PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.25, NO.1 (Winter 2004)

Thread-cases, Pin-cushions, and Card-racks: Women’s Work in the City in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Susan E. Jones


Susan E. Jones (email: is an Assistant Professor of English at Palm Beach Atlantic University with a longstanding interest in both Jane Austen and women’s work, especially needlework.  She is the co-coordinator of the South Florida chapter of JASNA.  This paper was presented at the 2004 AGM in Los Angeles.


feminist literature has for decades asserted that every woman is a working woman, and although such sentiments may not have been articulated in Jane Austen’s era, in the novel Persuasion, clearly every woman is employed in some sort of work, especially in the section of the novel which is set in the city of Bath.  Bath not only employs resident women in serving the needs of visitors to the spa and its various attractions, but it also employs the resources of women who visit Bath as members of more privileged classes, accompanied, of course, by the less favored and unnamed women who attend them.


At the highest levels of society delineated in Austen’s novels, women are employed in their social duties.  An example of this can be found in an early passage of the novel in which Austen tells us that Anne Elliot is “at work” at the piano, and we are told it is her usual occupation, “her fingers . . . mechanically at work” (72).  Anne, the less favored spinster daughter, is at the disposal of all members of the family, to serve their pleasure and support their entertainment, and Austen’s language very explicitly delineates the nature of Anne’s obligations and occupations.  Later we find Anne and her sister at “work” seated in the window while the men are out strolling and hunting (83).


Almost every historian and literary critic of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century agrees that a primary definition of “work” for women during this period would be some form of sewing or needlework (Wilson 167; Lieb 29).  According to Roszika Parker, “the term was engendered by an ideology of femininity as service and selflessness and the insistence that women work for others, not for themselves” (6).  This is the kind of work that young girls learn almost from the time they can talk, and it prepares them for their duties as grown women.  Lower or working class women learn plain sewing (the sewing of domestic garments), and a young woman might even be trained to be a mantua-maker, making garments not just for the family but for other women to wear to the various balls and occasions of the haute monde.  Genteel women’s skills are elaborately structured as leisure activities.  Women of the gentry or aristocracy learn sewing as ornamentation and as a social skill, useful in moments of emotion or ennui.  Both groups may fall back on needlework as a primary means of self and family support, should the vicissitudes of fortune shear away the bulwarks of masculine protection.


Among young women of the gentility, girls would often be expected to make gifts for their family circle, both to exercise their skill as needlewomen and to develop a sense of service and familial duty.  Even when their products are not perfect, they become a sign of compliance, representative of the social graces expected of a young woman, for as Laurie Lieb points out, one “function of needlework, in which the product is less important than the activity itself, is as a means of discipline” (36).  The elaborate sewing of objects such as pincushions, lace-trimmed pillows, and embroidered waistcoats and slippers placed these items in circulation within the extended circle of the family to demonstrate the accomplishments and the self-discipline of the girl and the excellent work her mother had done by extension in her training.  Excellent needlework skills were a sign that a young woman was prepared to take up her “work” in society, which Elysa Engleman has delineated in reference to genteel women in eighteenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, but which applies equally to Regency England:  “No matter what her station was in life, a woman’s job was to marry wealthily, manage wisely, and mother well” (143).


As critics have shown, sewing also provides the means by which a woman negotiates life in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, through communal sewing with other women, for example.  In Persuasion, Anne Elliot and her sister “working” together develop a gentle companionability which is not always present in their relationship, and Austen’s original audience would immediately have assumed their work was sewing.  Sewing was described by Rousseau, among others, as an activity which trained women to conform to standards of quiet and patience, and in many references of the period, women’s acceptable work of sewing is opposed to the activity of writing, a far more subversive fabrication of words that could potentially, as in the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, challenge society’s prejudices.


Clearly, working women in Bath would have been stitching and talking, two feminine employments.  Among these working women, outside of the protected genteel society of the well-to-do, the successful at war, and those whose names are inscribed in the Baronetage, two women are foregrounded by Austen by being specifically named, Mrs. Smith and Nurse Rooke.  As many critics have noticed, Mrs. Smith is something of an enigma as a character.  Among working women, she is just as enigmatic as she is not working class, nor does the sewing that she does provide the means for her support, although she is clearly living under financially difficult circumstances for a woman of her station.


