I have spent a naughty amount of time recently think about being a Victorian seamstress. Why naughty? Because it is to do with the novel I should not be writing until I have finished redrafting Stunner. Yet I find myself contemplating the fate of a young woman, apprenticed into sewing and millinery in 1860s
. This post is my way of getting it all out of my system until after I’ve finished with the second edition of Fanny’s biography. In theory. London
|Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! (1876) J E Millais|
Before I started my research, I didn’t have much idea of what it was like to be a Victorian seamstress. Fanny went straight from being a housemaid to being a good-time girl, so it was never part of my research for Stunner. I guessed it would be miserable, as most forms of work seem to have been, so I was unsurprised by the grimness of some of the illustrations I’ll show you below. Among the pictures I found, there were also some fairly charming ones, like Millais’ Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! which is typical of his portraits of women during this period. The loose-handling of dark paint draws attention to the pale face, seen in profile. The girl has paused, possibly lost in thought, but the title of the picture, taken from the poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’, pushes her on in her work. The image has a typical sort of simplicity, the focus being on her face and expression, with her hands partially hidden as they hold her work.
Relenting Thomas Brooks
|Widowed and Fatherless (1888) Thomas Kennington|
The iconic seamstress poem must be ‘The Song of the Shirt’ by Thomas Hood. It is a powerful poem that makes me smile in recognition, as it gives a timeless expression of hard work. I especially love the passage where the seamstress admits she works so hard ‘Till over the buttons I fall asleep, And sew them on in a dream!’ which makes me think of when I type late at night and find myself dreaming that I am still typing only to wake and find I have printed the letter ‘a’ for three pages, like a long scream. At least I won’t starve to death or have to go on the game, which is the fate that awaits these poor women who wish for one short hour of rest in their endless task, day and night.
Weary or The Song of the Shirt (1877) Edward Radford
Yet more mournful maidens, pausing in exhaustion and thought. I especially love Peele’s woman’s expression and the detail in her room, although that mug on the cupboard is looking a bit chipped. By contrast, Rossiter’s miserable girl doesn’t seem too bad, at least she gets a cup of tea and her jugs are very much intact.
The Song of the Shirt Richard Redgrave
So which was the truth? Working to death or gossiping with the girls? Possibly somewhere in between, although the season in the Spring and Summer, then at Christmas, seemed to bring on working weeks of dizzying length.
It is impressive that the level of awareness was as good as it was. Much as we care about sweat-shops now, the concern for the well being of seamstresses seems to be very vocal and the images of broken-down women no doubt aided the strength of the argument. Piece-workers especially seem to have been exploited with low wages and the work, although not obviously physically gruelling, was a challenge of endurance, long hours and poor light. The desperation must have been intense and the knife-edge of work and ability must have shortened many a seamstress’ life. Not the jolliest subject for a book, but I look forward to writing my heroine’s plight. Type! Type! Type!