Wool Gatherings

I’m planning to make “Wool Gatherings” a regular feature of my blog, a way for me to record and collect knitting and spinning allusions, references, words of wisdom or humor or whatever. Here’s the first installment:

Once I became a knitter, I started noticing knitters all over the place in literature. I am an English teacher, and there are novels I read again and again. I have probably read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre fifteen times. But until a few years ago, I had never noticed that Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper of Thornfield Hall, was a knitter, even though she is often seen with her knitting or her knitting basket. It’s the sort of thing that once you notice it, you can’t believe you never saw it before. But I had simply never pictured Mrs. Fairfax with knitting needles in her hands.

The very first time Jane sees her, Mrs. Fairfax is knitting. For those who don’t know the novel, the passage below occurs as eighteen year old Jane Eyre, the protagonist and narrator, has just arrived at Thornfield Hall. She had applied for and was given the job of governess there.

“A snug small room; a round table by a cheerful fire; an arm-chair high-backed and old-fashioned, wherein sat the neatest imaginable little elderly lady, in widow’s cap, black silk gown, and snowy muslin apron; exactly like what I had fancied Mrs. Fairfax, only less stately and milder looking. She was occupied in knitting; a large cat sat demurely at her feet; nothing in short was wanting to complete the beau-ideal of domestic comfort. A more reassuring introduction for a new governess could scarcely be conceived; there was no grandeur to overwhelm, no stateliness to embarrass; and then, as I entered, the old lady got up and promptly and kindly came forward to meet me.”

And here is Jane several months later, bored out of her mind and wanting more from her life:

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

I love how in the first passage, the knitting adds to the coziness of the scene, while in the second, it’s a target of anger and frustration, part of the narrow world to which women are confined. Jamming together four very different activities–making puddings, knitting stockings, playing on the piano, and embroidering bags–somehow serves to diminish each of them.

Hannah, the housekeeper at Moor House is also knitting when Jane first sees her through a window. When Jane becomes a teacher at a little rural charity school, she is charged with teaching the girls “knitting, sewing, reading, writing, ciphering.” Teaching these things is considered something of a waste of Jane’s education. She knows French. She can draw.

As I consider all of this, I wonder if Brontë is revealing something of her own bias. Knitting is part of what adds to the wholesome appeal of a servant like Mrs. Fairfax or Hannah. It’s a useful and appropriate skill for farmers’ daughters. But for someone more refined, of higher status (even a governess or a teacher), knitting is emblematic of the ways in which women were confined to the domestic sphere.

Knitting is also used figuratively in the novel–a few times. Brows are knit and unknit. When Jane experiences a revelation, “Circumstances knit themselves, fitted themselves, shot into order.” And finally, as she is contemplating the happiness of her marriage, she wonders about the impact of Rochester’s blindness: “perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near—that knit us so very close.”

Readers, I would love to hear your thoughts. Have any of you explored knitting references in literature? There must be a PhD dissertation out there somewhere.

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