‘I wonder if women brought their knitting when Oscar Wilde talked,’ said Piers.
‘I daresay not,’ said Sybil calmly, ‘but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have liked to.’
(At a dinner party in Barbara Pym’s novel A Glass of Blessings)
Sybil, the tolerant, perceptive mother-in-law of the heroine Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings, can be relied on. Knitting, embroidery, tapestry, sewing: these could come to the rescue of women – and men too – on all sorts of occasions. It’s enough to make you envy those Jane Austen heroines who could bend their faces over their work to hide their emotions of irritation or boredom with whatever is going on around them.
Certainly the Lenten service Wilmet attends with its almost never-ending sermon would have been much more bearable if she’d had something to occupy her hands and despairing mind: We had been subjected – that seemed to be the only way to describe it – to an address of great dullness… Sentence after sentence seemed as if it must be the last but still it went on. I felt as if I had been wrapped round and round in a cocoon of wordiness, like a great suffocating eiderdown.
Being a committed Christian and regular churchgoer, Barbara Pym heard a lot of sermons and you can’t help thinking some of them must have found their way into her novels. Did Archdeacon Hoccleve’s Judgment Day sermon in Some Tame Gazelle with its over-flowing stream of literary quotations beginning at the seventeenth century happen in real life? The congregation shifted awkwardly in their seats. It was uncomfortable to be reminded that the Judgment Day might be tomorrow.’ Another occasion for the soothing effect of needlework.
Embroidery can provide the motif for those preachers of sermons, as in Barbara Pym’s early novel Civil to Strangers: ‘Some people don’t put in enough stitches,’ repeated the rector, in a slow emphatic voice. ‘Isn’t that true of many of us? He leaned forward. ‘Aren’t our lives pieces of embroidery that we have to fill in ourselves? Can we truthfully say that we always put in enough stitches?’ Cassandra, the twenty-eight-year-old heroine, wakes up from daydreaming to realize that she is the ‘old lady’ whose embroidered firescreen has inspired the rector’s sermon; Janie, the rector’s good and dutiful daughter, is whiling away the time eyeing up the curate as a possible husband. Barbara Pym knew that even Excellent Women find it impossible to stop their thoughts wandering, and this must be a comfort to all of us.
It’s more than forty years since I started an embroidered cushion cover in a fit of over-enthusiasm and lack of self-knowledge. Somehow it got put away and forgotten, but it’s come out again now. Just the thing for keeping calm when politicians are fighting: I might even finish it. The wife of the President of the Learned Society in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women knew what she was about, during those endless anthropology lectures, sitting there with her knitting until she nods off to sleep…