The name Austen gives to this character places her in a position of ordinariness and invisibility, an ordinariness commented on by Anne Elliot’s father: “‘A widow Mrs. Smith,—and who was her husband?  One of the five thousand Mr. Smiths whose names are to be met with every where” (157).  But Mrs. Smith has claims on Anne based on care and kindness.  Not unlike Harriet Smith in Emma, Mrs. Smith had been a boarder at school, a woman who had few or no relations to whose houses to remove once her education was over, and she assisted the grieving Anne when they were at school together.  Although her surname had been Hamilton, a name of some notoriety in the days of the Napoleonic wars, she had leveled herself by marrying a Mr. Smith.  Her choice of a charming man without the prudence to hang onto his fortune has reduced her financially (just as such a choice might have reduced Harriet Smith had she not married the very provident and hardworking Robert Martin).  Further, Mrs. Smith has not seemed to acquire family by marriage; no children and no in-laws to take an interest in her.  She retains only enough money to care for herself without the solace of a servant.


Mrs. Smith has been fortunate in her choice of lodgings in Bath.  Her landlady, another woman at work typical of the Bath scene, has a sister, and that sister, Mrs. Rooke, is a nurse.  As Mrs. Smith falls ill with a cold upon her arrival in Bath (where she has come seeking relief from rheumatic fever), she needs a nurse, but has “finances at the moment particularly unfit to meet any extraordinary expense” (154).  Since Nurse Rooke is not occupied with a case at the time of Mrs. Smith’s arrival, she takes an interest in Mrs. Smith.  (The financial details of the nursing arrangements are not stated.) She teaches her knitting, a skill which apparently had not been a part of Mrs. Smith’s repertoire.  Although this lack may have been due to the traditional preference for knitting by the elderly (Lieb 29), possibly also this was because knitting was not among the more elite hand working activities of which a lady must be mistress, and knitting stockings, for example, would hardly have created the genteel and elegant appearance a young lady was expected to project in a Regency drawing room.  Young women and men in less elevated positions might have been the recipients of this kind of training instead, while their social betters would be creating much less useful articles.


By contrast, for example, the unlikely accomplishment of spinning had been a social skill practiced at the highest levels of society, probably because the parlor spinning wheels which the socially prominent operated were beautifully wrought and highly decorative.  (In Jane Austen’s letters, we find Austen commenting to her sister regarding a proposed gift of a spinning-wheel, which she refuses because of the sense of identification of the fine tools of women’s work with their owners [Selwyn 68].)  Further, a woman’s ability to create a smooth sewing thread was considered a remarkable accomplishment; Sylvia Groves tells of a Scottish noblewoman, Lady Balgarran, who advertised that “she and her daughters having attained to great perfection in making and twisting sewing thread which is even and white” offered their thread for sale “wrapped in papers bearing the Balgarran coat of arms” (29).  Sale of the results of such an accomplishment was apparently not enough to taint the family with the aura of “trade”—at least not among the Scots aristocracy.


The fact that the thread was purveyed in “papers” is pertinent to the situation of Mrs. Smith.  During the early eighteenth century, thread was sold by measurement or by weight; those who bought it did not have the luxury of buying it on spools.  Once purchased, it needed either to be rewound onto cards or other carved storage devices, or to be kept in “thread-cases” to ensure that it would not tangle.  Thread-cases were fabric containers with pockets where thread could be stored for further use.


Spinners of thread, especially once cotton thread became available from the manufacturing facilities of the Industrial Revolution, searched for more convenient ways by which to purvey their product to the consumers.  By the end of the eighteenth century, carved “barrels” and other winding storage devices for thread were readily available, particularly in elegant ivory shapes.  The sewer could have these refilled with thread, and they were a part of most work-boxes of the period.  Many were carved in the Orient and accompanied the silk thread used for finer work.


Thread-cases remained the sort of gift one might make within the family.  They could hold both needles and threads and could decoratively display the maker’s handiwork.  A thread-case made of silk was still being given as a gift at least as late as the mid-nineteenth century in the Hawthorne family in America, long after such a gift was technically necessary since threads of the time were certainly available on spools.  Mrs. Smith’s production of this particular item is a part of a code that Austen uses to signal her readers that this item falls into the category of products that a woman of the gentility might make, but ordinarily only for family members and singular friends.


Why is this important?  Austen’s subtle coding of Mrs. Smith’s station would have been clearer to her contemporaries than to modern critics.  In the article “Penelope’s Daughters: Images of Needlework in Eighteenth-Century Literature,” Cecilia Macheski reminds us that “both needlework and the novel owed much to domestic necessity and to the special female perspective” (85).  Macheski notes that “modern observers . . . are inclined to overlook the presence of an encoded language of either stitches or literary imagery and to see only the superficial pattern.”  She claims that language relating to needlework “constitutes a subtext on female experience” (86).


