“With Just Needle and Thread”: Clare Hunter, Threads of Life


Here too are the embroiderers’ own responses to what they sewed, to the scenes they had to revisit: tenderness in the stitching of a hapless group of unarmoured archers battling for survival beneath the thundering hoofs of horsed nobility; empathy for the yowling dog guarding King Edward’s deathbed; sadness in the gloom of the stilled fleet of ghost ships beached below Alfred shortly before he gains the throne; all set among the poignancy of loss in the borders’ motifs of fettered birds, hunted deer and predatory beasts. They elicit an emotional response, encouraging humanity across the centuries. This is the power of these stitchers, who, with just needle and thread, wool and linen, captured human experiences which, 900 years on, still move us.

Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life is a marvelous, inspiring, touching, and extremely wide-ranging account of the myriad ways needle crafts of all kinds have mattered and made meaning throughout history. It is as much a manifesto as a work of scholarship, for reasons that are often touched on in the book but nowhere more explicitly than in the opening to her chapter “Value”:

A guest writer has been invited to host the creative writing group I have recently joined. He asks us to introduce ourselves and say a little about what we are working on. As each member outlines their memoir, crime thriller, historical novel or their collection of short stories the writer nods encouragingly. Then it is my turn. I tell him I am writing a book about the social, emotional and political significance of sewing. The writer doesn’t nod. Instead, he pauses, leans forward and places his elbows on the table, then slowly interlaces his fingers. ‘Ah yes’, he says. ‘I can just see me asking my local bookstore if they have that bestseller on social, emotional and political sewing’. His look towards me is pitying.

Though after hearing her read an excerpt about her “discovery of an old patchwork quilt” the writer comes round, admitting he “finds it moving and interesting” and that “it reveals a world he knows little about,” Hunter leaves the group: “There are only so many battles I have the spirit to fight.”

Margaret Macdonald, The Mysterious Garden (1911)

Time and sexism are needlework’s two great antagonists in the story Hunter tells, the first constantly threatening the intrinsic fragility of works made of fabric and thread, held together only by stitches, vulnerable to fading, tearing, fraying, disintegrating; the second constantly either refusing or usurping its standing as art, treasure, or historical artifact. Museum curators turn down collections that are then dispersed or lost forever. Women’s achievements — such as those of Margaret Macdonald (“my chosen muse, my guide), who was married to Charles Rennie Mackintosh — are subsumed into their male partners’ careers or otherwise discounted or ignored:

The Willow Tea Rooms on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street are now being restored. The renovations are screened by large hoardings that feature full-sized portraits of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Kate Cranston. There are none of Margaret. . . I ask about Margaret Macdonald; why is she not pictured outside? The woman I speak to is confused. She has never heard of her. ‘This was her work too,’ I say, ‘as much as that of Rennie Mackintosh.’ . . . How long does it have to take, I wonder to myself, for women artists to be properly and fairly acknowledged?

Yet though Hunter is often, and rightly, angry that it remains necessary to defend and explain and justify and restore the value of stitchery of all kinds, overall Threads of Life is more celebratory than confrontational. It makes the positive case for sewing’s “social, emotional and political significance,” and for its artistic significance as well, through its many accounts of what (mostly, though not exclusively) women have made with their needles and why this work has mattered.

hmong story cloth

Hunter’s chapters are organized thematically, which is effective if also, cumulatively, somewhat dizzying: their headings include “Power,” “Identity,” “Connection,” “Protest,” “Loss,” “Place,” “Art,” and “Work,” and in each she draws from different regions and periods to illustrate how stitching has contributed to communities and movements across history and around the world. Displaced Palestinian women in refugee camps first “safeguarded their village stitches” and then began to mingle styles, indicating “changing sensibilities, a strengthening of a national consciousness.” Women prisoners of war in Singapore used “sewing as a subterfuge to stay in contact with their menfolk.” The Soviet Union repressed nationalist expression in Ukraine, including “the wearing of national costume”; by insisting instead on a “secularised and theatricalised version,” they “engineered a natural loss of embroidery practice and knowledge” that had to be reclaimed after independence. Suffragettes in the early 20th century carried banners “sewn in ravishing needlework, employing the most beautiful of fabrics — brocades, silks, damasks, and velvets — and using materials deliberately displaced from the privacy of the drawing room to the public arena of demonstration.” Story-cloths made by the Hmong, “an Asian ethnic group of undisputed cultural antiquity” who have faced “centuries of ethnic division, warfare and enforced migration,” tell their stories “of stable rural life, village bombardment, jungle marches, the treacherous crossing of the Mekong River and their meagre existence in refugee camp.”

638px-Aids_QuiltStitching has been used for commemoration, solace, and survival, to record personal losses and as a means of political protest and consciousness raising. The NAMES Memorial Quilt became a focal point for raising awareness about AIDS: “it played its part in raising funds for research, better sex education, preventative measures and effective drugs.” Under Pinochet’s harsh rule in Chile, women created arpilleras (“embroideries sewn on burlap”) telling “of their own experiences, of kidnapped sons and daughters, of their search to find them, of the loneliness of not knowing what had befallen loved ones.” At first the regime overlooked these deceptively cheerful-looking crafts “as tools of subversion”–sexism providing women protective camouflage. But once their subversive intent was clear, “the women were followed, their homes raided.” Esther Krintz and her sister survived the Holocaust by pretending to be Catholics; the rest of her family was murdered by the Nazis. “We know this story,” Hunter tells us, “because Esther sewed it down”:

Her scene of when the Nazis arrived in Mniszek in September 1939 has her grandmother in a crisp sprigged apron standing on the steps of her lace-curtained house, her grandfather’s shoe lying where it fell as he was dragged from his home. Esther and her two sisters are tidy in floral dresses and plaited hair, watching helplessly as their world changes.

