In The Making of Jane Austen, Devoney Looser argues that James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt had a long-lasting effect on her image. She became known as “Aunt Jane” to more than just her nephews Austen-Leigh and Lord Brabourne, who published the first edition of her letters. Austen-Leigh was at pains to paint her, as Looser puts it, as a “nice lady” (7). Though he wrote that “[s]he was not highly accomplished according to the present standard” (70), Austen-Leigh went on to detail her knowledge of languages, literature, and then—after explaining how sweet-natured she was—her skill with the needle: “Her needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent, and might almost have put a sewing machine to shame” (77). According to Mrs. Charles Malden, the author of an 1889 biography in the Famous Women series, Austen was a “first rate needlewoman, and delighted in needlework” (2).
In Jane Austen Embroidery: Regency Patterns Reimagined for Modern Stitchers, Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin acclaim Austen as a stitcher. A fine muslin shawl believed to have been embroidered by her is shown on display at Jane Austen’s House, and her novels and letters have been analyzed for references to fashion. There is no question that embroidery was a part of both Austen’s life and her works. Jane Austen herself makes numerous references to sewing and embroidery in her letters. She writes of having made caps for herself, which would have been embroidered (1–2 December 1798), and of her mother’s working on shoes for Anna, which would also probably have been embroidered (9–18 September 1814); she specifically mentions needlework in a letter to Cassandra dated 27–28 December 1808: “I wish I could help you in your Needlework, I have two hands & a new Thimble that lead a very easy life.” Sewing and embroidery were a part of her everyday life—skills she appears to have enjoyed and taken pride in.
Did Austen’s love of fashion and embroidery play a role in her stories? Although she does not describe clothing in much detail in the novels, embroidery, referred to as “work,” does appear in most of them. In addition to signifying an interest in decorating one’s clothes and household items, beyond creating beauty, embroidery in eighteenth-century England is freighted with gender and class meaning. It had been demoted from an art to a craft and was dismissed largely as women’s work. This essay will examine the history of how embroidery came to signify gender and class and the extent to which Austen used embroidery to carry messages about gender and class in her novels. Although by the early nineteenth century, society had fused the act of embroidery with femininity and its proper expression, Austen created her characters as embroidery agnostic: in other words, the embroidery itself does not indicate the worthiness of a female character.
Women’s work has for much of history been constrained by the necessity of childcare. Elizabeth Wayland Barber explains that food and clothing were tasks assigned to women by communities, even in prehistory, because they satisfied three important conditions: they were dull and repetitive, so that attention could be paid to children; they were easily interruptible and resumable, again allowing for childcare; and they did not place children in danger, as perhaps using heavy tools might (29).
Sewing, though always implicated in class, was not always gendered as female. During the Middle Ages, when the wearing of embroidery was a clear mark of social distinction and political power, professional embroiderers could be men or women. In fact, women were allowed membership in the London Broderer’s Guild (Phillips 285). But as the market for embroidered fabrics shrank, professional women embroiderers were progressively eliminated. When the Plague wiped out many wealthy clients who had previously purchased intricately embroidered heraldry and fabrics, the Guild began excluding women. In 1630 the Sumptuary Laws governing who could wear certain fabrics and signs of status were repealed, accelerating women’s exclusion from professional embroidery, and professional embroidery itself suffered a near-death blow (Hunter 209–10). Leisure, and a man’s ability to provide it to the women of his household, became a sign of status. Embroidery by women who had the time to do it became a marker of economic class. Embroidery became a symbol of power, virtue, and entitlement (Hunter 19).
Alongside the economic upheaval wrought by the Plague years, the Renaissance brought new ideas about art and who made it. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the differences between men and women were a constant matter of discourse, as evidenced at least in part by the many answers to the “Woman Question” penned by the likes of Boccacio and Christine de Pizan (King and Rabil xvii). As men’s and women’s spheres separated into the public and the private, at least among the wealthier classes, embroidery, along with music and dancing, became the way to differentiate women’s education from men’s and make it acceptable to the patriarchy (Parker 73–74). Art was now defined around ideas of individual genius; the collective nature of embroidery—since pattern makers might not sew the patterns and several women might work on larger pieces—made it less valuable as an individual expression of divine inspiration (Phillips 285). Therefore, embroidery was an indication of status but not a fine art, at least according to men. It was “just women’s work” (Hunter 13).