All the items that Mrs. Smith makes are hardly necessities.  She is not reduced to becoming a mantua-maker, like Austen’s contemporary, writer Mary Lamb, for example.  In fact, her means of support can only be supposed by the modern reader, although presumably support comes from the remains of her dowry or perhaps the remains of her husband’s estate, yielding so little income that she can afford neither servant nor nurse in Bath.  However, she is assisted by Nurse Rooke, a working woman whose life takes her into the homes of the socially prominent.  Together, Mrs. Smith and Nurse Rooke create a business that relates as much to the circulation of information as to medical practice or souvenir sales.


Mrs. Smith’s goods are not sold to increase her personal comfort, per se.  Instead, she explains that these “‘supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood’” (155).  Although the finances Mrs. Smith receives come not from her own investments but from the production of these embroidered goods, she displays a ladylike management of resources and a ladylike bountifulness by giving these receipts as charity to those poorer and less advantaged than herself.  She remains an exemplar of gentility, even in poverty.  She relies on her “friend” Nurse Rooke in a kind of symbiotic relationship.


Nurse Rooke, however kindly, is not a representative of the same class as Mrs. Smith.  Indeed, when she opens the door for Anne Elliot, Anne does not even notice her, telling Mrs. Smith when the door was opened, she “‘observed no one in particular’” (197).  This comment almost completely parallels her father’s unjustified remarks about Mrs. Smith, based on her name, and demonstrates that, not entirely unlike her father, Anne has areas of blindness, however benevolent she is being (Anderson).  In fact, for Anne Elliot, a “professional” nurse is probably is both invisible and unknown—for the most part in Persuasion, as elsewhere in Austen’s novels, nursing is performed by members of the family, or perhaps by familiar servants such as a trusted nursery maid who form part of a sort of extended family.  What kind of nurse was Nurse Rooke?


Roger Sales states that she is a nurse who also acts as a midwife (194).  While Nurse Rooke is attending Mrs. Wallis who is “in daily expectation of her confinement” (141), there is little indication that Rooke’s main function would have been midwifery.  In fact, it is rather hard to imagine the light banter and gossip which Rooke brings home taking place in the background of a delivery, a fearful experience in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century England.


Professional nursing during this period was hardly what it would be after the entry of Florence Nightingale into the medical arena.  This was a time sometimes characterized as the “Dark Ages” of nursing.  Paid nursing conditions, according to nursing historians, were very hard, and few would willingly undertake the profession (Goodnow 50).  Nurses were generally thought of as without skills or morality, and excessive alcohol consumption was a given in their representation.  Further, these individuals were associated with transgressive sexuality and with a working class held in high distrust (Judd 34).  Such nurses were not to be trusted, as on the one hand, they might sink into an alcoholic stupor and on the other, they might take advantage of the patient to extort money, or in extreme cases, even hasten death.


Nurse Rooke hardly falls into this stereotypical image.  Austen delineates her as a companion and gossip to Mrs. Smith, a woman of considerable compassion, and a care-giver who mothers Mrs. Smith just as Mrs. Smith mothered Anne Elliot at school.  She possesses a liminality, an ability to move between worlds, and perhaps this is why Austen first has her appear at the door.  Perhaps her invisibility as a professional nurse is part of her system of exchange; she not only gossips with Mrs. Smith, but she observes and listens in on gossip with her patients and their visitors and family.  Mrs. Smith teaches Anne to see Nurse Rooke more clearly, and Anne goes on to state, “‘Women of that class have great opportunities, and if they are intelligent may be well worth listening to’” (155-56).  Although Anne still does not understand the nature of the sickrooms that Nurse Rooke attends, having a much higher expectation of human nature than either Mrs. Smith or Nurse Rooke, she is beginning to move away from the class biases which render the nurse invisible.


Although there is no hint of transgressive sexuality or any of the vices stereotypically attributed to nurses of the period in Nurse Rooke, Austen does, in an extension of the coded language of needlework and women’s work, use her to reflect on the women whom she nurses.  Mrs. Smith describes the current patient, Mrs. Wallis, as “‘a mere pretty, silly, expensive, fashionable woman’” (156), but the reader senses that many, if not most, of Nurse Rooke’s clients fall into this category.  Austen proves this through the trade in Mrs. Smith’s “products.”  As the type of work that Smith produces is the sort of needlework women of gentility make themselves and give among their family and acquaintance, the mere fact that these women are purchasing the items makes them suspect either with regard to their needlework skills or their ability to claim gentility itself.