It was long after the events she records that Esther created her embroidered memoir, choosing “sewing as an act of restoration”. Needlework itself also takes time:

The choosing of a fabric, its cutting out to shape different images — the leaves of a trea, the bright red bow of a girl’s dress — have to be carefully done. The needle lingers and the stitcher is forced to pause from time to time to re-thread a needle, pick out and cut a new piece of thread, decide what to embroider next, what colour or stitch to use. It allows space for reminiscing, for remembering. So it must have been for Esther Nisenthal Krinitz on her slow journey of re-creation; one stitch a commemoration, and the next a farewell.

Embroidered Panel by Mary, Queen of Scots (V&A)

We get to know a lot of individual stitchers besides Esther, from Mary, Queen of Scots — embroidering away her long years in captivity and persistently, as Hunter points out, using her stitched signatures to assert her royal rights and claims — to Mary Lowndes, who “set up the Artists’ Suffrage League to supply the suffragette cause with bold, eye-catching campaigning artwork,” or Elizabeth Snitch, who “embroidered her Map of the County of Bedford Divided into its Hundreds in 1779 when she was twelve.” Elizabeth is one of many girls whose samplers point to more didactic or repressive uses of needlework, especially as it became singled out as women’s work and used to teach and discipline girls who might have preferred other modes of self-expression.

Richard Redgrave, The Sempstress (1846)

Hunter doesn’t avoid other less inspiring facets of the history of her subject, including the dire conditions of seamstresses in Victorian London whose plight inspired Thomas Hood’s famous poem ‘The Song of the Shirt.” Class is often an element in how different kinds of needlework are seen and valued, as is race: for instance, Hunter looks at examples of the often detrimental effects of missionary or imperial incursions that forced changes to indigenous crafts and traditions. Economics play a big part in the story, especially around the transformation brought about by the invention of the sewing machine, which (like so many mechanized ‘solutions’) did not ultimately free people from labor but instead changed both the pace and the nature of their work. One of the costs Hunter emphasizes is the loss of the sociability needle workers had traditionally enjoyed:

Until the invention of the sewing machine, sewing had been companionable. Whether grouped with other women or sitting with the family, a woman could sew and still converse. The advent of the sewing machine changed how and where sewing was done. It became a solitary occupation at home, the silent chore of home workers or the toil of factory workers sewing in places where, amid the clang and clatter of machinery, conversation was impossible.

But, she goes on to note, it also gave women a rare opportunity for “independence and financial freedom” as they could establish themselves as dress makers on their own and work “no longer prey to the vagaries and exploitation of employers.”

foundlingThreads of Life covers so much it would be better for you to read it yourself if you’re interested, rather than for me to keep giving more examples! But there are two others I want to just touch on, because I found them so interesting, and because they represent the two poles of needlework that Hunter’s book moves between: the intensely intimate and personal keepsake, and the deliberately calculated public display. The first, of the former kind, is the “billet book” she looks through from London’s Foundling Hospital. Mothers who left their babies there were “encouraged to leave tokens, both as a memento and as proof of parentage” in case they were ever able to come back and find their child. The result is an intensely touching record of “that moment of choosing, of mothers deciding what remnant of themselves to leave, how best to communicate love, regret, hope, a small explanation to the child they will never see again”:

The tokens are tiny, just an inch or two of cloth, snipped from a shawl, a skirt, a blouse, a bonnet ribbon . . . Many are grimed in dirt, some thinned with wear, most dulled by poverty. . . . One child was left a pale blue satin-soft rosette. In the company of the other, more austere tokens, it appeared as luxuriant as a full-blown rose.

It’s a record of heartbreaking pathos, but at least one such story had a happy ending: “One woman, Sarah Bender, came back eight years later clutching her half of an embroidered heart and was reunited with her son.”

2019_The_Dinner_Party_2002.10_DWoodman_2018_DSC01916_4000w_600_525My last example, at the other extreme, is Hunter’s discussion of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party. I knew a bit about this famous art installation, but only vaguely, and not enough to understand that needlework played a big part in its concept and execution. My ignorance is no doubt partly because, as Hunter’s commentary explains, much of the significance of Chicago’s designs got lost in the (mostly male) critical fixation on the dinner plates, which are all I knew any details about. “The history of art,” Hunter acerbically notes,

is awash with graphic and stylised representations of male genitalia. But when Judy Chicago put vaginas on her plates the critics and curators of the art world were aghast. She had stepped across an invisible threshold of gendered taste, its male gatekeepers appalled that such a normal feature of women’s physicality should feature within an artwork dedicated to women’s lives.

