Why have I made more than one petticoat this autumn?
Is it texture? Volume? Swishy-swirly goodness?
A latent Miss Kitty* crush?
An elaborate plan to avoid writing?
*Oh Lawsie, do NOT –– as you value and respect the variety of human experience and preference –– DO NOT google "Miss Kitty" + "crush" or "fetish" or "kink."
True story: I was once a 21-year-old editorial assistant in Manhattan. I worked 70 hours a week for a pittance (the word derives from people given money from pity -- which is not actually a stretch for independent book publishers at the time).
I was in the office with William Dang Golding, Susan Freakin Sontag, Roald BFG Dahl, Holy Moly Madeleine L'Engle, Czeslaw Eyechart Milsovic, Polly Amazing Horvath, Maurice Himself Sendak, and Rapmaster Seamus Heaney, to drop but a few of the lifetime's worth of literary rockstars I met.
I loved that time of my life.
My coworkers included people who were famous in literary circles in their own right, as well as actual Guggenheims, a genuine English Lady Somebody–– the kind of folks who habitually went not just to the Hamptons for the weekend, but to Morocco.
A country church-mouse, I was just that tiny bit too poor to afford the subway for trips less than 40 blocks (my rule so I'd hoof it between Penn Station and Union Square daily).
Fancy-schmancy college had exposed me to the other, very wealthy side of the tracks, but still––!
Bonus side-benefit of scholarshipping my way through school: the crippling flush of envy had pretty well burned all the way through me.
And as for blending in to the trés chic Manhattan publishing scene?
Errrm, even a minty-fresh Sears chargecard wasn't gonna godmother me to that ball.
I embraced vintage.
There was a gorgeous Pendleton plaid suit, an old Chanel number from a garage sale, a handful of thrifted cashmere sweaters. I wore my riding boots with skirts, sported stacks of fake pearls from my grandmother, and sometimes I put together outfits that swooped past the line of "costume or not?" with joyous abandon.
Today, fashion historian Morgan Donner might call my choices "history bounding." Or as the cool kiddies put it: #Historybounding
Still and all, fallible me at 21 or 22 saw a tourist descending the escalator to the tracks in Grand Central Station on sultry August day and was struck DOWN with want. She was wearing exactly the item of clothing I coveted. Of all of the many MANY desirable commodities available in the big city, I wanted what she had.
A full, pale, ankle-length skirt with an antique, Edwardian vibe.
That skirt! Lacking that kooky booty seen with late Victorian bustles, this item of mere clothing managed to be curvy but straight, with a sensible, workable air. I thought it made the wearer look interesting and self-confident. It was perfection.
I looked high and low for that skirt. For actual decades. Chasing an ideal.
And even after I had been sewing stuff for ages ——I'm on my third sewing machine, for the love of Captain Pete Obvious! —— it only came me to this year: "Yo! Self! Why not make that skirt yer own dang self?"
And so, dear Reader, I am.
After a rush of creative energy, snipping of threads and hacking my way through historical methods of pattern-drafting, I have what I have longed for: a long skirt with pockets deep enough to double for a handbag.
A few of my YouTube mentors: Bernadette Banner, Morgan Donner, Rebecca at Pocket Full of Poseys, Ora Lin, and Marika at Enchanted Rose Costumes.
I made one walking skirt from denim. I'm making another from a single thrifted yard of pretty plaid wool and the remains of –– as God is my witness –– velvet curtain panels from Ikea.
And under the skirts, a wealth of swirly, swishy petticoats in flannel and cotton lawn.
Really, Planters Peanuts? This is the new packaging.
Not that any of us should wait for a special day to recognize the good fortune and lucky stars that has got us this far so far.
But tis actually the season for this sort of thing. Plus feasting.
Ah, feasting. We have missed a few years of Thanksgiving in the States. So the groaning board seems novel this year, despite its familiar elements.
In England, I discovered that treacle cake was in point of fact, a too-sweet syrup-drenched wet bread mess. Such a disappointment after all those jolly British boarding-school novels!
Wet breads. Gah.
*In strict honesty, I know some people make stuffing more often than once a year. I dated a boy who made StoveTop at least once a week. For himself. Still, there are stuffings and StoveTops, and the latter does not make or break Thanksgiving.
Anyhow, the single element that proved it was Thanksgiving in Mumsie's house? Oyster stuffing. Technically a wet bread, the recipe includes saltines, "dots of butter," oysters, milk, salt and pepper, all baked in a casserole.
