In the Scarsdale library today while I was browsing in the fiction aisles my glance fell on H. James – as it always seems to, no matter the thousands of authors there. I connected with my favorites, The American, The Europeans, as well as the ones everyone else loves best, The Wings of a Dove, The Golden Bowl, then noticed that nudged up next to the first of Henry’s volumes there on the shelf, Washington Square, stood 50 Shades Darker, by E.L. James. Then a line of 50 Shades volumes. Side by side, the two authors with their two big sellers, on the left a thoroughly contemporary exploration of happily abused womanhood, and then the equally popular vision from 1880 of a young woman suffering psychological abuse at the hands of her favorite suitor, a bounder. Washington Square, of course, is perennially refreshed as The Heiress, now on Broadway with Jessica Chastain as Catherine Sloper.
Women are always getting their virtue endangered, and that predicament is always finding its way into literature. Who will save her? The question fascinates us.
Before James and James there were young ladies with better things to do than dally with bad men.
I speak of needlework.
Visiting the Winter Antiques Show gave me a new appreciation of the subtleties within the craft, and of just how driven were its practitioners. My photo of a corner of just one piece suggests the three-dimensional artistry that a young girl could bring to her work at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was the Austen era – when female industry with a needle was almost worshipped.
What I never knew before was how many different types of work there were. At the Show, Stephen and Carol Huber of Old Saybrook, Connecticut displayed a range far beyond your typical cross-stitched sampler, achieved by young students in schools on a linen background. No wonder they bill themselves as “America’s Preeminent Source for Girlhood Embroideries.”
Some pictures display silk or chenille thread on a silk background that was painted with watercolors rather than worked with a needle, and depicted stories out of the bible or mythology. Some were memorials, the ones you see with a tomb or a weeping willow, sad subjects that were the expected mental domain of young cultured girls between 1780 and 1840.
Then there were canvaswork pictures. Huge and now highly collectible tableaux, often of hunt scenes but always with a pastoral background.
Even stumpwork: if you didn’t know, that means a type of needlework from the mid seventeenth century. Some pieces have lasted and lasted as if it wrought in metal. They were made with heart.
When girls, young ladies, saved their own selves by the work of their hands, long before James and James.