cousin Mary Garth.[ix] For Eliot, it seems that women can be divided up into those who do not sew at all (high-minded women like Dorothea), those who practice only plain sewing (Mary, Maggie) and the wicked women who love to embroider. Craftiness and crafting seem to be inextricably bound up with one another for Eliot, and pleasure in feminine crafts to be deeply suspect.

'Young Woman Sewing' Pierre-August Renoir (1879)

‘Young Woman Sewing’
Pierre-August Renoir

This reflects a wider trend in mid-Victorian fiction. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth seems to be an indifferent seamstress at best, demonstrating her unspoilt nature by staring out of the window rather than attending to her work.[x] She doesn’t take naturally to the art of the needle, and, fittingly, there is nothing artful about her. Her naiveté leads to her sexual fall but also makes her unable to conceive even the possibility of getting anything out of it. While Gaskell clearly intends Ruth’s total lack of guile, ambition or self-interest to be admirable, there is some truth in the critic Coral Lansbury’s suggestion that ‘stupidity defines her character.’[xi]

In direct contrast, scheming anti-heroines tend to be proficient needlewomen. Mary Elizabeth Braddon draws attention to her wicked protagonist’s embroidery in Lady Audley’s Secret, commenting upon her ‘piece of Berlin-wool work – a piece of embroidery which the Penelopes of ten or twelve years ago were very fond of exercising their ingenuity upon.’[xii] Lucy’s embroidery not only gives her a means of partially concealing her face from Robert Audley, and thus furthering her deceitful scheming, but also allows her author to invoke the figure of Penelope, the faithful wife who waited for her husband for twenty years – in obvious contrast to Lucy, the bigamist who welcomes her husband back from Australia by pushing him down a well. The ‘Penelopes of ten or twelve years ago’ seem to be rather more menacing than their Classical forebears: is Braddon making a point about the modern degeneracy of women, or, more subtly, suggesting that deceit has always been a crucial part of women’s experience, their marginalised position necessitating wiliness as a survival strategy? After all, Penelope, too, used her embroidery for deceitful – if more legitimate – purposes, undoing her work at night and promising to choose a suitor when it was finished. This story brings together craftiness and female craft once again, both the best and the worst aspects of ‘female nature’ expressed in this quintessentially feminine activity.

Even those authors who supposedly extolled feminine virtues and feminine activities expressed ambivalence about women who embroider. In The Daisy Chain, Charlotte M. Yonge depicts her strong-minded and waywardly tomboyish heroine, Ethel May, gradually acquiring the feminine qualities of her saintly elder sister Margaret, whose “beautiful…embroidery” is so notable.[xiii] But being slow to acquire feminine skills such as these seems bound up with Ethel’s serious-minded, masculine truthfulness; sweet-natured Margaret lacks her ‘moral courage’, deceiving their father where Ethel wants to tell him the truth, her feminine tactfulness only barely indistinguishable from wiliness or – horror of horrors – an unwillingness to submit to paternal authority.[xiv] Margaret is the one who urges Ethel to give up her attempts to keep up with their brother’s classical studies because, at the end of the day, she will never be able to go to Oxford and ‘“take a first-class”’.[xv]Arguably, the capitulation Margaret seemingly advocates is really about survival in a patriarchal world; she is trying to teach Ethel how to adapt herself to the reality of their situation as daughters. What she doesn’t succeed in teaching Ethel is, of course, embroidery, and Ethel appears to be the better daughter for it, free from Margaret’s occasional bids for power in the household. Although Yonge clearly intends to urge her female readers towards the embrace of feminine roles, she actually represents feminine crafts in an ambivalent light at best. The reader who too eagerly reached for her embroidery, or who put aside her Greek without Ethel’s unwillingness, would have missed the novel’s subtle disparagement of femininity and its associated pursuits.

Returning to where I began, it is clear that the disparagement of feminine crafts and the disparagement of qualities gendered female are intimately bound up with one another in the nineteenth-century novel, as in the neo-Victorian novels I first encountered. However, in Victorian novels, feminine crafts are not primarily associated feebleness so much as with feminine deceitfulness, subversion and menace. While plain sewing seems, generally, less suspect than the art of embroidery, even functional skills like hemming and knitting are sometimes used as symbols of the dangerous creativity of women – their ability to weave lies, entangle men in their meshes, or plot against them. Validating female characters by disassociating them from traditionally feminine pursuits, and signalling their untrustworthiness by drawing attention to their mastery of textile crafts, is a subtly effective way of nipping potentially feminist identification in the bud, ensuring that femaleness remains suspect even for female readers. It seems to me that as feminist readers, we should resist this strategy, and claim the subversively stitching women of the nineteenth-century novel as our fictional foremothers. By these lights, contemporary feminists who choose the needle as their weapon of choice can see ourselves as part of a proud tradition – one that might have room even for Sylvia and her crewel-work.

[i] Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase ([1962] London: Random House, 2004), p. 36.

[ii] Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London: The Women’s Press, 1984), ‘Foreword’.

[iii] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities ([1859] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 165.

[iv] A Tale of Two Cities, p.107, p. 304.

[v] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield ([1850] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 544.

[vi] David Copperfield, p. 555.

[vii] George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss ([1860] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.378.

[viii] The Mill on the Floss, p. 379.

[ix] George Eliot, Middlemarch ([1872] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 324.

[x] Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth ([1853] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 6.

[xi] Coral Lansbury, Elizabeth Gaskell (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), p.23.

[xii] Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret ([1862] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 105.

[xiii] Charlotte M. Yonge, The Daisy Chain: or, Aspirations: A Family Chronicle ([1856] London: Macmillan, 1873), p. 404.

[xiv] The Daisy Chain, p. 160.

[xv] The Daisy Chain, p. 181.


3 responses to “Crafty Women and Artful Misses: Femininity, Feminism and Female Crafts in the Nineteenth-Century Novel

  1. As a friend of Rosie Parker, and daughter of Joan Aiken I was delighted to see them united in your fascinating piece – also of course as a reader of C19 fiction my mind immediately ran to other examples like lazy Lady Bertram of Mansfield who never set a stitch but kept poor Fanny busy endlessly sorting her tangled silks…

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