I’ve been reading Laurie Viera Rigler’s books–I finished Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and am now halfway through Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, and while I won’t say they’re the greatest books I’ve ever read, it’s still a pleasure to contemplate what life would be like for a modern woman in Jane Austen’s era, and vice versa. In a way, for any true Austen addict, it seems that going to the past would be easier. We’d have a road map; the past is already written, and we’ve had the books and the movies. We wouldn’t be shocked at the lack of indoor plumbing, what passed for medical treatment, or the existence of servants. This isn’t to say it would be easy to live with, but it wouldn’t be a complete unknown.
In Rude Awakenings, the second volume, a woman from Jane Austen’s era is somehow transported to 2009, to exist in the body of a woman from Los Angeles. The reasons for this are never made terribly clear–which is one reason I’m not that fond of the book; the internal logic is really weak–but the bottom line is that she has no idea what ninety percent of everything is, does, or is for. I can’t imagine that being anything but terribly frightening. How would we get along 200 years in the future? There have already been unimaginable developments during the span of my life. The internet alone is enormous. And it’s easy to think we’ve reached the pinnacle of development, but history assures us that neither is this the case, nor is it terribly wise to believe so.
What’s really starting to amuse me is this: though she did embroidery in her life in 1813, the stressed-out heroine of this story never seems to think of finding any kind of needlework in the present, though it’s obvious she found it at least soothing before. In the first volume, the contemporary woman is amazed at how her 1813 fingers just know what to do with needle and thread, and how much it relaxes her. And of course we know that contemporary women do embroider, knit, crochet, and make crafts for fun and profit, and we know these things have a positive impact on one’s mental and physical health. But it’s a real trope of novels of this sort that a contemporary woman would neither have the desire nor the skill to do any sort of handwork. It comes up so often that I have occasion to be annoyed whenever I notice it. Women from the past are very often portrayed as put-upon by the expectation that they will do needlework, and will abandon it at the first opportunity. For fictional women in the present, handwork is almost never even on their radar. Why we do this to the poor characters we create in any era is beyond me. Ravelry has over a million members worldwide, and I personally know of a dozen knitters or crocheters who aren’t on the site, not to mention a few dozen more men and women who do other crafts. Why do we persist in pretending that handwork is of the past, and then only because it’s supposed to be there, not that anyone actually liked to do it? It’s such a disservice to all of us.