Literary Handwork

Reading and handwork make a perfect pair, in my opinion: the two things I enjoy doing most, miraculously combined. Sometimes I even enjoy the reading more than actually doing the thing itself. And on those occasions when a project outlasts enthusiasm, what better to rekindle the fires than finding the same spark in a book?
Albert Anker - Strickendes Mädchen beim lesen (1907)
Happily, literature is full of examples of hand-workers – particularly in those classics which were written in the days when handwork for women was just ‘work’ and everyone (unless a gentleman of the purely decorative class) was expected to keep themselves busy.

So it is with the Dashwood girls in Sense and Sensibility. “Sir John Middleton, who called on them every day for the first fortnight, and who was not in the habit of seeing much occupation at home, could not conceal his amazement on finding them always employed.”

Or take Mansfield Park, also by Jane Austen. One of her more underrated books, I feel, with one of her more underrated heroines. Fanny is always busy with handwork: her own, or someone else’s. Helping Aunt Bertram the indolent, or being press-ganged into the thrifty machinations of Aunt Norris. And unlike her cousins, she does work of a high calibre.

Mp-Brock-10Then there are the March girls in Little Women, who ” adopted Jo’s plan of dividing the long seams [of sheets] into four parts, and calling the quarters Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, and in that way got on capitally, especially when they talked about the different countries as they stitched their way through them.” The book also includes knitting, dressmaking (for humans and dolls), and the embroidering of a pair of slippers (“grave yet cheerful pansies on a deeper purple ground”).

Not all literary hand-workers are enthusiastic. Catherine, from Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, is continually being nagged by her old nurse Morwenna to work on her spinning, sewing, embroidery and the like, when she would rather be running wild outside. “They found the remains of several spindles, many skeins of wool, and an unfinished tapestry in the muck from the privy. Why is everyone so certain they are mine?”
Reine Berthe et les fileueses, 1888
Other fictional handworkers include Miss Silver, who is always knitting something, usually for her great-niece or great-nephews, and who designs and executes her own crochet trimmings to boot. Miss Marple also knits, but in less detail. Devotées (or, indeed, devotés) of quilting can enjoy the works of Jennifer Chiaverini and Earlene Fowler. Embroiderers, or those considering taking up embroidery, should make a beeline for Embroidery Mary.

On the non-fiction side, there are plenty of books about the history and practice of various crafts, and then there are books of craft humour. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is an outstanding outlier in this field.

For those who are passionate about both literature and craft, there are books of crafts inspired by books, which you can add another layer to by making the crafts from the books of crafts inspired by books. While reading the originatory books, if you want to complete the circle and you have the much-desired (by me at least) ability of reading while working with your hands.

Meyer von Bremen Strickendes lesendes Mädchen 1863Alternatively, you can follow the grand old tradition of having one person read while everyone else handworks; or its modern, more solitary equivalent: the audio book.

What are some of your favourite handworky books? Recommendations eagerly sought!


A movie I saw the other day set me to thinking about love, about the great lovers of fact and fiction, and what it is that makes their love stand out. Who do you think of?

People have been writing about Hero and Leander for the last two thousand years. As the story goes, Leander drowns trying to swim from Asia to Europe to visit his lady love. In a storm. Amantes amentes, indeed. (Lovers = lunatics.)

Of course, love is not simply a feeling (or a mental condition), but a choice – a perpetual choice. Witness Edward Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility, who though no longer in love with his fiancée, refuses to dump her when he is offered the choice between her and continued financial security. Though he does not feel love for her, he continues to behave in a loving way.

In contrast, we have John Willoughby from the same novel, who, though very dashing and poetic, chooses wealth over the woman he loves – he’s got the feels, but one scorns to call that love which plays second fiddle to self-interest.

As Shakespeare so memorably wrote: love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. Another distinctive of great love: that it doesn’t change, though all changes around it. Constancy despite circumstances.

Great lovers have also been known to defy society’s conventions. People who marry across the lines – though frequently unmarked by history – would, I argue, fall under this category. Joseph, for example, who marries his pregnant fiancée knowing full well that this will be assumed to be admission of paternity and thus send his reputation after hers on the stony road to ostracism.

The reputation of unrequited love has taken a hit of late with the increased awareness of stalking – but obviously, that isn’t love. And we might still have a grudging admiration for someone who loves from as great a distance as the loved one is comfortable with – even as we think they’d be better off getting over this one and moving on. One thinks of the medieval knight who chose to fight for the honour of a lady who wouldn’t even agree to meet him for the first fifteen years or so.

Edmund blair leighton accolade

More rare is the one who loves despite knowing that their loved one is unworthy of that love. Hosea, for example, who marries a prostitute, knowing she’s going to cheat on him, and that the children she bears may well not be his.

Or the completely different man known as Sinner, of Simon R. Green‘s Hex and the City, whose love for his wife is not altered by finding out that she is a demon succubus sent to entrap him. Hell can’t stomach that sort of love, so it spits him back out.

Rather more famous: Romeo and Juliet, who defied the strictures of their families (Thou Shalt Not Fall in Love with One of Them) and eventually killed themselves rather than live without each other – although to be fair, each thought the other was dead first, so it’s not like they considered suicide as their Option A.

Northcotes Romeo and Juliet

Then there’s the classic tale of Orpheus, who dares go living into the world of the dead to save the one he loves. Unfortunately for her (and him) his bravery is greater than his ability to follow instructions – but that’s another story.
And you could fill a compendium of omnibuses (omniboi?) with tales of those who have died for the ones they love. As it is written, “there is no greater love than this…” (John 15:13).

Great lovers put their loved one ahead of their own comfort or convenience; ahead of their own lives. Their love does not change, even when their loved one does. They will defy family, society, and even death itself to be with their loved one. Sometimes they are even portrayed as defying God himself – as though their love is stronger, and forces him to give way.

And this is where I think we are making our mistake.
This kind of love isn’t against God – because this is God’s love.

Köln - An Groß St Martin - Groß St Martin in 34 ies

This is the love which leaves paradise to be with the beloved. A love that refuses to be bound by convention. A love that is unchanging and unchangeable, constant in the face of fickleness and betrayal. A love undaunted by indifference, neglect and even loathing. A love that will sacrifice its own life for the good of the beloved and to avoid being separated from them, and yet despite all this will not force its love on them – this is the love of God.

The qualities we admire and venerate in the great lovers of time and tale are facets in the complete and perfect love of God. It is in our love that we come closest to the divine.