There’s a passage in Pride and Prejudice that has always puzzled me. I this passage Elizabeth is hanging out with the Mr. Darcy, Mr. Hurst and the Bingley’s in the drawing room. The other folks are otherwise engaged and Elizabeth, casting about for an activity to while away the evening, picks up some needlework.
The day passed much as the day before had done. Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley had spent some hours of the morning with the invalid, who continued, though slowly, to mend; and in the evening Elizabeth joined their party in the drawing room. The loo table, however, did not appear. Mr. Darcy was writing, and Miss Bingley, seated near him, was watching the progress of his letter, and repeatedly calling off his attention by messages to his sister. Mr. Hurst and Mr. Bingley were at piquet, and Mrs. Hurst was observing their game.
Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady either on his hand-writing, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in unison with her opinion of each.
The way this passage is written, it seems to imply that there was some spare, communal needlework lying around in the drawing room, free for anyone to pick up and work on for a few minutes. I have questions:
- Was this a common practice in wealthy homes, to keep one or two fancywork projects on hand in case a visitor got bored?
- What would such a piece end up looking like with so many different hands of various levels of skill working on it?
- How did they come up with a coherent design? Back then they didn’t really have patterns the way we do now. Was there an etiquette related to this sort of project? Perhaps a little written note and a sketch telling the user what the project was intended to be and what it should look like?
- I sincerely hope they didn’t do this sort of thing with knitting projects. Your gauge would be all over the place. Heavens to Betsy, what a mess!
What is perhaps more likely is that Elizabeth had some needlework of her own to work on. But there are problems with that scenario as well:
- She walked three miles cross-country to reach Netherfield and probably did not carry any needlework with her.
- Her mother and sisters visited her earlier in the day, but they all seem so flighty that I can’t imagine they would think to bring her any entertainment.
- At some point they must have sent a servant to fetch her clothes, but there is no mention of fetching other things. Is it assumed that when a lady visits at someone else’s house that someone should bring her a needlework project?
This needlework question is very confusing and it bothers me every time I read Pride and Prejudice.