But the plates were just part of the overall work, which included “large fabric runners to each place setting which referenced–symbolically and pictorially–each woman’s chronological place in history and provided greater insight to their narratives”:

A wide variety of needlework techniques was embraced. This was no tokenistic application of sewing to enhance the Dinner Party’s visual effects. Each runner was thoroughly researched, carefully considered and exquisitely executed: stitchers translating Chicago’s graphic designs to texture and colour through myriad sewing techniques, painstakingly finding ways to overcome technical challenges. It took two years to complete the runner for Hatshepsut (1503-1482 BCE), the female Egyptian pharaoh of the XXVIII dynasty, made from the finest linen and embroidered with hieroglyphic characters in praise of her reign.

maitzen-coverHatshepsut is also the subject of one of my longtime favorite historical novels, Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning, and this was one of many moments when the intrinsic interest of Hunter’s book was enhanced by ways it connected to longstanding interests of my own. In fact, my favorite chapter in my Ph.D. dissertation, which in an expanded form became my first book, was about real and metaphorical needlework in books by 19th-century women historians. It was prompted by my noticing how often needlework came up in works like the Strickland sisters’ Lives of the Queens of England as well as in reviews of them, and by discovering Elizabeth Stone’s 1840 book The Art of Needlework:

As Stone moves needlework from the margins to the mainstream of history, the figure of embroidery that for the male critics captured the combination of triviality and femininity characteristic of the new historiography becomes a symbol of true historical significance . . . Stone’s written account of needlework across cultures and through the ages accomplishes many of the same ends needlework itself furthered, particularly establishing or invoking a community of women whose common interests and skills unite them despite their many differences–urging a gender bond that transcends class barriers, historical distance, and ethnic variation. . . .

Hers is not a story of progress but of kinship, and her shifts from topic to topic, her accumulation of like examples and related incidents, reproduces in her pages the fellowship between women across the ages and across geographical and cultural divides fostered by the art of needlework and celebrated in her book.

Hunter does not mention Stone’s book (or mine, for that matter, though that’s hardly surprising!) but my description of The Art of Needlework fits Threads of Life almost as well. It is the kind of book that evokes both very specific appreciation of the art and craft it describes and a deep and far-reaching sense of community — both created with just needle and thread.

A sampler that now hangs (pressed and framed) in my office.

Time Passes

lighthouseoupI’m reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. I know, I know. I also know that I should love it, because it is beautiful and moving and brilliant and original — and I sort of do, so far, except when I don’t. I am not a particularly good reader of Woolf’s fiction: it was only a few years ago that I finally read Mrs Dalloway, and I “succeeded” in that only when I stopped working so hard and let myself “fall under the spell of the language, which is beautiful and languorous but shot through with moments of startling clarity and, sometimes, brutality,” as I said at the time. The same is true of the language of To the Lighthouse, though at this point in my reading it’s that very languorous beauty that’s interfering, perhaps paradoxically, with my pleasure in the novel. It is making me impatient, faintly fretful, with its self-conscious artistry. The novel is not opaque, the way late Henry James novels are, but for all its meticulous attention to the mundane, such that everything everyday becomes somehow transcendent, it feels strangely detached from the reality it explores with such nuance.

These are just early impressions, and of a first reading, at that — and I’m also not finished the novel. So don’t think the worst of me! I will learn more as I read on, and more still as I reflect and reread. It’s a good thing, really, to read a novel that doesn’t fit easily into the grooves of my mind. It’s good for my mind, I mean. Already, To the Lighthouse has me thinking — not just about what I want from my reading and why, but about fiction and realism, about mothers and children, about husbands and wives, about lighthouses visited and not, literal as well as metaphorical.

The part I’ve liked least so far is Part II, “Time Passes.” But even though I found it excessively mannered, with its calculated parentheticals, it does wonderfully evoke both the long sweep of time and specific moments and details of change that seize our particular attention:

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand-hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots.

Oxford“Time passes.” It’s such a neutral-sounding phrase, almost like a stage direction, one that requires all the director’s ingenuity to show us its truth without taking us through the whole chronology. It’s an obvious truth, one we’re all perfectly well aware of, but we feel it deeply only during what George Eliot calls “one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace,”

which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue.

The immediate context of that quotation is Mr Casaubon’s confrontation with the reality of death in the great 42nd chapter of Middlemarch, but that isn’t all that different, when you think about it, from our confrontation with the reality that time passes. You can’t stop it. It’s inexorable! It stops, for each of us, only with death, which is thus rightly pervasive in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

Funny little things can really bring home the reality that time passes. I don’t mean just obvious chronological markers like birthdays. They do remind us, but they don’t surprise us: they just keep coming round again on their predictable dates. I’m thinking more about things like my embroidered series of Henry VIII and his wives. And if that seems like an unlikely connection, that’s exactly my point: when it occurred to me that it might be nice to do some work on these cross-stitched portraits again, I didn’t expect to end up contemplating either the relentless passage of time or my own mortality, but that’s what happened.

newstitches9You see, I’ve been working on these off and on since 1993. I was newly married then and still not quite accustomed to the amount of golf my husband likes to watch on TV every weekend. Since it was hard to get away from the TV in our small apartment, and it didn’t seem very friendly (or very practical) to absent myself from home altogether, I decided to take up some hobbies that would keep my hands busy and give me a sense of accomplishment while I watched golf with him. A long-time reader of Tudor fiction, I was also working on a dissertation about Victorian historical writing, including Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England— one way or another, Henry VIII and his wives had been in my life a long time. My thesis also included a chapter on the symbolic significance of needlework in Victorian historiography! So I was pretty excited when I chanced on a pattern in New Stitches magazine for Katherine Howard (wife #5, beheaded, in case you can’t keep them all straight). and even more excited when I realized it was part of a series and I could order the back issues, which I did. Over the next few years I completed four of the queens (Katherine Howard, Anne of Cleves, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn). Just two wives were left, plus Henry himself.

