TIGRESS KNITTER: THE STORY OF MADAME DEFARGE

Evil knitter Number One is definitely Madame Defarge. Here is how Charles Dickens introduces her in A Tale of Two Cities, a book set during the French Revolution.

brown and black tiger lying on ground

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

“Madame Defarge was a stout woman … with a watchful eye that seldom seemed to look at anything, a large hand heavily ringed, a steady face, strong features, and great composure of manner. There was a character about Madame Defarge  from which one might have predicated that she did not often make mistakes against herself in any of the reckonings over which she presided.”

I’m guessing no dropped stitches then. And you see where all that knitting leads to? GREAT COMPOSURE OF MANNER. That’s my aim. Madame Defarge embodies vengeance and the need for revenge. Not qualities you’d necessarily associate with an avid knitter but the cause of her blood thirstiness is that her family has been destroyed by the aristocratic Evrémondes.

“Madame Defarge being sensitive to cold was wrapped in fur, and had a quantity of bright shawl twined about her head, though not to the concealment of her large earrings. Her knitting was before her but she had laid it down to pick her teeth with a toothpick.”

Bloody hell. I can’t say I’ve ever lain down my knitting for a toothpick, a sip from a glass of white wine, would be more like it. But what exactly is Madame Defarge doing as she sits in her husband’s wine shop watching the comings and goings? This is what a spy wonders and is brave enough to ask her. Here is their exchange.

‘You knit with great skill, madame.’

‘I am accustomed to it.’

‘A pretty pattern too.’

”You think so?’ said madame, looking at him with a smile.

‘Decidedly. May one ask what it is for?’*

‘Pastime,’ said madame, still looking at him with a smile while her fingers moved nimbly.

‘Not for use?’

‘That depends. I may find a use for it one day…’

Pastime? What she is actually doing is knitting the names of those she thinks should meet their end under the guillotine’s blade. Knitting as code then. Knitting as a sentence of death. A bit chilling, isn’t it? And the exact opposite of something cosy and domestic. Later on we get this rather nice scene.

“Take you my knitting,” said Madame Defarge, placing it in her lieutenants hands, “and have it ready for me in my usual seat.”

Her usual seat incidentally being near the guillotine where she can watch the heads roll. I don’t know what’s happened to the world but there’s a severe shortage of lieutenants for carrying one’s knitting around at the moment. Can’t find one anywhere. I blame Brexit. Might just have to carry it myself then.

There are three chapters which mention knitting in the book. Chapter 15 KNITTING, Chapter 16 STILL KNITTING, and then the penultimate chapter, KNITTING DONE. The last one, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the one in which Madame Defarge meets her end at the hands of Miss Pross. She does call Miss Pross, ‘Woman imbecile and pig-like’ which is pretty rude all things considered.

Miss Pross on the left, Madame Defarge on the right.

Finally, here is a fine description of Madame Defarge striding through the streets of Paris. Dickens, it seems to me, is half in love with her, half horrified by her.

“There were many women at that time, upon whom time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand; but there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman, now taking her way along the streets. Of a strong and fearless character, of shrewd sense and readiness, of great determination, of that kind of beauty which not only seems to impart to its possessor firmness and animosity, but to strike into others an instinctive recognition of those qualities; the troubled times would have heaved her up, under any circumstances. But imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her.”

So there we have her the pitiless knitter, the tigress, the embodiment of revenge, Madame Defarge. I aspire to all of her skill but none of her vengeance!

* Please note that ‘No you may not’ is a perfectly appropriate reply from any beginner knitter to this footling question.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

Six degrees of separation is an idea of Kate’s at Books are my Favourite and Best, where the idea is that everyone begins with the same book and links to six other books to form a chain. To find out more take a look here.

The start book this month is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a gothic, ghost story.

 

The Turn Of The Screw/ Henry James: Annotated by [Henry James]

In 2004 Colm Tóibín wrote a novel about Henry James called The Master. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize.

It’s great incidentally. If you can’t stand Henry James then I recommend reading this and you might feel differently about him! Six months after Tóibín’s book came out, David Lodge’s novel Author, Author also about Henry James, came out but was sort of lost in all the adulation that had been heaped on The Master. A much earlier book by David Lodge, published in 1962, was called Ginger, You’re Barmy and was about a young man doing National Service.

Ginger, You're Barmy by [David Lodge]

A wicked red-haired villain in fiction is the dreadful, unctuous Uriah Heap of Dicken’s David Copperfield.

David Copperfield (The Penguin English Library)

Dickens was one of the great London writers. Bleak House opens with one of the best descriptions of fog in fiction. Another book set in London during a pea souper is Margery Allingham’s 1952 novel Tiger in the Smoke. The fourteenth of her Albert Campion mysteries and one of the best.

Smoke and Ashes is the third in Abir Mukherjee’s crime series set in 1920s India, featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee. It’s a series I love and highly recommend.

 

Finally, Smoke and Ashes makes me think of another novel set in India, Heat and Dust, written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala of Merchent Ivory fame. This book won the Booker in 1975. I read it a very long time ago and my main recollection is of it being a bit thin and decidedly unsatisfying in its ending but I do remember enjoying the film!

