Those who’ve read it might remember that the plot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion turns on Mrs Smith: Anne Elliot’s former schoolmate who, widowed after an unfortunate marriage, has fallen on hard times. Mrs Smith’s difficulties are compounded by physical pain: Austen describes her as an “invalid,” who is clearly suffering from what today we’d call arthritis. When Anne visits her friend, she finds her living “in a noisy parlour, and a dark bedroom behind…in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society.” That “of course” says so much about the position of a nineteenth-century woman like Mrs Smith: her situation means a particular kind of social exile is inevitable. The difficulties of penniless widowhood are compounded by disability, and while her polite education might have fitted her for marriage, it has excluded her from the kind of paid employment a woman of labouring rank might seek.
Anne is surprised to find Mrs Smith both cheery and resilient. After a period of observation, she attributes her friend’s attitude to an “elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself.” The employment that carries Mrs Smith “out of herself” is making, and being paid for the things that she has made. She is able to sell sewn and knitted items through an intermediary, a nurse who, Mrs Smith tells Anne, is “an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pincushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about.”
Women like Mrs Smith abound in nineteenth-century fiction. Because they are of a certain class, they are excluded from the division of labour, and their only means of any sort of financial independence is through the sale of their own plain or fancy work: an acceptably feminine employment in which all women of virtue might apparently participate (for the grim fate of those whose domestic virtues are questionable, see Lily in Wharton’s House of Mirth). In nineteenth-century novels (and indeed, in nineteenth century reality) these women retain the respectability of their rank by not undertaking the grubby business of buying and selling themselves: remember for example, how important it is that Cranford’s Miss Matty is saved from the fate of the shop by the interposition of her long-absent brother. However dire her financial circumstances, then, a gentlewoman stays a gentlewoman by not being seen to sell stuff for money. Mrs Smith happily has the nurse to do the selling for her, and other women might preserve their anonymity though the mediating actions of charitable institutions like The Royal Edinburgh Repository and Self Aid Society, which still exists today.
Founded in 1882, the Royal Edinburgh Repository and Self-Aid Society was established “to assist those of limited means to achieve an independent livelihood by promoting the sale of their own handiwork.” Originally managed by two New-Town sisters, the Society sold on the work of its indigent members at bazaars whose “tea cosies and Shetland wool cravats,” were satirised by a young and waspish Robert Louis Stevenson. Since 1946, the society has operated from a well-placed shop on Castle Street. Though its general social context has (thankfully) radically changed — making and selling things for money is no longer a source of shame for a woman of any class — in spirit and reality, the society remains remarkably true to its original aims and ethos.
Today you do not have to be a gentlewoman (or even a woman) to be a society member — but you do have to be of limited means, and be able to knit (or sew, or crochet) to a certain standard (everything sold by the Repository is ‘passed’ for quality by its executive committee). The member-makers are identified by number only, and all receive the full proceeds from any sale of their work. The Repository’s commercial politics seem quite complex to me. On the one hand, there is more than a whiff of the Victorian in maintaining the fiction of exchange relations between an anonymous maker and a charitable patron. Yet on the other, there is something incredibly contemporary and utopian in the Repository’s support of co-operative enterprise, its celebration of craft and making, and in ensuring that each maker receives the full amount from any sale.
Ysolda and I visited the Repository last weekend, after she had the genius idea of producing The Definitive Craft Tour of Edinburgh (of which much more later). We were completely blown away by it. The shop is known as “the treasure trove” — and this is indeed what it is. We found amazing Fairisle gloves, tams and sweaters: all luminous and intricate, the work of incredibly talented knitters. There are Shetland christening shawls, and wonderful aran sweaters; baby clothes and blokes cardigans; colourwork, cables and lace.
Today, it is often hard to buy hand-knitted items without worrying about the labour practices that produced them. While admirable organisations like Thistle and Broom ensure that craftswomen and men receive two-thirds of the profits of their labour, there are many other less scrupulous organisations in the UK and elsewhere who, in remunerating per finished item rather than time expended, are not only paying knitters poorly but illegally. While I personally feel that the Repository would be well within their rights to charge quite a bit more for the things that they sell, you still know that if you buy a handmade item here, that you are directly supporting the maker.
So I am now the proud owner of a pair of gloves made by member no. 66. They are beautiful. My only wish is that I might pass on my thanks to knitter 66 directly, but perhaps that anonymity which, a hundred years ago was there to protect the knitter from the taint of the shop counter, now has another function entirely: if I were knitter 66, I probably wouldn’t want to be bothered by the likes of me in full-blown rhapsodic knitting mode.
I am still musing on the fate of Austen’s Mrs Smith, and wondering how the modest financial independence she gained from making might have been rather differently inflected, or perhaps enhanced by the collective and co-operative structure which the Edinburgh Repository provided, and indeed still provides. I feel some research coming on. In the meantime, I urge everyone, whether in or near Edinburgh, or if planning a future visit, to make your way to 23A Castle Street, where you are sure to be inspired.