After we had children, though, I found it almost impossible to work on these patterns, which are quite fussy and require both close attention and a minimum of interruptions if you’re not going to lose your place. Also, embroidering on white fabric means keeping your work area, your hands, and anything that might touch the work very clean: you can’t just put your hoop down any old place and grab it up again when you’re back. Even when it started to seem possible in theory to go back to these patterns in the evenings, I discovered that multi-tasking at the necessary level had become much harder: keeping track of the pattern and of the plot in a gripping HBO drama, for instance, was too much for me. The long and short of it is that poor Katherine Parr has been malingering in the drawer, barely half-finished, for years now.

IMG_0910What inspired me to take her out? Mostly that I’ve been experimenting with audio books for a while and though I do enjoy coloring as I listen, I thought I might get more satisfaction out of doing something with more tangible results, and especially out of finishing this series. I hoped that my current audio book (Eloisa James’s Three Weeks with Lady X) would entertain me without overtaxing my poor brain while I followed the design. And in fact it seems just right as a combination of activities — except that I couldn’t help noticing that since the last time I worked with the pattern, it has somehow shrunk so that it’s much harder to see! (Well, OK, actually my eyes have gotten weaker.) Also, the needles: were they always so hard to thread? So those were two blunt reminders that time had passed. And they got me thinking about how much harder this kind of finicky work is going to get as I keep aging, which got me thinking that I’d better not wait another decade before starting (or finishing) Henry and Jane Seymour, because even if I am very lucky and stay healthy and safe from accident or catastrophe — even then, who knows how much more time I’ve got to work on them?

Suddenly, I feel the truth of a commonplace indeed: time passes.

IMG_0912  IMG_0911

Update: Lest y’all doubt my Woolf credentials, here’s one of the bravest (for me) pieces I’ve written for OLM – a literary essay in appreciation of one of the great literary essayists. Or you could check out the entries in the ‘Woolf, Virginia’ category. I think she’s a genius. It just occasionally occurs to me that she’s not my genius.

Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden

peacockI described The Paper Garden as an impulse buy—but there’s always something behind an impulse, some need or desire or curiosity or affinity. As I read through this idiosyncratic, fascinating, beautiful, and occasionally annoying book, I kept wondering what it was that had drawn me to it at this particular moment, especially because it’s not, superficially, “my” kind of book. I don’t read a lot of biography or autobiography, and this book is partly the story of Mary Delany (1700-1788) and partly the story of contemporary poet Molly Peacock. I have never been as interested in the eighteenth century as in other times—never found the art or literature or music of that period as compelling as that of the Victorian period, for instance. This is a generalization that suppresses all kinds of exceptions, of course, but nonetheless, in the choices I made about my professional specialization as well as in the daily choices I make about reading and looking and listening, I don’t tend in an 18th-century direction. And yet not only did I pick up The Paper Garden to take a closer look (a first move that’s understandable when you see how lovely all the various editions are) but almost right away, I wanted it. It seemed to have something to do with me, something to offer me.

Peacock suggests that her own interest in Mary Delany is continuous with her life-long quest for role models (“my blurry radar scanned on, as if I were always looking for something at the back drawers of experience”).  Her strong sense of identification with her subject permeates the story she tells of her and also shapes the way she tells her own story, as she integrates her autobiographical material so as to invite or explicitly draw parallels between the stages of their lives. The similarities are more abstract than specific, unsurprisingly, given the historical distance—and the economic difference (though not, herself, exactly wealthy, Mrs. Delany moved in very aristocratic circles: she was best friends with the Duchess of Portland and eventually intimate with George III and Queen Charlotte). What can two women separated by centuries, living lives unlike in almost every imaginable concrete detail, have in common? What Peacock’s mingled narratives evoke is a sense of the rhythm of lives: growth, survival, flourishing, and then fading. This larger pattern seems more important, ultimately, than the fact that, for instance, both women married twice. This larger pattern is common to all living things, too, and so it unifies not just the two women the book is overtly about but all of us, and then links all of us to the flowers that are the focus of Mrs. Delany’s own art. Peacock chooses one of Mrs. Delany’s flower “mosaicks” (as Mrs. Delany called them) as a motif for each chapter, reading its details as illustrative of each phase. The common Hound’s Tongue, humble, unprepossessing, yet strong, introduces young Mary Granville, nobody of particular notice and yet altogether herself, her strength and possibility nascent rather than displayed; the startlingly aggressive Nodding Thistle evokes the prickly misery of Mary’s first marriage, to the much older, drunken, creepily possessive Alexander Pendarves; much later, the Portlandia Grandiflora (named for her dearest friend) expands luxuriously, as Mrs. Delany did when she emerged from mourning for her second husband to become an artist. “Seventy-two years old,” remarks Peacock. “It gives a person hope.”


