Of Ephemera, And Death, and Jumble Sales

– which sounds an unpromising combination – but hearken.

We were dropping some things off today at a jumble sale. (Yes, Akela, I will man a stall next time *slinks away apologetically*) The joy of delivering things is you get to see the goodies. Mum – who is the demon knitter, in sobriety, even if she makes up in zeal with what she lacks in accessories – found a lovely box full of knitting needles of all shapes and sizes.

Accompanying it was a bag with a half-finished pullover. Sadly the wool was beautiful, but unbranded, and there wasn’t enough knitting to work out what it was going to be.

And in the box, under the stitch holders and the counters and the needle caps and all the ephemera of a lifetime of knitting, there were seven or eight beautiful crochet hooks – engraved, tiny, delicate, shapely crochet hooks, sized to craft butterfly wings and carved with flowers and curlicues.

It was the collection of someone who had spent a lifetime making things – probably of the vintage we don’t see any more, of crochet doilies and tray cloths and itchy knit mittens. A bygone era. And, I think, a bygone knitter, who had laid down her needles one day on a half-finished pullover and never picked them up again. A competent craftswoman, judging by the variety of accessories and sizes and their assorted ages.

I hope someone is going to buy that jumper and finish it and love it.

I think someone owes it to that unknown craftswoman, who collected her needles and tools from the engraved iron days of her girlhood through enamel and shiny smooth grey metal and space-age plastic, to the day she finally set it down unfinished.

And now I just need to learn to crochet….

 

Kitty, My Rib – the story of Katie van Bora

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Now I have two heroines in this world, and one of them is Elizabeth Cromwell (well, dear, if you wanted orange sauce, you shouldn’t have made war on Spain, should you?) and the other is Katharina von Bora, die Lutherin. After those two stubborn, domesticated, marvellously level-headed females is Het Babbitt patterned.

There is an argument which I often hear, and it goes something like – but women in the 17th century, they were the weaker vessel, right? Poor dependents, meek and milky and subservient…. right?
Well – some names to look up, to begin with, then. Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth Lilburne. Brilliana Harley. Anne Fairfax.

All noblewomen? Hardly. Elizabeth Lilburne and Elizabeth Cromwell were merchant’s daughters – and Bess of Hardwick knew how to make a penny work for its living, by all accounts.

But die Lutherin is sadly neglected. Her 16th-century life-story reads like something from a lurid romantic fiction – convent-educated, she was brought up in cloisters until at the age of 24, she started to become interested in the growing reform movement and became unhappy with her secluded life within the Cistercian monastery. Now, the weaker-vessel argument would have die Lutherin meekly submitting to male domination, right? Um, nope. She wrote to Martin Luther, a 41 year old rebel, subversive and politically active cleric. An excommunicated priest, mind, who was not known for his tactful expression of his opinions. Katie von Bora wrote to Martin Luther – a man she had presumably never met formally in her life – and asked him to bust her and another twelve nuns out of the Cistercian monastery.

And he did. They were smuggled out in the back of a cart, in herring barrels. A credible fiction author could not make this up.

Luther, despite being the man behind the Reformation, now had twelve rogue nuns on his hands. Their families wouldn’t take them back, this being a breach of canon law, and so he found them all husbands. In the end, there was only Katie left. He found her husbands. Nope. Eventually she gave him the ultimatum – sorry, Martin, the only man I’m taking is either you or Nicolaus van Amsdorf, your friend. (Check out the portraits. She made a good call in Martin.)

Katie von Bora then took on the massive tasks of a) running the enormous monastery estate atWittenburg, where they boarded at the Cistercian monastery, b) running the brewery there, c) running the hospital, d) looking after all the students and visitors coming for audience with the notorious rogue priest behind the Diet of Worms, and e) keeping an eye on Martin, who had not been exactly the most promising of eager bridegrooms – he admitted himself that before his marriage his bed was often mildewed and not made up for months on end. By the sound of Katie, she’d have put up with neither the mildew, the unmade bed, nor the grubby husband.

The Luthers had six children (not all of whom survived to adulthood, sadly), Katie had one miscarriage, and they brought up another four orphans. This was not, clearly, a nominal marriage of platonic and dutiful affection. Martin freely admitted prior to his marriage that despite his clerical celibacy he was aware of the existence of the female form, even in spite of the mouldy bed. Had it not been for the admittedly rather pretty Mistress van Bora, it’s not impossible that the Protestant clergy would have remained formally celibate for many years – not that Martin and Katie were the first, but their wedding set the seal of approval on clerical marriage. It was a long and happy marriage, if often short of money, and even then it seems that she had the habit of accepting gifts from benefactors on his behalf, and putting the money away for the rainy day that seemed to follow the Luther household around.

