Friday, June 12, 2009

Book Club

I've never belonged to a book club. I don't know if that's a funny thing for an English major or not.

Like so many things in my life, I want to read what I want to read and when I want to read it. Like so many other things in my life, however, I benefit from having an assignment and a deadline.

I, therefore, joined a book club.

Of course, it's a club that meets about five hours from me. It's also a club for which I am NOT technically eligible for membership, having crossed that fatal porch of forty and this particular club being a club for young misses. Still, they were reading interesting books, and they told me I could be an honorary member, which is rather sweet.

And, seriously, I don't know if I would want me in a book club.

So I didn't go.

I did read the book though: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell.

For the first three weeks, I tried to read a chapter every night. Most nights I fell asleep before I could finish. Then this morning, I picked it up and powered through the last quarter of the book. I couldn't put it down.

I've got more than two degrees in Victorian literature, but being the dilettante, only started reading Gaskell in the last two years. She's wonderful, in some moments as funny and insightful as Austen.

Covering the labor conflicts in the slums of Manchester, Mary Barton isn't as funny as Cranford, nor does it have as much knitting.

Mary Barton, however, does offer some possibilities for an interesting re-reading to look at the dynamics of women's handiwork.

God, that sounds all academic-y. Sorry. The knitting bit is coming; I promise.

Anyway, Mary, the heroine, is a bit of a flighty girl, although she's good hearted. She earns her living in a fancy dressmaker's shop, where she's exposed to gossipy shop girls, and the curious gaze* of customers, both male and female.

Beyond her job, Mary's not really associated with needlework. It's merely a job for her, a source of income.** Even in her job, we don't hear much about her actual work, more about the gossip and how her later notoriety as the witness in a murder trial can lure in potential clients to the shop.

In the evenings, Mary does some mending for pay and turns a skirt*** on a mourning dress for a widowed neighbor, the latter act showing her general kindness when she's not being blinded by her own self-centeredness.

Her foil is Margaret: not as pretty, entirely selfless, and literally blind.

It's Margaret who is the knitter:
  • "Margaret, who could not be idle, was knitting away, with her face looking full into the room, away from her work" (174).
The other knitter is Alice, the aged aunt to one of Mary's childhood friends:
  • "On opening the door, Alice was seen, not stirring about in her habitual way, but knitting by the fire-side" (137).
  • "Alice, who, in her surprised, hearty greeting to Mary, had dropped her ball of worsted, and was busy trying to set the thread to rights, before the kitten had entangled it past redemption, once round every chair, and twice round the table" (137).
So there you go. My contribution to book club, however small.

Next month, I'm sure I'll be just as absent for The Woman in White, which I've read twice already, but am looking forward to reading each night just before bed.

I peeked and there is one wee knitterly bit.
*It would, of course, be completely annoying to show up in a book club and do a gaze theory analysis of Mary Barton. The possibility tantalizes, however.

**If you'd like to run off for a bit to look at the cover art from Mary Barton paperback editions, you'll notice, ironically, how several of them feature M.B. stand-ins happily sewing in pastoral settings.

***Turning a skirt means detaching a long skirt from its waistband and turning it so that what was the hem is now at the top. The hem getting the most wear, turning was a way to prolong the life of a garment. I found this bit really fascinating because I had just turned a skirt on an 1850s dress myself, being too poor and overworked to make a new one. Made me feel just like Mary Barton, it did:
  • "... she was too busy planning how her old black gown (her best when her mother died) might be sponged, and turned, and lengthened into something like decent mourning for the widow" (82).


passementarie said...

Deborah, you are definitely an honorary member of our book club. Thanks for the insightfulness on the knitting. We don’t really have any hard core knitters like you in the meeting; it is great to hear your observations. I’ll make sure to write about “The Woman in White” on my blog after the meeting next month, we are meeting on the 6 of July.

Anonymous said...

I too am an English major who has never belonged to a book club, but that's more due to my own social retardation (how many times did I attend knitting night? 5?) than to a dislike of timelines &etc.

That, and I want to run far, *far* away from anything promoted by Her Oprahness, and it's my (possibly misguided) presumption that her Book Club pics constitute many groups' choices.

(But Mary Barton and Cranford are both going on my reading list now - haven't read either before)

7-letter Deborah, never a Deb said...

Thanks Brandi. I feel all rock & roll & hardcore now! I started WiW last night and am remembering how eerie it is.

Katie, yours are probably my main reasons for not going to a book club before. So often, I'm not into the books, but this one is right up my alley. If you're picking, start with Cranford. It's hilarious.

Lisa said...

I'm enjoying your website--especially this last bit--looking at the work in the context of the world they lived in.

Question: What does "sponged" mean in the context of the quote? Spot cleaning? Re-dying?

7-letter Deborah, never a Deb said...

Thanks for your kind words, and you're right--It means spot cleaning.