Hope is what The Paper Garden is ultimately about; it’s what Mrs. Delany modeled for Peacock, along with perseverance and resilience. It takes a lot of hope, doesn’t it, to make something new, to believe in yourself enough to do it, to expose it and thus yourself? Can it be too late for that? Learning Mrs. Delany’s story, Peacock is reassured that it does not. “Some things,” she concludes, “take living long enough to do.” The paper collages are the fruition of a lifetime of observing, crafting, and caring very deeply about every detail: as Mrs. Delany says in the book’s first epigraph, “How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old? It is just the reverse.” Peacock loves the moment in which Mrs. Delany sees how to use her attention, “the spectacular mental leap” from a fallen petal to her long expertise with paper and scissors, “the vital imaginative connection between paper and petal,” a “lifelong habit of simile” galvanized into new form by the “dropped petal of a geranium.” Twice widowed, childless, aging, temporarily immobilized by an injured foot, Mary Delany was finally ready for the work that would immortalize her. ‘I have invented,” she wrote laconically, “a new way of imitating flowers.” In the next 11 years, she completed 985 “mosaicks.”

winter-cherryThe prints of them in The Paper Garden are lovely, but it’s hard to believe they are what you’re told they are, that is, incredibly fine cut and layered pieces of paper glued into place: the reproductions do not convey their three-dimensionality. Nothing can compromise the astonishment, though, of learning that on some of them she integrated leaves or other parts from actual flowers, the most magical of which is surely the “desiccated netting” of the decaying Winter Cherry or Chinese Lantern. Nobody knows, Peacock reports, how Mrs. Delany “managed to glue something so brittle and make it stay.” Peacock reads the Winter Cherry as a metaphor for Mary Delany’s creative life: “Some of us flash into floral peak like prom queens, but others of us have to dry like the Winter Cherry in order to unfold into productivity.” That’s the source of her hope: that we can see time as our friend rather than our enemy. “The flowers are portraits of the possibilities of age.” For women in particular, inundated as we are with signals that aging is to be fought, resisted, feared—that youthful blushing ripeness is all—that’s a powerful, subversive, liberating idea.

Peacock’s very personal ‘readings’ of the flower collages were fascinating and also provoking to me: I turned back again and again trying to look with her eyes at their images. These readings of hers were also what prompted intermittent resistance and annoyance from me. For one thing, to her the flowers are insistently sexual. The further I got in the book the more I found myself prepared to concede her that point, which she justifies early on by the straightforward reminder that “flowers are plants’ sexual organs, after all.” Still, there were moments when I thought “really?” and moments when the connections she wanted felt forced or speculative. For all she knows about Mary Delany, from the more than three thousand pages of her correspondence, there’s still plenty she can’t know, after all. “Did Robert Twyford steal a kiss?” she wonders. “No kiss? No touch?” she queries as Mary’s relationship with Lord Baltimore founders; “No disordered dress or wrenching away from an embrace?” Not in her sources, anyway, and so who can be sure what feelings pulsed through the lived experience. “It seems impossible,” Peacock writes about Mary’s second marriage, to Dean Patrick Delaney,

that the woman who ate with the gusto, who wrote with the vigor, who danced with the elan, who walked with the heartiness, who consoled a friend with the vitality, who drew with the energy, who gardened with the spirit, who chattered with the vim that Mary displayed moment to moment in all her eighty-eight years did not have a little sexy affection for the man who called her his bliss.

Fair enough: the life force she sums up here is amply conveyed in the excerpts from Mrs Delany’s letters, and why not assume the rest? But (and perhaps this is just an imaginative or aesthetic failure of my own) I had a harder time accepting moments like this one, comparing Mrs Delany’s magnolia to two contemporary renderings of that flower by male artists:

 Mrs. D’s magnolia lolls at the bottom of the page. It almost looks up from the bed linen-like disarray of its petals. The two men style the magnolia at the top of the missionary position, but hers waits below for a partner to lower onto it.

magnolia“It’s just a flower!” I mentally protested as I read that the first time. And yet the more times I look at the picture—now, inevitably, with that description in my mind—the more I see at least the possibility of its eroticism. As Peacock points out, “Anyone who has ever read a seventeenth-century metaphysical poet knows that the sacred and the sexual are never very far apart. Nor are the botanical and the anatomical.” Mrs. Delany’s flowers look, superficially, very pretty: simple, safe, and feminine. When Peacock herself first saw them, she was disappointed in her own reaction: “I felt nearly ashamed about how deeply I swooned over her work, because the botanicals seemed almost fuddy-duddy.” They belong to “the tiny, boundaried world that has its sources in handiwork,” the kinds of crafts her grandmother did. That’s not the artistic heritage she seeks for herself (“Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso probably would have hated them”) but she is “hooked,” “sunk.” At first, though, she didn’t see the collages quite as she would later come to, and as she would like us to: “They all come out of the darkness, intense and vaginal, bright on their black backgrounds as if, had she possessed one, she had shined a flashlight on nine hundred and eight-five flowers’ cunts.”  Is seeing (showing) the flowers this way a means of exorcising the fuddy-duddy from them, or from herself?