This was great fun. I think I might do it again. The next one (November 7 2020) starts with the last book used in this one, so Heat and Dust for me or the last book you read if it’s the first time you’ve done it.  Now, let me think … Dust …Dusty… no, don’t answer!

ROBERT HARRIS AND THE POLITICAL NOVEL

Off last night to the LSE to see the author, Robert Harris, being interviewed by Peter Kemp (chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times) on the subject of The Political Novel. It was a very enjoyable event mainly because the rapport between the two men was a good one and because Harris is an amiable and amusing interviewee. Harris started out as a reporter with the BBC, working on Newsnight and Panorama, before becoming the political editor of The Observer. His first novel Fatherland was published in 1992 and was a huge bestseller. It’s a thriller set in an imagined future in which Germany has won the war, Hitler’s 75th birthday is coming up and no one knows anything about the Holocaust.

Here’s a summing up of some of the things discussed:

  • Political influences – being with his father as he heckled Alec Douglas-Home during the 1964 general election campaign and also being born close enough to the Second World War for it to be talked about all the time.
  • Difference between political journalism and fiction – political journalism is ‘all up front’ and fiction is about ‘hiding and concealment.’
  • On the writing of Fatherland – he said he started off writing twenty or thirty pages with lots of people in a room and then didn’t know what to do with them or how to get them out. He put the novel away for a year and then his agent wrote to him with a quote from American writer John Irving which stated that you must know what happens at the end before you start. He then went back to the novel and set off writing it from about five different points of view before deciding to settle on only one, the detective, because he was the most conflicted and therefore the most dramatic.
  • His experience of writing fiction – once he ‘went through the looking glass into his imagination’ and began writing fiction he felt there was no going back.
  • The pace of his novels – Kemp asked if that had to do with the speed with which he wrote. Harris replied that if he had one contract with his readers it was not to bore them and that the use of an urgent timescale was useful in that regard. He also pointed out that the great 19th century novels (Dickens, Trollope) were written under great time pressure.
  • Writing habits – he starts to write in January delivering the manuscript in June or July and then having the book published in September or October. He writes about a 1000 words a day gets up early and is done by lunch time. He talked about letting ‘the boys in the basement’ do some of the work. An expression used by Stephen King to describe the subconscious.
  • Influence of George Orwell  – he said that the book 1984 was the great argument for fiction because by inventing characters and creating an imaginary work Orwell created a work of imagination which will never date.   Non-fiction will always be rewritten i.e. someone at some point will write another history of Stalingrad, but fiction is imperishable. Amusingly he said that apparently Orwell thought that War and Peace was much too short that he could have stayed in that world created by Tolstoy for much longer.
  • His own favourite book – that was the one he was working on (his present one is on the Catholic Church) because it was ‘a perfect sphere of possibilities which had not yet crashed to earth.’
  • His favourite 19th century novel – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
  • On Anthony Trollope – the reason why there is no modern Trollope is because Britain simply isn’t as important in world politics anymore. When Trollope was writing, British politics was the fulcrum of the world and had the most powerful legislature in the world.

Harris is an interesting writer because he writes across a broad range of different time-frames and countries:alternative history detective novel (Fatherland), second world war Britain (Enigma) contemporary Russia (Archangel), contemporary Britain (The Ghost) the classical world (Pompeii, Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator). He is so spectacularly bestselling he transcends branding. He said the book his publishers flinched at was Pompeii but that when it sold as well as Fatherland they didn’t mind. You have to sell a very great many books to earn that kind of freedom. Long may it continue. His most recent book is the third in his trilogy about Cicero called Dictator.

Personally, my favourite Robert Harris is The Ghost. It’s about a ghostwriter who is hired to write the memoirs of Britain’s former Prime Minister. It’s brilliant and apart from anything else it’s incredibly funny. If like me you have dark thoughts when you think of Tony Blair and the Iraq war, this is the book for you.

Have you read any Robert Harris books? What’s your favourite political novel? Or what have you read recently that you would describe as a political novel?

 

WRITERS’ HOUSES

The other day I visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum (see above) in Haworth, Yorkshire.  I haven’t visited many writers’ houses mainly because I’ve suspected I might be bored by them but this did not bore me at all. It gave a real sense of what it would have been like to live in the house. I had a vivid impression of all those febrile imaginations sparking off each other; the contrast of the claustrophobia of the house with the wide open expanses of the moors. I loved it and bought myself a very nice mug with a quote from Emily Brontë on the outside which says “NO COWARD SOUL IS MINE.” Always good to be reminded of that I think, especially when you’ve got a book freshly published! The only books by the Brontës I’ve read are Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre but now I’m curious to read the Tenant of Wildfeld Hall and Shirley. It actually gave me a bit of a yearning to go and visit other writers’ houses. So tomorrow I’m off to the Charles Dickens Museum below. I’m ashamed to say I’ve lived in London for over thirty years and never been. That’s pathetic!

Have you visited any writer’s house recently? What was your experience like? Are there any you’d recommend?