They were married for almost twenty years, and he had counselled her to move into a smaller house with the children when he died, but she refused. A sentimental attachment to the marital home where she’d been happy and useful for so long? Struggling financially without his salary, she stayed stubbornly put until soldiers in the the Schmalkaldic War destroyed farm buildings and killed the animals on their farm, and she was forced to flee, living on the charity of the Elector of Saxony until it was safe for her to return to Wittenburg. Bubonic plague then forced her to flee a third time, this time to Torgau, but she was thrown from her cart near the city gates and very badly bruised, and died less than three months later.

She was not buried near to her Martin in Wittenburg, but since one of the Lutheran doctrines was that “It is enough for us to know that souls do not leave their bodies to be threatened by the torments and punishments of hell, but enter a prepared bedchamber in which they sleep in peace,” – she probably didn’t mind too much.

Ladies  and gentlemen, a toast to die Lutherin, Katie von Bora – the role model for the Mrs Cromwells and Mrs Fairfaxes, the domestic rock on which a political citadel stood firm.

The Eye Of the Beholder

You will notice, if you read my blog or follow my Facebook page, that I will do almost anything but post photos of myself.

And, you know, you might think that’s a silly female vanity, the authorial equivalent of “does my bum look big in this?” – an affectation.

And you might also think well, hang on, this lass writes about a romantic lead with a conspicuous facial disfigurement, with a degree of authority. I wonder if that’s significant?

Once upon a time, you see, there was a girl who was pretty, who had perfect porcelain skin. And attracting men was a sport – “the night I pulled ten guys one after another in the Ritz Ballroom”. I didn’t have to be kind, I didn’t have to be thoughtful, I didn’t have to be clever or considerate or thoughtful. I was just – pretty. First thing in the morning, I was pretty in smeared eyeliner. Last thing at night, I was pretty and glamorously raddled.

I was not kind.

I didn’t need to be, because I was pretty. I could have all the attention I craved, just by having big green eyes and a slightly forlorn droop to my mouth and good cheekbones.

I don’t think I ever didn’t get – even if only briefly – a man I wanted. I think it would have done me the world of good if I had. It would have taught me a little humility, I think: that just looking the way I did, did not guarantee me any preferential treatment.

And then one day I wasn’t. All the things I took for granted – that I could go out to a nightclub with a pound in my purse and no cigarettes, in the sure and certain knowledge that someone else would buy my drinks: not bothering to be on time,because the pleasure of my beauty was enough, or to be particularly civil to people I didn’t like – I suddenly had to learn all those things, fast and hard. People had always wanted to be my friend, not for the pleasure of my company, but because of how I looked. Being the friend of the most beautiful girl in the world has its perks. Being the man who dated the most beautiful girl in the world… Well, you get the idea.

And then suddenly this girl who had never had to conform, had never had to learn to please or flatter or charm, had to grow a personality.

Which I did, and it’s not a bad one: it has a certain wry dark humour that it had not previous, a degree of self-mockery that would have outraged that proud beauty.

The irony of rosacea is not lost on me: old age wouldn’t have troubled me – doesn’t trouble me – I still have good bones, and big green eyes and a slightly forlorn droop to my mouth and good cheekbones.

Even a tragic disfiguring scar like Russell’s would have its own ruined glamour.

Instead, it’s spots. Blisters and rawness and a burned-looking redness, patches where the skin is dry and it cracks like plaster next to teenage zits.

Sometimes it looks okay, sometimes I can cover it up with makeup and people don’t think they can pass remarks, no matter how sympathetic, about that girl’s poor face. (Which is not burned, and nor does she have chickenpox.)

Sometimes it gets so miserable and sore that I have to take antibiotics, and it’s itchy and infected and so swollen that those lovely cheekbones I still have disappear.

So – no, there are no photos of me, if I can help it. I don’t mind that I’m not the same beautiful as I was. I’m different- pretty now: I built that new personality quicker than Redrow Homes, and it’s in the charm, now, and the smile and – yeah, it has wrinkles about the eyes and a laugh that can strip paint off walls but what of it? It listens, it’s funny and literate and intelligent and witty and loving.

But you can’t see that in a photo.