Perhaps one reason I was drawn to The Paper Garden is that as my birthday came around this year, for the first time I began to feel haunted by my own aging. I turned 45—which is not, I know, really old, though it was startling to read Peacock’s remarks on Mary’s second marriage, at age 43, at “what she thought was her old age, but what turned out to be her middle period.” I too am in, I suppose, my “middle period.” I didn’t approach my 40s with the trepidation that seems to be the clichéd expectation for women. (To a large extent, I thank my grandmother for this, as she always told me the good years began at 40, and she launched her own career as a writer and editor in her 40s. Like Mary Delany, she worked into her 80s, too, full of vitality and loving life, never indifferent. ) So it was unexpected that 45 felt like a tipping point. Was it the subtitle that caught my eye, then? It promises what The Paper Garden in fact delivers, a subversive, celebratory view of growing older as a woman. The book is also, crucially, about becoming an artist—I would say, “belatedly,” but the whole impulse of The Paper Garden goes against that word, insisting instead on the necessity of long preparation (“Her whole life flowed to the place where she plucked that moment”). I’m not (as Peacock is) a creative artist, so there’s an even fainter resemblance between my own story and Mrs. Delany’s in these specifics. But in the last couple of years I have been doing some different work that I’m really just starting to believe might be my real work, if I can see how to do it right, the way Mrs. Delany figured out how to replicate the fallen petal. Five years ago, though I had done a lot of writing, I would never have called myself a writer. Now, that identity lives for me as a possibility.


Mrs. Delany’s possibilities come to fruition not just through her own creativity and ability but, Peacock emphasizes, through the encouragement of her friends, especially Margaret, the Duchess of Portland: “the idea of the solitary artist is undercut at every turn by Mrs. D.” When Mary makes her first “mosaick,” her “friend of more than forty years supplied exactly what was necessary: applause.” Her applause continued “non-stop for ten years,” spurring Mary to continue and also drawing the attention of “the botanical, artistic, and aristocratic worlds.” Peacock’s many returns to this issue made me wonder why today we are so furtive about wanting applause. I often make self-deprecating remarks about my own anxiety about how my writing will be judged: “I’m a recovering A student,” I say, “still worrying about getting my teacher’s approval.” But is this anxiety really nothing more than refracted vanity, no better than the chafing of needy egotism? Isn’t it instead (or also) a kind of hope? And is it so shameful to bask in the occasional praise that comes our way? “Compliments,” Peacock points out, “aren’t superficial … They are the foundation of recognition of who we are in life.” Compliments about my writing help me believe in myself as a writer. They encourage me to write more, as “the recognition and praise of the Duchess for Mrs. Delany’s imaginative act triggered more acts.” Peacock tells us also of Mary’s young classmate Lady Jane Douglas, at Mlle Puelle’s school for girls, who cherished Mary’s paper cut-outs of flowers and birds, “preserving them,” Mrs. Delany recalled, “many years after.” “It was as if Mrs. Delany had pinned her friend Lady Jane’s admiration to some emotional equivalent of a ‘gown or apron,'” Peacock reflects, “and in private moments, decade after decade, dressed herself in its esteem.”

It seems apt that Mrs. Delany’s creations should, in their turn, have given other women confidence. The very idiosyncrasy of her project is its most inspirational aspect. She succeeded by being completely herself. “What is your own form among the endless varieties of life on earth?” Peacock asks meditatively, near the end of the book. We’re all, in our own way, just trying to figure that out. It’s an effort that “requires creativity till the day a person dies.” That’s the effort, the quality, that Mrs. Delany exemplifies. It does, indeed, give a person hope.

In the Penny Press: My Fantasy Life

I love Steve’s series on his readings in the “Penny Press.” He engages with such gusto with all kinds of periodicals, from highbrow literary journals to lad mags to Dogfancy and National Geographic–and he’s so delighted when he finds good stuff, and so disheartened when his favorites let him down.

Reading Steve’s posts always makes me think about the magazines I read. It’s a small number: I do most of my more miscellaneous reading online, and the only print periodical I actually have a current subscription to is the New York Review of Books (some years it’s the TLS instead, but next year I think it will be the NYRB again, and/or the London Review of Books). I do pick up individual issues of magazines sometimes–but they are almost never literary, culture, or news magazines. Usually, they are quilting magazines, with the occasional foray into Canadian Living (which I did subscribe to for many years–for the recipes!) and a dip into the Running Room’s freebie whenever I pass by the store. Once in a while I pick out something else for variety: I bought Granta‘s spring feminism issue, for instance, but I’m at least as likely to bring home something like the issue of Piecework shown in the photo.

I’ve been wondering why it is that these are the choices I make from the magazine rack and not, say, Harper’s or the New Yorker (or The Walrus, for that matter). What is the lure of these publications dedicated to food, fabrics, and healthy living? These are hardly the central concerns of my days, or at least, not so much that you’d think I would want pages and pages of articles about and glossy colour photographs of them. That said, I do dabble in all of these things: by and large I’m the family chef, and I appreciate getting new menu ideas; I do a little quilting and needlework; and I’ve been a slow, intermittent, but fairlypersistent runner since my “Learn to Run” clinic several years ago. Do you suppose that I buy these magazines because I wish these activities were a bigger part of my life? Do I buy them because doing so gives me the illusion that I do more of this stuff than I actually do–is browsing their pages a way of pretending I’m the sort of person who might run a marathon some day and distributes full-sized quilts to friends and family that have all the points of their triangle patches all neatly in position?

