It’s an unforgettable scene in Sense and Sensibility: Lucy Steele and Elinor Dashwood, both eager in their different ways to continue their confidential conversation about Edward Ferrars, find an unexpected opportunity to escape the usual evening game of cards with the Middletons. The pretence that allows the two young women to sit apart and talk privately is Lucy’s “fillagree” work: she’s making a basket for Lady Middleton’s spoiled child and both women fear disappointing the girl’s hopes that the basket will be finished the next day. I’ve often wondered why Jane Austen chose that particular craft for one of her least appealing, most manipulative characters. Perhaps out of loyalty to the Dashwood sisters, I have always felt that it must be an inferior accomplishment to Marianne’s piano playing and Elinor’s drawing! As an aspiring Accomplished Lady, I wanted to learn more about this decorative art.
Paper filigree, spelt various ways in Jane Austen’s era, is closely related to the modern craft called Paper Quilling or Quillwork. Here’s a definition from 1810:
Styles change- the descriptions and extant examples I’ve seen from Jane Austen’s era tend to be a bit different from modern work. Today’s quillwork artists tend to favor delicate, lacy openwork that sometimes stands free as three-dimensional sculptures or dangles as decorations and jewelry. It appears that 18th century filigree enthusiasts almost always attached their rolled paper to a support, and often filled each panel with as many densely packed rolls as possible. Where the backing surface can be seen, it is often colored silk or even sparkly mica. I’m amazed at the scale of some paper filigree-covered articles, which included tables and cabinets! I’ve included links at the bottom of this post to articles and blog posts where you can see more pictures and learn more about extant examples, because right now I want to talk about a literary connection to Lucy Steele’s filigree basket.
Maria Edgeworth (1767- 1849) is most famous for her novels: Jane Austen names Belinda with approval in Northanger Abbey (Chapter 5). Edgeworth was also a prolific author of children’s stories. They are tales with moral messages, but they are better-written and more subtle than many such stories for children. Her best known story is “The Purple Jar“, in which a little girl named Rosamond is so captivated by a beautiful purple jar she sees in a shop window that she begs to have it rather than the new shoes her mother planned to buy for her. After her mother reluctantly agrees, Rosamond empties the jar and discovers that all its color came from the foul liquid within, and she’s left with a plain glass jar and worn-out shoes. “The Purple Jar” and other Rosamond stories first appeared in The Parent’s Assistant in 1796, but the character proved popular enough that Edgeworth published a collection of the stories as a book titled Rosamond in 1801.
A companion to Lucy Steele’s filigree basket appears in the Rosamond story “The Birth Day Present” from The Parent’s Assistant (I’ve been reading an 1826 collected edition of Edgeworth’s works on Google Books). Rosamond plans to give her cousin Bell a special gift for her birthday, and settles on making an elegant filigree workbasket. It takes all week to make, and all of Rosamond’s money to buy the supplies! Among her motivations is the hope of continued approval from her godmother:
But did not you hear her say that I was very generous? and she’ll see that she was not mistaken. I hope she’ll be by when I give my basket to Bell – won’t it be beautiful? – there is to be a wreath of myrtle, you know, round the handle, and a frost ground, and then the medallions. . .
– “The Birth Day Present” in The Parent’s Assistant, Maria Edgeworth
I wonder if the “frost ground” is a reference to the mica used in some surviving filigree objects? Rosamond’s preoccupation with her project contrasts with her sister Laura’s attentive compassion: she gives her money to a poor young lace-maker whose bobbins and lace Laura sees being destroyed by a callous footman in the street. While the family are on their way to the birthday party, Rosamond’s father mocks Rosamond’s filigree basket:
‘Let us look at this basket,’ said he, taking it out of her unwilling hands; for she knew of what frail materials it was made, and she dreaded its coming to pieces under her father’s examination.
He took hold of the handle rather roughly, and starting off the coach seat she cried-
‘Oh sir! father! sir! you will spoil it indeed!’ said she with increased vehemence, when, after drawing aside the veil of silver paper, she saw him grasp the myrtle-wreathed handle.
‘Indeed sir you will spoil the poor handle.’
‘But what is the use of the poor handle,’ said her father, ‘if we are not to take hold of it? And pray,’ continued he, turning the basket round with his finger and thumb rather in a disrespectful manner- ‘pray is this the thing you have been about all this week? I have seen you all this week dabbling with paste and rags; I could not conceive what you you were about- is this the thing?
‘Yes sir- you think then that I have wasted my time, because the basket is of no use : but then it is for a present for my cousin Bell.’
