Tuesday 26 March 2013

Elizabeth Parker’s Sampler: Trauma and Sewing

One of the most intriguing objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is a sampler sewn in 1830 by a young woman, employed as a servant, Elizabeth Parker. The sampler recounts the abuse she suffered, the ‘cruel usage’ of the master of the house, and her subsequent suicide attempt. Her sampler opens with the odd statement: ‘As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person’, yet the stitched ‘story’ suggests that Elizabeth Parker could write. It is possible, however, that the kind employer who encouraged her to sew her story wrote this down and Elizabeth copied the shapes of the letters as she sewed. Possibly, Elizabeth’s new mistress knew that her servant needed to express the terrible ordeal she had experienced and record it in a permanent form. This, of course, is conjecture. However, Elizabeth’s moving account indicates the vulnerability of young working-class women employed in households far from their families, as well as the power of needlework as a form of women’s writing.

Elizabeth Parker’s Sampler, V & A Museum Textile Collection

[For an interesting academic analysis of the samples see Nigel Llewellyn, ‘Elizabeth Parker’s “Sampler”: Memory, Suicide and the Presence of the Artist’ in Material Memories (eds) M. Kwint, C. Breward and J. Aynsley (Oxford: Berg, 1999)]

The tiny stitched words read as follows:

As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully intrust myself and I know will bear with all my weaknesses – I was born at Ashburnham in the country of Sussex in the year 1813 of poor but pious parents my fathers occupation was a labourer for the Rt Hon the Earl of A My mother kept the Rt Hon – the Countess of A Charity School and by their ample conduct and great industry were enabeled [sic] to render a comfortable living for their family which were eleven in number ... I went to Fairlight housemaid to Lieu. G but there cruel usage soon made me curse my Disobedience to my parents wishing I had taken there [sic] advice and never left the worthy family of P. but then alas to [sic] late they treated me with cruelty to [sic] horrible to mention for trying to avoid the wicked design of my master I was thrown down stairs but I very soon left them and came to my friends but being young and foolish I never told my friends what had happened to me …

After narrating her attempt to commit suicide, Elizabeth Parker ‘writes’:

Oh how can I expect mercy who went on in sin until Dr W reminded me of my wickedness For with shame I own I returned to thee O God because I had nowhere else to go How can such repentance as mine be sincere what will become of my soul ……

The stitching ends here.

Prof Deborah Wynne, University of Chester

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