I do think that is part of why I buy them: to bolster my sense of commitment to things that are actually (partly by choice, partly by pragmatic necessity) peripheral to my main priorities. But why would I wish I were living the life that these magazines collectively illustrate, rather than the life I do in fact live? Why is my magazine pile not all book reviews–not to mention academic journals (which I read only under duress now)? Thinking about what the magazines I like have in common, I noticed that they all emphasize two things: the individual satisfaction of tangible achievements (something rare in academic work), and a strong sense of community created by a shared passion. The Running Room magazine and the quilting ones I like are especially conspicuous for their stories of people helping each other to realize their dreams: the Running Room has tributes to clinic leaders and coaches who inspired runners to do more than they thought possible, of people who began just as members of the same running groups and became fast friends. I love the “shop hop” issues of Quilt Sampler, which feature different shops around the country (sometimes in Canada, too) with stories of how they were founded, often by a couple or a pair or group of friends who just really wanted to shape their lives around something they loved and, happily, found a community of like-minded customers and became a supportive, creative community. I think I pore over these stories because academic work is only intermittently like that: the work itself, in fact, often seems to pull us (or at least me) away from the kind of creative fulfilment and warm-heartedness the quilt shop owners seem to enjoy in their work lives. Also, on a more personal level, I’m often a bit lonely in my day-to-day life: my extended family is all far away, my local friends are as busy and stressed out as I am, if not more; a lot of my work is done in solitude, and its group aspects are far from warm-hearted and creative (committee meetings, anyone?)–it’s easy to feel isolated, and the world these magazines conjure (and this is true of Canadian Living as well) is not like that. So, they represent a kind of fantasy life for me, in a few variations, one that if I had more time and energy and guts I might be able to pursue here (I could take a quilting class, maybe–but the nearest quilting store is quite far away, and winter is coming, with its icy roads… I could take another Running Room clinic–but they are often in the evenings, and I’m just so tired and swamped…and again, winter’s coming). Also, in my fantasy life I really love to cook, and nobody in the house has food allergies or any other dietary complications…

There’s one other thing I know I buy the quilting and needlework magazines for: often, their pages are just beautiful! And though I don’t have (or make, I guess) a lot of time for quilting, I do get some done now and then, and it’s inspiring to look at the colours and patterns and spend a little time indulging in the sensual pleasures they offer: they are treats for the eye, just as the fabrics are when you’re actually quilting (when they are a tactile pleasure as well–I bet all quilters sort their stash once in a while really for no purpose than to fondle the fabrics and look at them some more).

(A couple of my more recent quilting efforts: “Overall Bodie” and “Blue Ocean”)

Normal Programming will Resume…

I’ve just returned from my trip to New York for the launch of the Open Letters Monthly Anthology. It was a great night for everyone on the Open Letters team, I think, and once we recover from the festivities, we’ll all enter with renewed vigor into getting the September issue ready for its eager public. I also hope to be back to a more regular blogging routine. One important part of that will be getting back into the habit of more frequent but shorter posts. Starting a new teaching term will help with that, as I will suddenly be too busy with the hectic miscellany of lectures and tutorials and assignments and wiki projects to linger over other things. On the other hand, I will also look forward to blogging more once it becomes, again, more of a rarity to have time and attention for things I choose to read.

And speaking of choosing things to read, naturally a great highlight of my trip to New York was my visit to The Strand bookstore (sadly, I didn’t really have any time to browse at Housing Works, where we held our reading, but just knowing that its secret sub-basement exists will be spiritual nourishment for me). I didn’t have enough time to explore all the layers and recesses of The Strand either, but I did find a couple of titles I’ve had on my ‘most wanted’ list for a while, plus a couple of others that were just too enticing to pass up at those prices. Here’s my haul:

Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I have followed Laila Lalami’s blog for some time and I’m really looking forward to reading her novel, which I hadn’t been able to find around here.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Leaving Brooklyn. I’ve mentioned Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field as one of the ‘books of my life’; though sometimes when I really love a particular book I don’t necessarily even want to read others by the same author, in this case I’m keen–and I already like the first sentence: “This is the story of an eye, and how it came into its own.”

Penelope Lively, Family Album. Moon Tiger is another of those books I’ve loved for many years, though in this case I have followed up with several others by Lively–who has never disappointed me so far.

Anita Brookner, Strangers. They had a lot of titles by Brookner and I had a hard time choosing one. I’ve only read Hotel du Lac, which I really enjoyed. This is a very recent one. I admit: I chose it from the many options there partly because I liked the cover.

Shirley Hazzard, The Evening of the Holiday. I also picked up The Transit of Venus recently, so I guess I’m about to go on a very small scale Hazzard binge. So far the only one of hers I’ve read is The Great Fire. I loved the writing but didn’t love the book–this is not a common response for me. In fact, I think usually I would deny that the writing can be separated from ‘the book.’

Henry James, English Hours (introduction by Leon Edel). This was out on one of those $1 tables that line the outside of the store. The first sentences are, well, Jamesian: “There is a certain evening that I count as virtually a first impression–the end of a wet, black Sunday, twenty years ago, about the first of March. There had been an earlier vision, but it had turned to gray, like faded ink, and the occasion I speak of was a fresh beginning.” Now really: could you have resisted this book, for $1, if only to find out what the heck he is going on about in such lovely, nuanced, but oblique language?

Just as an aside, on my visit to The Strand, I happened to be wearing one of my favorite (and oldest) scarves: it’s kind of purple/green/black strips, with a bit of shimmery thread running through the weave. On my way in, the greeter (I don’t know his actual job, but he seemed to be saying ‘hello’ to everyone who came in) said “Hello. I like your scarf. It’s very distracting.” Distracting from what, I had to wonder?