‘Your cousin Bell will be very much obliged to you for a present that is of no use ; you had better have given her the purple jar .’
– “The Birth Day Present” in The Parent’s Assistant, Maria Edgeworth
Indeed, it turns out that Bell doesn’t appreciate the present very much, since she manages to ruin it while taking a peek at her presents before it’s time to open them! Bell is a spoiled, fretful liar: she has at least seven tantrums on her birthday (Edgeworth numbers them) and she blames the damage to the basket on the lace-maker, who just happened to deliver the lace for Bell’s birthday dress. Rosamond learns her lesson, and learns to praise her sister’s true generosity when the lace-girl returns to expose both Bell’s lies and Laura’s charity.
There are a lot of moral messages woven into the story- Edgeworth implies that Bell’s character has been affected by too much indulgence with birthday parties and also by too much time spent with servants! However, the central moral has to do with Rosamond’s lesson about generosity: truly generous acts are not done for selfish ends and are bestowed on deserving objects. The filigree basket is depicted as a waste of time and money because of its useless fragility, its intended recipient’s bad manners, and its maker’s focus on the praise she will gain by giving it away. Rosamond’s basket contrasts both with Laura’s better use of her half-guinea and with the honest labour of the poor lace-maker.
Jane Austen doesn’t make Lucy Steele’s filigree basket carry quite so much moral weight, but there are interesting parallels. Lucy’s motives for making and giving the basket are as self-interested as Rosamond’s- she’s busy ingratiating herself with her wealthy, titled hosts, and indulging the children is the only thing that seems to please the insipid Lady Middleton. Lucy’s basket is destined for a child at least as spoiled as Bell. When Annamaria Middleton is accidentally scratched by a pin, Lady Middleton and both Miss Steeles focus all their attention on her:
With such a reward for her tears, the child was too wise to cease crying. She still screamed and sobbed lustily, kicked her two brothers for offering to touch her, and all their united soothings were ineffectual till Lady Middleton luckily remembering that in a scene of similar distress, last week, some apricot marmalade had been successfully applied for a bruised temple, the same remedy was eagerly proposed for this unfortunate scratch, and a slight intermission of screams in the young lady on hearing it, gave them reason to hope that it would not be rejected.
–Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, chapter 21
I can’t be certain that Jane Austen was thinking of Rosamond and Bell when she chose to have Lucy Steele make a filigree basket for Annamaria. But Austen could have read The Parent’s Assistant any time after it was published in 1796, perhaps even before she started work in 1797 on the drafts that would eventually become Sense and Sensibility (finally published 1811). Even without that certainty, it’s clear that Austen and Edgeworth both associate paper filigree with self-interested characters who value show over substance. I found an echo of this attitude in a very different piece of writing from about the same time. In The European Magazine and London Review, September 1801, the author of a series of “Essays After the Manner of Goldsmith” describes his visits to two different ladies’ seminaries:
The mistress of the first taught in her school, as she herself told me, every thing fashionable, filagree and straw work, the tambourine, and the new reel steps; and with great exultation produced her pupils as specimen of her ability : but it unfortunately happened, that every thing took a wrong turn ; I fancied in every infant face the outlines of pride, ill temper, vanity, and affectation ; and pictured to my imagination her misled children growing up in error, and sinking into vice and wretchedness.
– “Essays after the Manner of Goldsmith”, The European Magazine and London Review, Vol. 40, September 1801.
The curriculum of the second seminary is not described, but its “virtuous education” is a garden that produces “the dutiful daughter, the faithful wife, and the affectionate mother.” There may be some satirical intention in this essay- Austen herself found Goldsmith an irresistable target for satire in her “History of England”- but the concerns over moral education and fashionable accomplishments mirror other distinctly serious writings about female education. So while it may be an exaggeration to class filagree and straw-work with “vanities and follies suitable to the depravities of the age,” it’s not a stretch for Jane Austen to link filagree and female folly.
Even though it may reflect badly on my character, I’d like to try some filigree as a change of pace from my more serious Accomplishments- I just need to get a hold of some instructions from Jane Austen’s era!
Paper filigree Links:
- “Paper Filigree: A Woman’s Pastime Becomes Art” by Joy Ruskin, New England Antiques Journal, 2008
- “Ladies Accomplishments: A Late 18th-Century Paper Filigree Work Cabinet” AustenOnly.com, November 3, 2011.
- “A Filigree Work Tea Caddy” AustenOnly.com, May 11, 2012
- My Pinterest Board “Papercraft: 18th & 19th centuries“