Women thought differently, however, and used their skills with a needle to express themselves as well as to be seen. Mary Queen of Scots famously spent hours sewing during her captivity. One piece suggesting her wit is that of a marmalade cat wearing a crown and playing with a mouse (Parker 77). It does not need much imagination to see a ginger-headed Elizabeth I toying with the less powerful Mary. Then there were the needle painters of the late Georgian era. Championed by Queen Charlotte, Mary Knowles, Mary Delaney, and Mary Linwood created original botanical images from thread as well as artworks mimicking great paintings (Hunter 221). Nevertheless, by the time Austen was writing, needlework, as a feminine art, was considered lower in the artistic hierarchy than fine arts such as painting (Parker 81). Embroidery was at once a source of expression and power for women and a sign of their powerlessness (Phillips 285).
Rozsika Parker argues in The Subversive Stitch that the separation of embroidery from the fine arts was a factor in the marginalization of women’s work and, further, that the needle was a means both of repression and of community for women. “To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women” (ix), she asserts, and then explains how the downgrading of embroidery from a fine art to a craft was, in fact, the devaluing of the artistic work of women.
Historically, when an activity becomes associated with women, it is seen as less valuable and less professional than activities associated with men, and embroidery is no exception. British women in the upper classes, and to some extent the middling classes, were expected to learn sewing and embroidery, the better to dress and decorate themselves and their families; embroidery served as a marker of both femininity and class. The fact that middle- and upper-class women had the time to spend on “fancy work” indicated to the world that a man was able to provide a certain economic status for his household (Phillips 283). Embroidery was the proof that a woman did not need to work in the family business or on the land: she had time to sew items that were essentially decorative. Not working became, by the eighteenth century, a marker of femininity (Parker 11). Ironically, however, women referred to their needlecrafts as “work.” Some early feminists, adopting the prevailing assumption that activities gendered as female are of less value than those gendered as male, eschewed embroidery as detrimental to women’s equality because, in Mary Wollstonecraft’s words, it “contracts their faculties more than any other [activity] that could have been chosen for them” (76).
Fashion also had a role in demoting embroidery to a home-centered craft. According to Daniel James Cole, among others, just as Austen arrived on the scene in 1775, the fashion world was undergoing a sea change. “Anglomania” as a fashion statement—the incorporation of simpler styles worn on country estates, such as riding wear, into city fashion—had been embraced by the gentry. Over time, the combined influence of the Werther look and Beau Brummel meant that by the 1810s, men of a certain class wore the uniform of a dark cutaway coat with tight buckskin breeches and boots. This restrained look did not call for heavily embroidered waistcoats, and the changes in men’s fashions were, according to Cole, “more notable and rapid than in any previous time in history.” Women’s fashions underwent simplification as well, with reduced underpinnings, a slimmer line, and the high (empire) waistline (Cole). Embroidery might still be worn, but it was no longer the fashion statement it had been. Rather than inhering in the embroidered garments themselves, embroidery was a marker of status as it identified women who had leisure to sit and “work.”
Austen and her female relatives were embroiderers. James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote several vignettes in his memoir of his aunt that were designed to ensure her classification as a proper lady of his own time, which, according to the Victorian ideal, most certainly meant that she loved domestic pursuits and remained quietly at home (Sutherland xv). By Victorian times, according to Parker, femininity and embroidery were fused. Girls and women were believed to take naturally to sewing and embroidery and were assumed to prefer the domestic sphere to the public. Women’s creative work, including embroidery, was supposed to show a feminine presence rather than an artistic bent (81).
In Jane Austen Embroidery, Batchelor and Larkin argue that Austen was just as good an embroiderer as she was a writer. The examples of her stitching that are extant, her nephew’s beliefs, and indeed her own letters do not place her in the camp of Mary Wollstonecraft. “When it comes to accomplishments, Jane Austen’s fiction suggests, balance is key,” Batchelor and Larkin argue (116). I suggest further that in Austen’s novels the act of embroidering is neither shorthand for class nor the traditional expression of female gendered behavior.
