Everyone’s gone Alice mad! It’s been 150 years since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published. And on Saturday July 4th it’s Alice’s Day in Oxford. In honour of this frabjous occasion I’m doing a series of posts about all things Alice…
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
of cabbages — and kings –“
I’ve always loved the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. It was funny and sad and appealed to a sense of what I now know is called Schadenfreude – the gleeful delight in someone else’s misery (in this case, the oysters). Now that I’ve started researching material culture in children’s literature the litany of objects “shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax” is fascinating all over again.
There are a lot of objects mentioned in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – from the jam jar she finds as she falls down the rabbit hole to the gloves the White Rabbit sends her to fetch. But of all the things in the story, I find Alice’s thimble the most intriguing.
At the end of the Caucus Race, Alice is tasked with given out the prizes. She has a box of comfits and a thimble in her pocket (the only items she carries from the real world into Wonderland). She gives each of the creatures a comfit and she is awarded the thimble:
“At last the Dodo said, ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’
But who is to give the prizes?’ quite a chorus of voices asked.
‘Why, she, of course,’ said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out in a confused way, ‘Prizes! Prizes!’
Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out a box of comfits, (luckily the salt water had not got into it), and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece all round.
‘But she must have a prize herself, you know,’ said the Mouse.
‘Of course,’ the Dodo replied very gravely. ‘What else have you got in your pocket?’ he went on, turning to Alice.
‘Only a thimble,’ said Alice sadly.
‘Hand it over here,’ said the Dodo.
Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying ‘We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble’; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.
Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could.”
Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
But what is Alice doing with a thimble? Unless Alice has stolen it – and let’s assume she hasn’t because nothing in the text suggests it – we must conclude that this is indeed her thimble.
Perhaps it isn’t really surprising that Alice has a thimble. After all, in the 19th century girls were taught to sew at a very young age. Asa Briggs notes that 19th century manufactures made thimbles especially for children and that thimbles could even be considered toys for little girls.
Needlework – both plain and fancy was a key element of a Victorian girl’s education. Children’s homes and orphanages focused on teaching needlework with the expectation that whether the children gained employment in private homes or in factories, needlework was an essential skill.
The V&A’s collection includes a number of samplers produced by working-class and middle-class children.
The sampler was the way to practice techniques and to show off the sewist’s repertoire, showing ‘samples’ of each stitch.
Samplers were also a way of inculcating ‘feminine’ virtues in the young girl – the patience and attention to detail needed to produce a sampler were cultivated through the production of samplers. Many samplers include images of houses and gardens – ensuring a clear focus on the virtues of domesticity and the centrality of domestic life. Many other samplers, like the ones shown below, include didactic or moral verses that celebrate hard work, self-sacrifice, loyalty, diligence, piety, grace and, often, silence.
But not all girls willingly parroted these verses. Some, like Elizabeth Parker, used their needles to record their true feelings.
As Rozsika Parker argues, in The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine the sampler can become a site of subversion, of rebellion and self-determination.
There is no mention of sewing or samplers in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Alice does absolutely no needlework at all and when she picks up knitting-needles in Through the Looking-Glass they turn into oars in her hands.
However, Carroll does make reference to a moral verse: Isaac Watt’s insipid “How doth the little Busy bee” which is exactly the kind of thing that young girls were encouraged to stitch into their samplers.
Here’s the original:
How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!
How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.
In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.
In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.
And Carroll’s gleeful, subversive parody:
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
‘How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!’
I have never really thought about producing a sampler. I don’t think I have the patience necessary. If I ever do, I think I will stitch Carroll’s “How doth the little Crocodile”…
Nevertheless, I have been practicing my embroidery lately because I’m embroidering the collar and lapels of the Victorian Walking Jacket
Next week will bring updates on the jacket and other works in progress…
If you want to find out more about Victorian needlework, Caulfield and Saward’s Dictionary of Needlework gives you an idea of the range of needlework produced by the home-crafter in the 19th century. Flora Klickmann’s The Little Girl’s Sewing Book (though published in 1915) is a good indication of how little girls were taught to sew and what kind of things they were encouraged to make (aprons and boxes for ribbons and pukey cushion covers with lambs on them)
Check out the V&A’s collection of samplers here
 Asa Briggs, Victorian Things (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990), p.209.