Out of the past, or never in it?

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.

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6 thoughts on “Out of the past, or never in it?

  1. I first read this post yesterday, and I spent quite a bit of time trying to think of any book/tv show/movie/video game that involved handwork at all.

    I came up with a (very) short list: Kirby’s Epic Yarn the video game, though its protagonist is whatever Kirby is, and then the Circle of Magic series aimed at young adults, written by Tamora Pierce. The whole series is based on crafts: gardening, fiber arts (no knitting, but spinning, embroidery, sewing, and weaving), and metalwork among other skills.

    There are the series focused around knitting (“Friday Night Knitting Club”), do they count? Granted, I never even finished that book, I found it dull!

    I wonder if it is part of that whole thing where the media is always trying to dig up some new trend, usually involving hipsters in Brooklyn and/or teenagers and their scandalous use of technology, and knitting and other crafts don’t really fit into that vision? Too bad, because there are some hilariously inappropriate knitting projects on ravelry, and some even more scandalous cross-stitch projects too.

    • Oh, where on Ravelry? Is there a specific place? I’m just barely figuring out that site–it’s like a tooth! Just goes on and on and on. I’m enjoying “Flash your ugliest FO!” Boy. There’s no bottom to that one.

      There are some knit-shop-centered novels, I know. Debbie Macomber is a well-known romance writer and knitter who’s done some knitting novels. And there’s someone else, I forget who, doing stitch-shop novels. They run a little twee for my taste, though. In my experience, they’re all either about a world centered on a knit shop, or the heroine is a Mary Sue-d hipster crafter who makes a way better living than is likely, doing some sort of craft that is inevitably not knitting or stitching. My preference would be for knitting or crafting or stitching as the fact of life it is for most of the handcrafters I know–something we do when watching TV or reading or visiting, not for money, not necessarily the most creative people who ever walked the earth, but not the least.

      And what really bothers me is not only is that woman never in these novels ostensibly for and by women, but often in novels that appeal to me for other reasons, like Rigler’s, handcrafting is actively repudiated by contemporary and historical women alike. It’s just a repetition of some sort of second-wave feminist meme about embroidery being an instrument of repression; it’s not even a thoughtful contribution to the issue.

      I think this is why I have trouble being a member of knitting communities. Or any communities.

      • http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/popular/maturecontent is the link to the knitted/crocheted projects. NSFW of course 🙂

        Regarding the second wave thing, perhaps that’s because the authors grew up during that movement? I don’t have any stats, but I would guess that most somewhat successful authors/writers are probably at least in their forties, since writing careers tend to take a while to develop. Just a guess though. Certainly cookbooks and craft books sell VERY well, even occasionally making bestseller lists, so I can’t imagine that publishers would think that no one is interested in handcrafts at all, or that there’s no demographic overlap between women buying more books than men, and women being more likely to be crafters than men.

        And so far as tool of oppression, at least in my family it’s just viewed as a useful skill to have – but most people in my family were either reared by parents who remembered the Great Depression and/or WWII, or remember it themselves. I think that attitude of frugality overrode any issues about sewing/knitting being a burden. Also, on the whole, most of my family is first-generation American so that might influence the anecdata I have!

        “I think this is why I have trouble being a member of knitting communities. Or any communities.”

        Are knitters anti-embroidery? Or are they just a cliquish bunch?

        • PS I haven’t forgotten about the Warner House bedspread. I spoke to my fave LYS’s shop assistant (she’s like a walking knitting encyclopedia), and she also recalls hearing a blurb about the bedspread, and thinks that it may have been in Vogue or Interweave, but since I never knew about IK until last year, odds are it was mentioned in Vogue. Tonight I have to pack up my knitting magazines so I will go through the Vogues and see what I can find.

        • My family is the same way. I don’t know if it started out to be a cost-saving measure for my mother and grandmother, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I come from a long line of handworkers, though not all the same kinds of work. My paternal grandfather worked in the textile mills and had an upholstery business; my maternal grandfather was a machinist. It’s really no wonder I feel so much better about life when I’m making and fixing things. You’re probably right that it’s nurture. If one were forced to do handwork so you’d sit down and shut up, you’d probably feel pretty oppressed!

          I should really go on and write some women that I like, rather than complaining about the women other writers write. It seems like it couldn’t help but be a better approach to the situation. Somehow knitting or crafting has a way of turning an otherwise ordinary genre novel into a Knitting Novel or what have you. I want a novel about someone who knits, that isn’t a Knitting Novel.

          No, as far as I can tell, knitters have no beef with embroiderers, or vice versa. But the times I’ve gone into knitting circles griping about these kinds of things, I’ve tended to run into uncomfortable silence and the impression they wished I wouldn’t come back again.

          • I bet that’s them not wanting to talk about the issues surrounding knitting, and preferring just chatting about knitting itself…or at least that’s my guess.

            I find these topics interesting though, which is why I always am happy when you have a new post up!

            Also, I scoured my VKs for mentions of the bedspread. NOTHING. It is very mystifying. *grumble*

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