Monday, 13 July 2009

Literary Knitting

The Wine Shop by Phiz (Halbot K. Browne (1815-1882)), A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, Chapter XVI [Still Knitting],(1859), by Charles Dickens, (1812-1870)

Each year on July 14th, Bastille Day, I always think of literature's most famous knitter, Madame Defarge. Before I began deep studies of the era in which A Tale of Two Cities is set, I had read the novel several times and seen various films of it as well. I have always had a soft spot for the 1958 version with Dirk Bogarde, Dorothy Tutin and one of my favourite actresses, Rosalie Crutchley (who has the distinction of playing Madame Defarge twice) and was my first Madame Defarge off of the page and a brilliant one at that. So brilliant that I have tolerated being called Madame Defarge by family and friends (mostly trying to be amusing) on and off over the years, preferring to link myself in my mind to Rosalie Crutchley rather than the real Madame Defarge.

The famous illustration by Phiz somewhat softens the character who terrified me. I do, however, like the way she is described by Dickens:

"No crowd was about the door; no people were discernible at any of the many windows; not even a chance passerby was in the street. An unnatural silence and desertion reigned there. Only one soul was to be seen, and that was Madame Defarge--who leaned against the door-post, knitting, and saw nothing." (Book I, Chapter VI)

Once again, we have the knitter who apparently sees (or hears) nothing. Twice over as the following paragraph ends with the same nine words. Leaning against a door which equals fading into the background is often how knitters are perceived. I have mentioned Miss Marple before and here is another, seemingly, uninvolved knitter, lost in her work. Phiz's rendition, too, portrays a woman looking at her knitting although the accompanying text in the chapter describes Madame Defarge receiving compliments about her knitting, discussing it and composedly "looking at him with a smile while her fingers moved nimbly," all in the midst of a situation of espionage and she never drops a stitch or loses count of the chilling project on her needles.

More importantly, the knitting never stops in this novel, features in the titles of three of the chapters but is symbolic in far too many ways to discuss in a short post like this one. Perhaps another time as now I have to get back to my knitting!


Unraveling Sophia said...

what a wonderful essay! I love your writing and found myself thinking about my own knitting and observation as I fade into the background of my friends' gatherings....

One More Stitch said...

Thank you, Unraveling Sophia! I enjoy your blog, too.

Sometimes it is fun to fade into the background, don't you know (mischievious cackle, here!) :)

Raveled Yarn said...

I had forgotten about Madame DeFarge. Books with knitters - my favorite combination.