Jane Austen and Knitting: The Distaff Side
Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, is her most mature work. From its onset, there is a sense of foreboding, as the downcast heroine, Anne Elliot seems to be poised on the brink of a miserable life of spinsterhood spent plagued by her irritating immediate family. In one poignant scene, Anne defies the wishes of her pretentious father and sister and visits an old school friend, the widow Mrs. Smith, who is both infirm and poor. Mrs. Smith informs Anne that she has been blessed with a devoted nurse, one whose contributions Smith describes,
"As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pincushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood. She has a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandise.”
Not surprisingly, it is in this novel, written when Austen knew that no happily ever after was in her own future, that Austen describes the plight of ill, lonely, and poor widow Mrs. Smith. Smith would be a very young woman by 21st century standards, roughly Anne’s age, around 27, but the modern reader senses that this character’s life, like Austen's, will be a short one, and that there is no Mr. Darcy or even a Colonel Brandon in her future. Yet, Smith finds a way to charitably give to others and a to gain a small source of income by knitting. In this novel, knitting is presented as a humble craft, performed by unassuming women, in solitude and peace, much like Austen’s writing done at a small table using a meager “two inches of ivory.”
The marriage in the mind’s eye of knitting with a retreat from active life is still prevalent today, among many non-knitters. My two sons think that knitting is an “old lady” activity—the younger one goes so far as to beg me to refrain from knitting in public. Much like those who prompted Jane Austen to hide her manuscripts under cover when visitors appeared, he, like Austen’s contemporaries viewing a woman writing fiction, somehow finds knitting unseemly—not unwomanly as writing was presumed to be in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more like unfashionable. To my son and others like him, knitting suggests women who like Anne Elliot have “lost their bloom,” who as adults, seem to lack futures of vigorous living and procreation.
Yet that view of knitting and the characterization of both women, fictional and real, as somehow used up reflect, of course, stereotyped thinking and errors in judgment. (Every contemporary knitter knows that there is a huge interest in knitting among very hip and vibrant young people.) In the course of their humble activities and retiring lives both women make great contributions—Smith’s words prevent Anne from making a disastrous marital choice and Jane Austen has left a legacy of literary contribution—one which has spawned a huge industry of Austen films and spin-off books, not to mention legions of devoted Janites.
For those of you Janites who appreciate both the vibrant contributions of Jane Austen and the art and craft of knitting, here is a pattern I found from the United Kingdom’s Jane Austen Center for a knitted shawl. You might also enjoy this 18th century stocking chart, one which requires some pretty sophisticated math skills at a time when skill with numbers was not included in the qualities an accomplished woman was supposed to possess. (See the definition of an accomplished woman presented in Pride and Prejudice.) Finally, check out the Knitting History website, to see some images of knitted works, some of which date from Austen's lifetime.