So, what does Jane Austen have to say about sewing?
As a reliable source of timeless wisdom, I naturally started my research by asking her opinion on the subject, expecting to find dozens of references in answer. After all, learning needlework was part of every girl’s upbringing in Austen’s day (1775 - 1817), and I was sure I remembered it being mentioned in her writings. But when I did a search for “sew,” I came up completely empty! The term wasn’t used even once in any of her novels or preserved letters. How was that possible?
A little more digging and I had my answer. The subject is mentioned, only using different words. A maid is described as working well at her needle, for example. And whenever a lady is said to take up her “work,” that’s her current sewing project – something decorative, utilitarian, or something done for charity.
Mrs. Allen, while she sat at her work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread…she must observe aloud, whether there were anyone at leisure to answer her or not. (from Northanger Abbey)
I found this charming quote in a letter Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1808: “I wish I could help you in your needle-work. I have two hands and a new thimble that lead a very easy life.”
She also wrote a poem to accompany a gift she made for a friend when she was barely sixteen:
This little bag I hope will prove
To be not vainly made
For if you thread and needle want
It will afford you aid.
And as we are about to part
T’will serve another end,
For when you look upon the bag
You’ll recollect your friend.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be the recipient of such a special gift?
From Jane Austen’s words on sewing, I moved on to my own. Sadly, I found I hadn’t even alluded to that noble occupation in my first novel, The Darcys of Pemberley, (a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, which was published last August). I had better luck when I searched my short story, Mr. Collins’s Last Supper (now available exclusively for Kindle). Therein Charlotte Collins is said to have laid her sewing aside upon the arrival of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And in another place, she settled in the parlor to address herself to some mending.
The reference to sewing that tickles me most, though, comes from my second Austen-esque novel, the soon-to-be-published For Myself Alone. The heroine, Josephine Walker, confesses in the opening chapter that she was a trial to her governess in her youth – not very studious and a bit of a tomboy to boot. In truth, she’s still not enthusiastic about the role assigned to her as a woman. She says with sarcastic overtones:
“Nevertheless, to her great credit and my parents’ supreme relief, Miss Ainsworth somehow managed to equip me with all the basic skills society considers essential for a lady of my station. Thus, I can play and sing passably, hold my own in trite conversation, pour tea without disaster, and do every kind of needlework imaginable. Still, although the word is often very liberally applied, no discriminating person would be tempted to call me truly accomplished.”
Poor girl! Will she never learn to love sewing in all its variety as we do? Perhaps I should have made that a part of Jo’s story arc – “how a young lady comes to terms with her place in the world and finds fulfillment and true happiness through her relationship with her local fabric store.” A missed opportunity, I suppose, because instead I went with the more cliché happy ending: finding true love in the arms of a great guy. What was I thinking?
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