A word on method: as part of a quantitative analysis for this essay, I compiled mentions of work, needlework, and carpet work in the six novels and Lady Susan, looking for patterns in their use in characterization. Passing mentions of workbags or instances where someone other than a named character was described as working or where it was not clear that the reference was to sewing were not counted, nor were references to dressmaking or millinery, as these are outside of the scope of this essay: Austen’s use of embroidery, of which carpet work is a subset, in her novels. It is impossible to distinguish with complete certainty when the word “work” is being used to refer to fancy needlework rather than plain sewing. For the purposes of this analysis, then, context clues were examined to make the determination wherever possible. If the use of “work” was ambiguous, or the item being sewn was a shirt or other clothing, that instance was not included here. One notable exception is the mention of Emma using her workbasket as a distraction: because Emma is only described as “working” one time in the novel (264), this instance was deemed important enough to include.
It will come as no surprise that there is not one mention of needlework or work in Lady Susan or that Mansfield Park is the novel in which embroidery is mentioned most frequently (fifteen times). Fanny Price is the character most often described as working with her needle. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma are next with six mentions each, followed closely by Northanger Abbey with five. Persuasion contains the fewest references to needlework, with just one.
It seems clear that Austen was using embroidery as at least one way of portraying her characters. The most traditionally feminine Austen heroine, and frequently the least liked, Fanny is quiet and uncomplaining; she makes herself useful to her aunt and does her best to get along with her cousins. In order to maintain her place in the Bertram home, she must at least appear to have internalized class expectations. But Fanny’s embroidery is not simply an adoption of feminine stereotypes. She shows her appreciation and affection for Lady Bertram by finishing her fancywork and doing the parts that Lady Bertram apparently lacks the skill to do: “Lady Bertram, sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquillity, was just falling into a gentle doze, while Fanny was getting through the few difficulties of her work for her” (126). When in Portsmouth, she also sews with Susan to be of use to her mother in the household, thus building their relationship (398).
Anne Elliot “sitting quietly at work” with her sister Mary (83) is the only other occurrence of a specific mention by Austen of women working and talking together. Fanny and Anne are perhaps the two most selfless Austen protagonists: their embroidery doesn’t make them so, but it is part of what shows them to be so.
This essay will show that Fanny, Anne Elliot, Elinor Dashwood, and Elizabeth Bennet display reason even while using their needles—thinking while sewing, rather than acting silly or talking nonsense. By contrast, there is Mrs. Allen of Northanger Abbey, whose “vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking” is apparent in her need to comment on the trivialities of her needlework: “while she sat at her work, if she lost her needle or broke her thread, if she heard a carriage in the street, or saw a speck upon her gown, she must observe it aloud, whether there were anyone at leisure to answer her or not” (60–61). The ability to embroider does not impart good sense, as we also see in the example of Lady Bertram. When William Price recounts his adventures at sea, “even Lady Bertram” looks up from her embroidery, giving him her full attention, but then only comments “‘Dear me! How disagreeable.—I wonder any body can ever go to sea’” (MP 236)—suggesting that she is perhaps another of the kind of embroiderer that Wollstonecraft imagined, her mind contracted.
Another minor Austen character who apparently has possessed some skill with the needle—though again without exhibiting much sense—is Charlotte Palmer. In Sense and Sensibility, when Elinor and Marianne are staying in a room that they determine had once belonged to Charlotte, they see “over the mantelpiece still hung a landscape in coloured silks of her performance, in proof of her having spent seven years at a great school in town to some effect” (160). There is no further elaboration, but the piece seems to have been executed with enough skill to at least be hung in a bedroom.
Lady Bertram bears closer examination as an example of an upper-class woman who has the leisure but lacks the skill to do fine embroidery: “She was a woman who spent her days in sitting nicely dressed on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty” (19). It is clear from this description of Lady Bertram and the later instances of Fanny finishing Lady Bertram’s work, that Austen did not equate the ability to embroider well with class or femininity. Lady Bertram has the leisure to do needlework all day, but that work is of “no beauty,” and Fanny must finish it and do the hard parts. Although Fanny exists on the margins and the forbearance of her wealthier relations, yet she is the able needlewoman. In fact, when Henry Crawford tells Mary how much he admires Fanny, he commends her proficiency at needlework, describing her as, “‘working with [Lady Bertram], and for her, her colour beautifully heightened as she leant over the work’” (296). Henry notes that Fanny’s color is heightened: she is made more attractive to him by the feminine virtues she displays while being at needlework.