Mumsie's cousin Shirley (Hi Shirley!) continues to make this family dish for Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania.
I haven't had the heart to make it –– or mincemeat for that matter –– absent my mom.
Well, that and my casein intolerance thingie. Making oyster stuffing my orphaned orphan dish.
Plus, we get our money's worth out of that bubbling vat of peanut oil.
Perhaps as time marches along, I'll see the evolution of the meal go farther yet afield. Tofurky maybe, or into the funky Cajun science of the turducken. Both of which appall my Yankee sensibility even as the latter –– wet bread filling notwithstanding ––does pique my curiosity.
Well, I promise to be thankful if I have the chance to see that.
One of my favorite nephews was helping me shuffle boxes of stuff from one place to the other recently. With that mix of patience and impatience native to the under-20 crowd, he did not express the slightest flicker of curiosity.
Still, his doubtful expression as he slid the carton (Marked "A-16") into the back of the Honda made me want to explain a little.
"I haven't unpacked that box since before your Uncle Jeff and I got married," I ventured. Which would make it the equivalent to the Jazz Age to him.
"Toss it!" he said, then, reluctantly, "Why?"
"Because there was space?" I said. "Because I never got around to it?"
"Huh," he said. "Welp, that's the last of the pile. Anything else?"
There wasn't, except my continuing impulse to explain. And of course my own curiosity.
I hadn't unpacked the box -- or possibly even peeked into it –– for a very long time.
Under a layer of yellowed St. Petersburg Times packing paper, an old acquaintance gazed back at me.
Wide Wide World was the first real bestseller in the U.S. Published in 1850, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. And then, for a couple of solid reasons, it disappeared from most people's memories.
Why was it forgotten? Here's the short list:
1) It's a "woman's" book, which critics and scholars later tended to dismiss. What's a "woman's book"? Well, the short form is that, like Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford novels, The Wide Wide World is focused on a heroine within the limited sphere of house and hold.
2) Like Little Dorritt or The Shack, the book offers a lot of weeping. Sentimentality is all well and good, but like unhappy families, I think every generation needs its own sentimental novel. Bridges of Madison County, anyone? Jonathan Livingston Seagull?
It's almost as if the reading public wrings the emotion out of a popular book, leaving a dry husk for the next wave of readers. Or not. It's just a theory.
So it's not a book that is going to have a revival, like Beryl Markham's West with the Night*. It's not a book I'm going to read again, ever. But I don't want to forget it. And so it has waited in a cardboard box lo these many years.
Wide Wide World essentially fired up the country's book publishing industry. The novel was huge. It outsold David Copperfield in England.
But Susan Warner did NOT make a fortune from it. She and her sister started writing after their father lost all the family money in the panic of 1837. The girls were poor and writing was their best option to keep body and soul together. They managed, but they did not enjoy the life of bestselling authors. Susan went on to publish a book a year until her death at age 66. The Warner sisters have been mostly forgotten.
Mostly: they did manage to pass along their family property, Constitution Island, to the US Military Academy at West Point. The island is part of the campus, although their house (Warner House, natch) is presently in a state of disrepair.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
*A quick essay about West with the Night.
What Katy Read: Feminst re-readings of "classic" stories for girls, by Shirley Foster and Judy Simons, University of Iowa Press, 1995.
Child brides in present-day US
Goodreads page for Wide Wide World
"Loving The Wide Wide World: a novel, its fans, and their fictions" essay by Jennifer L. Brady, Harvard.
Margaret Atwood on "Women's Novels."
Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt, Susanne Lebsock. University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretative Strategies by Susan K. Harris, Cambridge University Press, 1990
"Panics, Gifts, and Faith in Susan Warner's Wide Wide World" in From Gift to Commodity: Capitalism and Sacrifice in Nineteenth-century American Fiction, by Hildegard Hoeller, University of New Hampshire Press, 2012.
Susan Warner and "The Wide Wide World" by Mabel F. Sltstetter, The Elementary English Review, Vol 14, No 5 (MAY 1937), pp115-167.
A river of words is usually in flood. And while I write about nearly everything, my blogging impulse is toward humor. This spot abounds with absurdities and piffle.
This week has thwarted me.
Not on a personal level, but at the world-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket level. I'm not ready to josh around with words today.