These aren’t the only books I brought back with me, either. I have SD to thank for yet another two, The Art Book (which I only regret not having had in hand at MoMA, where as is actually quite predictable, I bumbled around quite a bit wondering where the actual art was hidden–though I did enjoy the Matisse exhibit) and a review copy, stories by Joe Meno. I’ve promised to write up at least one here at Novel Readings, so more about that eventually.

And at the Metropolitan Museum gift shop, there on the sale table, just as if they knew I was coming, I found this beautiful book on ‘Embroiderers, Knitters, Lacemakers, and Weavers in Art.’ I did come to regret its heft as I lugged it along while walking all the way back down through Central Park, but it promises hours of browsing pleasure, and perhaps some encouragement for the little needlework project mentioned in an earlier post–which I have begun.

But before I can finish any needlework, much less any blogging or other actual intellectual task, I have to recover from several days of poor sleep (sirens, car horns, and garbage trucks not being altogether lullabies to my small-town ears) and really early rising (note to me: it’s all very well to prefer early flights because “then you have the whole day ahead of you when you get there,” but you aren’t as young as you once were and it will cost you).

Recent Reading: Johnson, Mitchell, Sage, and Mitchell

Somehow that post title ends up sounding like a law firm! Its somewhat miscellaneous character matches my recent reading experiences well, though.

Diane Johnson’s Persian Nights is the first book on my blogging catch-up list. I picked it up on a recent trip to Doull’s because I’ve been spending a fair amount of reading time in Iran lately and also remembered having read Ahdaf Soueif’s review of Persian Nights in her collection Mezzaterra, so it just seemed like a good book for me to try. Soueif seems to have liked it better than I did: she found it ” a serious tale, a tale of altered perceptions and of moral responsibility.” I’m quite prepared to believe that she is a better reader of this book than I was, but I was disappointed precisly by the lack of seriousness and by the sideways, slightly satirical way it touched on issues of moral responsibility. The book clings closely to the point of view of Chloe Fowler, an American doctor’s wife who ends up spending alone what was meant to be ‘together’ time for them in Iran. I felt that her limitations became the novel’s limitations, that the opportunity for a complex narrative about cultural misunderstandings and crosspurposes was handled instead as a rather sour comedy of manners. I agree with Soueif that Persian Nights “is a story about the limits of change — and, finally, its impossibility,” but I would press a little on that, or add in that it is about the limits of change that are possible for someone like Chloe.

The first ‘Mitchell’ on the list is for David Mitchell: I’m reading Cloud Atlas. Notice that I say “reading”: it’s a work in progress. I was doing really well until “An Orison of Sonmi-451.” I’m not a science fiction reader, largely because I find the elaborate artifice of ‘world-making’ tedious, and while I accept intellectually that the genre at its best works as an indirect way of exploring themes or problems in our actual world (though of course I’m sure it doesn’t always, or have to, do this)–still, there’s a machinery to it that I don’t read well. Still, I persevered with Sommi 451 and eventually became adept enough at the futuristic dialect to feel a pulse of readerly excitement as it came to its (interim) conclusion. But then Mitchell hit me with “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” and ground to a halt. Egad. It’s like reading “Caliban Upon Setebos” but for 100 pages. Still, the novel as a whole is clearly genius, and I know my expectations and reading habits are just being tested. I’m going to return to it and just read, even skim, if I have to, until I feel that pulse again, because I’m quite keen to return to all the other narratives, each of which caused a terrible hiccup of interrupted attention as I began it the first time–like grinding gears!–but each of which also had drawn me right in within a few pages. I enjoyed seeing the threads of connection gently laid down for us, too, and I’m pretty confident that the experience of following them back out of the labyrinth of stories will be quite thrilling. I just have to get past “Sloosha.”

‘Sage’ here is for Lorna Sage, whose memoir Bad Blood I’m also stalled in the middle of. I’m not sure why, except that the atmosphere of the book was depressing and I have been discovering, also, a strain of resistance in myself to memoirs as a genre.

And the second ‘Mitchell’ here is for Margaret Mitchell: I’ve just finished reading Gone with the Wind for (and I’m not making this up) the 32nd time. I know this exact number because GWTW was a favourite of mine in my misspent youth and I used to note each rereading on the inside cover (the copy I now have takes me from 23 to 32). I have many thoughts about how this book looks to me today–but I’m saving those for what I hope will become an essay for Open Letters on just that experience of rereading something in a different way, from a different time–almost, as a different person. I’m thinking of drawing (not too heavily, I hope) on Wayne Booth’s discussions of books as friends in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. In this case, not to spoil the ending of my future essay or anything, I have to say that this friendship right now is under a lot of strain, but I think, despite myself,  its longevity may sustain it. Don’t we all, after all, have a friend (or a relative) we still love, warts and all, in spite of everything that’s wrong with them? We’ll see.

In the meantime, because clearly I don’t have enough unfinished projects on the go, I’m about to start work on this nice bookish sampler from Little House Needleworks. I’m going to try and sneak “George Eliot” in instead of “Wilder”–not that I didn’t read and love all the Little House books as a girl, but really, if it’s going to hang in my office when it’s finished, she just has to be there. There’s some nice lurking irony in this project, given how many of these writers felt about needlework! Canadian readers with a crafty tendency may want to know that I ordered my copy of the pattern from the Button & Needlework Boutique in Victoria. You Yankees are on your own.