Fanny Price also uses her embroidery as cover to fend off Henry Crawford. During the scene in which he tries to engage her attention by reading Shakespeare and to gain her good opinion by talking to Edmund about preaching, she attends only to her work and “seemed determined to be interested by nothing else” (337). It is only when Henry begins to read Shakespeare so well, that Edmund observes her drop her needlework and give her full attention to Crawford.
She could not abstract her mind five minutes; she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. . . . [I]n Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. . . . It was truly dramatic.—His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly. . . .
Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needle-work, which, at the beginning, seemed to occupy her totally; how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it—and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken. (337)
The spell is broken when Crawford closes the book, and Fanny takes up her work again, refusing to put it down despite Crawford’s entreaties: “‘Nay, nay, I entreat you; for one moment put down your work. What did that shake of the head mean?’” (342). Fanny uses her embroidery to repulse, somewhat successfully, the attentions Henry Crawford.
Austen most frequently uses needlework as a distraction for characters or as a way for them to busy their hands during important moments in her novels. There are several pivotal moments in the novels that include embroidery. Out of the forty substantive mentions of embroidery work, nine show a character either thinking about something important while embroidering or embroidering during a moment of import to the plot. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor tries to busy herself with her work when Edward calls to slowly and painfully inform her that Lucy has married his brother, Robert: “His words were echoed with unspeakable astonishment by all but Elinor, who sat with her head leaning over her work, in a state of such agitation as made her hardly know where she was” (360).
Elinor is not alone in sewing during the big reveal. Emma uses her workbasket as an excuse to avert her face when Mr. Knightley tells her about Robert Martin’s having proposed a second time to Harriet and been accepted: “having recourse to her workbasket, in excuse for leaning down her face, and concealing all the exquisite feelings of delight and entertainment which she knew she must be expressing” (471). She uses her work to take time to compose herself and gain control over her feeling of joy that Harriet’s happiness is assured and—what she can’t tell Mr. Knightley—that she has not been the cause of Harriet’s lasting grief.
Pride and Prejudice contains both moments of thinking and moments of import while Elizabeth is at embroidery, as well as perhaps some of the most amusing uses of it. Two instances, early on, show Elizabeth embroidering as a cover for observing Caroline Bingley pursue Mr. Darcy. Both occur while she stays with the Bingleys during Jane’s illness. While Caroline Bingley is anxious to compliment Mr. Darcy as he attempts to write his sister a letter,
Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady, either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in union with her opinion of each. (47)
Elizabeth is amused, as is the reader. Her embroidery allows her to witness the scene without taking part or without obviously observing them. Later, after Jane has recovered enough to join the party for dinner, Elizabeth, while embroidering, observes both the after-dinner machinations of Caroline and Mr. Bingley’s kind attentions to her sister: “Elizabeth, at work in the opposite corner, saw it all with great delight” (54). Elizabeth is able to observe, to learn more about characters, except perhaps about Mr. Darcy, while not taking an active part in the conversations.
Elizabeth’s embroidery also has a part to play in the denouement. When Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley return to the neighborhood and call on the Bennets, Elizabeth “sat intently at work, striving to be composed, and without daring to lift up her eyes” (335). She uses her work to compose herself as it becomes clear that Mr. Bingley still loves Jane but also, as she admits, at least to herself, that she has hopes of Mr. Darcy. This moment is a potential turning point for Elizabeth and the plot. She had thought Darcy lost to her, but now wonders, “‘Yet why did he come?’” (336). Embroidery again serves as cover in Pride and Prejudice, as Mr. Darcy, after his conference with Mr. Bennet in the library, comes to “the table where Elizabeth was sitting with Kitty; and, while pretending to admire her work, said in a whisper, ‘Go to your father, he wants you in the library.’” (375). Elizabeth’s embroidery has given her time to observe, time to think, and now provides cover for her to master her emotions and receive good news.
Austen uses embroidery under a variety of circumstances to inform the reader about her characters. The embroidery itself does not signify womanliness or class, but it does serve female characters according to their dispositions. The artistic value (or lack of it) that Austen places on embroidery is not explicitly stated, but it can often be inferred. Embroidery serves several functions in Austen’s novels. It reveals character, as with Fanny Price and Lady Bertram; it allows heroines like Emma and Elinor to take a moment to collect their thoughts; and it provides cover for close observation of one’s rivals, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet. In Austen’s novels, it is the women who determine the value of the embroidery, not the embroidery that determines the value of the women.