I have high hopes. The sun'll, as Annie would belt out, come out –– tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there'll be sun... Mashed up, inevitably, with the melancholic fall "Come What May" from Moulin Rouge. Be as kind as you can be out there.
And then again, I'd pay good money to get to hear David Bowie cover "Wrecking Ball."
Too late, I know, but if Buffy has taught me anything, it's that a girl can dream.
2. Pie. When nobody else was willing to step into those big Betty-Jo Crocker shoes, I became the pie maker of the family (less adorable than Ned the Pie Maker, not so romantic as Jenna the Pie Maker* but versatile).
*Oh squee! Bonus: a Broadway version of the show with music by Sara Bareilles. Sara Bareilles! Interview here.
It's proven to be an oddly empowering body of knowledge –– not only do I make a steep pecan pie and an indulgent chocolate cream pie, et cetera, et cetera –– but it feels like some kind of ninja move to boss this pre-feminist womanly skill-set. Owning it. In an apron.
3. Junebug, the dog who ate most of a bucket of used turkey-frying oil, stoically yarked it up, and then cheerfully recycl––oh, you get the picture. She taught me a lesson or two about gluttony and optimism. In the interest of truth, I admit it: others remember the incident differently. It might have been pork fat. It might have been another holiday. I like my story better.
4. Activities that OSHA does not approve. We used to schlep our feast to a park to avoid the whole televised sport issue. There were rattlesnakes, squirrels, gators, big spiders, canoeing, and a solid –– but unrealized –– risk of food poisoning.
Nowadays, we rendezvous at Jeff's brother's place. There have been horses (and some tumbles, but I bounced. booyah!), dogs, power tools, bocce tournaments, and vats of boiling oil bubbling over an open flame. No maimings, disfigurations, or mass trips to the ER yet. Knock wood!
5. The frozen half-gallon of Burrville Cider that I say I'll bring to the Thanksgiving feast, but will actually forget at home. Junebug's example notwithstanding, I'll end up polishing it off myself, thankful and replete.
In any case, I'm okay with Disney pink these days.
Wear pink all you like, boys and girls, but please learn to change the oil in the lawn-mower and don't turn your nose up because some skill set seems to belong to the other half of the world. That is all. Carry on.
(These images lifted from Arthur Rackham's wonderful illustrations for Grimm's Fairy Tales and The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Alfred W. Pollard's abridgment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.)
So I've been caught up in the story about Time magazine suggesting that "feminism" is a word to ban for 2015. Evidently they are tired of having celebrities announce their affiliation with the concept of equal pay for equal work.
So I went to make a pot of tea to take my mind off -- no WAY. My tea is right in the middle of the controversy.
Hey, why should we be bothered if this tea chooses to be loose or bound? It's nobody's beeswax but the tea's. Transgression? Misbehaving? Societal norms?
What's up with the unkind judgements? Oh, that's right: because it's human nature to categorize and set things into a hierarchy. To judge and label.
Even a tasty traditional beverage is subject to this nonsense. Gah.
The biscuits I made were used as pucks in a hallway floor-hockey pickup session. And they made it undented all the way back to study-hall. A proud moment for me then as I was determined NOT to buy into the traditional gender-role responsibilities of home and hearth.
But later –– a decade or more later –– a friend patiently showed me how to sew a straight line without attaching my hand to the fabric. Later, my sweet mother-in-law took me under her domestic wing, providing a sewing machine and some gentle tutelage. The language came to me slowly, with nothing meaning what I first thought: basting, batting, bearding, blocking, backing, taking a tack (plus bar-tacking!).
I am not particularly interested in the frilly toothpick part of making a quilt. Instead, I like the part known as piecework (not the same as a union-organizer's "piecework," oddly enough) where a person gets to pick colors and figure out designs.
Despite this u-turn toward the domestic arts, I didn't budget much time for the hobby: the first quilts I made took ten years start to finish.
Such is the mystery of human nature: when faced with a big writing project a couple of years ago, I took up a couple of ambitious sewing projects. Why not an outdoorsy hobby instead? In a word: summer in Florida. In a word: heat-stroke. In a word: avoidance.
Anyway, the quilt –– among other projects, o novel of mine! –– has been lurking around unbound. So I sat myself down this summer and started stitching. I achieved closure in roughly the same couch-time as four World Cup matches.
If only a bit of red thread and attention could stitch shut all the open doors in my life...
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