The winter I settled in to write my dissertation a couple of years ago was also the winter I took up knitting in a big way. Maybe it was the Ithaca winter, maybe knitting was an outlet for dissertation stress, or maybe it was just the pleasure of doing something tactile and tangible after sitting at a computer all day. At any rate, I kept chugging away at both the writing and my first sweater all winter long. By the time spring came, I had a scarlet sweater with a few holes in it and one arm longer than the other, and a couple of dissertation chapters that I hope cohered a little better.
Knitting was my way of escaping the dissertation, but somehow everything comes back to the Victorian novel. And, if we’re being honest, knitting isn’t exactly the most un-Victorian of hobbies. There’s been lots of work done on Victorian domestic crafts, and even more if you count work on sewing and seamstresses. I particularly like Talia Schaffer’s article on domestic handicrafts and Charlotte Yonge—in which she argues that the work of the crafter who presses flowers and makes elaborate needlepoints is similar to the goal of the realist novelist, who seeks to mirror and preserve life for popular consumption. Knitting seems different from other crafts to me in that it often doesn’t have this mimetic function. You don’t knit a toque as an artistic representation of a toque: it is a toque!
While I don’t yet have a theory of knitting in the Victorian novel, I do have an idea about knitting in The Mill on the Floss: if Lucy Dean hadn’t been so busy making complicated pieces of fancy work with fine wool and tiny scissors, Maggie Tulliver would never have run off with Stephen Guest. When Lucy asks Maggie to contribute to an upcoming bazaar, Maggie protests that all she can do is plain sewing and knitting; meanwhile “worsted flowers” (6.2) and other delicate items grow under her cousin’s fingers. I have tried knitting complicated patterns in fine wool and it’s really hard! I can’t talk to anyone—much less flirt—while attempting such a project. No wonder Lucy is too absorbed in “the fashionable vice of fancy-work” (6.2) to see Maggie’s “ball of knitting wool” roll “along the ground” under the mesmeric influence of Stephen Guest (6.6). Philip, whose eyes are on Maggie rather than any handicraft, is much better able to see what is going on.
All things considered, I’m with Maggie and her heavy scarlet wool. It’s much more gratifying to work with something that knits up quickly. And, like the dissertation, if there’s a mistake, you can always rip it out and rework it.
Talia Schaffer, “Charlotte Yonge Takes on Melanesia.” Victorian Studies 47.2 (2005) 204-214.