As David Selwyn points out, “[t]he giving of such things might be regarded as . . . a delicate recognition of shared activity,” and in Sense and Sensibility Fanny Dashwood gives away needle-books which she has purchased, an act which is coded negatively by the other women.  Within the circle of the Austen family itself, needlework gifts were frequent, and several examples of Jane’s own gifts still exist.  In the letters, Austen comments on gifts being sent back and forth, even gifts by young girls whose skills are not yet well formed, but who practice the self-sacrifice and discipline of sewing gifts within the family.  The sentiment is correct even if the gift is not entirely lovely.


One might argue that perhaps Nurse Rooke’s patients themselves are practicing charity by buying the thread-cases, pin-cushions, and card-racks.  One finds, however, that they do not do so willingly.  Nurse Rooke is skilled not only in invalid care, but also in sales.  In the case of Mrs. Wallis, Nurse Rooke’s current invalid, Mrs. Smith says, “‘I mean to make my profit of Mrs. Wallis. . . . She has plenty of money, and I intend she shall buy all the high-priced things I have in hand now’” (156).


Her confidence lies in Nurse Rooke.  She is the traveling salesperson.  Mrs. Smith says,


“She has a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandize.  She always takes the right time for applying.  Every body’s heart is open, you know, when they have recently escaped from severe pain, or are recovering the blessing of health, and nurse Rooke thoroughly understands when to speak.  She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman.  Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who having only received ‘the best education in the world,’ know nothing worth attending to.” (155)


Although Nurse Rooke’s acquaintance among the wealthy is “professional” (of course), she uses that acquaintance to extract money from them beyond her professional revenue.  She is figured as more sensible than her clients, with a greater education in human nature.  Although a member of the working class, she is described as better than those who have received “the best education,” those who do not observe her at all.


Nurse Rooke’s network of connections is rich not only with her professional acquaintances, but with a carefully wrought web of nameless working women who become the sources for her other business—the transmitting of information.  This is what makes Nurse Rooke not only an effective nurse, but an agreeable companion.  Thus, Mrs. Smith can greet Anne with the news she has already heard about the concert Anne attended, “through the short cut of a laundress and a waiter” (193).  And through Anne’s old school friend and the formerly invisible nurse is wrought the hinge on which the plot will swing to a close: the revelation of the true nature of William Walter Elliot and the consummation of the marriage plot.  At a foundation for the denouement lie not only the various works of the genteel ladies, but also the diligence of Nurse Rooke and Mrs. Smith, and finally the support of all the unnamed laundresses, mantua-makers, and serving women who made the leisure life of Bath possible for their “betters.”


Thus, in Persuasion, women’s work is never done, and every woman is a working woman.  It’s a good thing, and it leads to a happy ending.



Works Cited


Anderson, Kathleen.  Traveling Lecturer, JASNA, 2004.  Personal Interview.  28 July, 2004.

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Engleman, Elysa.  “Needlecraft and Wollstonecraft: A Case Study of Women’s Rights and Education in Federal Period Salem, Massachusetts.”  In Painted with Thread: The Art of American Embroidery.  Ed. Paula Bradstreet Richter.  Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum, 2001.141-47.

Goodnow, Minnie.  Nursing History in Brief.  2nd ed. revised.  Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1943. Groves, Sylvia.  The History of Needlework Tools and Accessories.  London: Country Life Limited, 1966.

Lieb, Laurie Yager.  “‘The Works of Women are Symbolical’: Needlework in The Eighteenth Century.”  Eighteenth Century Life.  10 May 1986 (2): 28-44.

Macheski, Cecilia.  “Penelope’s Daughters: Images of Needlework in Eighteenth-Century Literature.”  In Fetter’d or Free? British Women Novelists 1670-1815.  Eds. Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski  Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1986.  85-100.

Parker, Roszika.  The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of The Feminine.  London: The Women’s Press Ltd., 1984.

Sales, Roger.  Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England.  NY: Routledge, 1994.

Wilson, Carol Shiner.  “Lost Needles, Tangled Threads: Stitchery, Domesticity, and the Artistic Enterprise in Barbauld, Edgeworth, Taylor, and Lamb.”  Revisioning Romanticism: British Women Writers 1776-1837.  Eds. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner.  Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1994.  167-90.


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