working girls

Book two is complete. I’ve sold a number and will concentrate on marketing in the following weeks. And all will be good.

But to tell you the truth, what I really want to do, is start on the next book.

I’m itching to get going on a mini sub-series of Guides. This sub-series will focus on women and work. I’m conscious that the two books currently published relate tales of upper-class Irish women. Most women did not experience such privilege. I wish to tell their stories too.

Each time I begin a new project I start a new notebook and mark the date on the inside cover. Like many others, I find I think better with a pencil in hand. Concepts, themes and associations arrive, once I start scribbling. Many are rubbish, most are ok and some are thoughts of such magnificence that they could only have come directly from God. But ideas only happen through the process of noting and sketching.

I have my new notebook ready.

This next project will illustrate a text written by Jane Austen when she was 12 or 13. The story contains only 465 words, and yet it is a perfect novel-in-miniature. It’s called The Beautifull Cassandra and you can find the charming text here.

The story tells of a 16 year girl who enjoys a day of petty crime and mysterious meetings. When she arrives home, seven hours later, she receives a hug from her mother and while in her mother’s arms, she whispers to herself, “This is a day well spent.” I love that the protagonist is feisty and bold. But what I find most intriguing about this tiny story, are the questions that are raised and never answered. Why did Cassandra steal refuse to pay or six ices and punch the pastry cook? Why did she not stop to talk to the Viscount? Who is Maria? and why did both girls tremble and blush at the sight of each other? And why was it all ‘a day well spent’?

But how does the Beautifull Cassandra tie in with women and work?

Cassandra’s mother is a milliner. The story opens with Cassandra stealing a bonnet and setting forth.

Millinery was one of the most accessible industries open to a woman at the time. Mary O’Dowd, author of A History of Irish Women and Work tells us

“Initially, milliners were makers of hats for woman but by the mid-eighteenth century hat-making was only a small part of the millinery business. Far more important was the sale of cloth of various kinds and a wide range of accessories necessary for making fashionable women’s clothes as well as additional items such as perfume, combs and hair decorations. Milliners also sold ready-made accessories, namely gloves, caps, veils and stockings.”

O’Dowd provides a graph which shows that after the grocery trade, textile related business were the most common way for urban women to make a living.

There are some reports of a curious link between millinery and prostitution. A London newspaper actually warned young women against going into the millinery trade:

“The vast Resort of young Beaus and Rakes to Milliners’ Shops exposes young creatures to many Temptations, and insensibly debauches their Morals before they are capable of Vice…Nine out of ten young Creatures that are obligated to serve in these shops are ruined and undone”

Literary and cultural historian, Rictor Norton writes of :

a significant overlap between a mantua-maker and a prostitute. The current view amongst social historians that prostitutes were not fixed in the single profession of prostitution, but moved back and forth between different types of respectable labour, and went into prostitution when times were hard in their other labour, is based upon a fair amount of evidence that when prostitutes were not prostitutes, they were milliners and mantua-makers (i.e. dressmakers). 

One of Dublin’s most famous prostitutes was Margaret Leeson. Her memoirs are fascinating. They tell of a life that ricocheted between high living and extreme poverty, great happiness and huge loss, astute business acumen and imprudent profligacy. She is buried in St James’s Graveyard near the Guinness Brewery.

Once I finish the book on millinery, I want to create something around Margaret Leeson’s life. At the moment I’m thinking of designing a set of glorious playing cards. Card. playing and gambling was hugely popular during her day. A deck of cards would allow me to explore the win/lose, success/fail, gamble that was her life.

In the past many women worked simply to make ends meet. The concept of finding a fulfilling job was not an option. I’m lucky that I have found something I love to do. My job really suits me. It fits all my skills and interests as snugly and neatly as a calfskin glove.

I have frequent days where I am able to look back and whisper to myself “This is a day well spent.”

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