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Elizabeth Parker's Confession
July 26, 2011 6:35 AM   Subscribe

Stitches From the Soul: Elizabeth Parker's Confession. Elizabeth Parker's cross-stitch sampler reveals the story of a young woman, who when employed as a housemaid for a cruel employer, was thrown down the stairs when she spurned his sexual advances. She later attempted suicide: "I acknowledge being guilty of that great sin of self-destruction." Her story is meticulously recorded in the circa 1830 sampler, part of the sampler collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
posted by marxchivist (22 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
And people think that having one's personal thoughts aired in public years later is an artifact of the internet. Clearly cross-stitchers think nothing of privacy!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:43 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


What an amazing document. Textiles last a long time - perhaps this will be readable millenia from now if it's well-preserved.
posted by mdonley at 6:45 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


In a more serious vein, it's a very moving document -- we don't get that many first-person historical accounts of the despair of the poor, mostly because they had no means to record their thoughts and no one cared to preserve it. "History is written by the victors" is a depressing truism.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:02 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hate to be a needle work pedant but that's not cross stich.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:05 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wait, I just looked at the magnifications and holy pete it is!
posted by Toekneesan at 7:08 AM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


Holy crow. "Deliberate" doesn't even begin to touch it. I'm stunned by the mental and physical stamina needed to see a meticulous project like that to the end. My heart goes out to her.

Textile art is all too often unfairly disregarded as a mere "craft," unworthy of the title "art." But I'm reminded every time I pick up my little plastic hoop and pick at my clumsy little embroideries that I'm joining a stream of feminine history going back hundreds and thousands of years.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 7:21 AM on July 26, 2011 [10 favorites]


Textile art is all too often unfairly disregarded as a mere "craft," unworthy of the title "art."

That is unfair, because needlework is a medium of endless possibilities. It's merely a matter of convention that it's mostly used to create flowers and other merely decorative designs — the needle can be used for just as many modes of expression as the pen. In this case it seems to surpass it. Elizabeth Parker could have written all this down in a journal, but by stitching it onto a piece of cloth she positions her story as something too important and notable to be contained by the covers of a journal, something worth making a near permanent record of. And then too, because needlework is almost always displayed in a home, she's cast her story as something to be displayed rather than hidden between the covers of a notebook, though I doubt Elizabeth ever showed this piece to anyone.

Well, good for her, and I hope she was able to exorcise the sense of shame that she did not deserve to feel. I'm a bit embarrassed by the contrast between her work and the 29,000-stitch cross-stitch of a magnolia that I made and had professionally framed for my home's first floor hallway. A friend of mine told me I should have stitched in my initials and the date as it was a work of art, but I didn't because it is not. It's just a kit, a work of patience and some skill, but it's craft, not art. Elizabeth Parker's manifesto is art.
posted by orange swan at 7:51 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wait, I just looked at the magnifications and holy pete it is!

No friggin way! That is amazing. And how do you get it large enough to see?
posted by SLC Mom at 7:56 AM on July 26, 2011


And how do you get it large enough to see?

If you follow the link through to the V&A page they have some magnifications available (which don't work for me for some reason) and also confirm in the text that the whole thing is cross stitch.
posted by pharm at 8:08 AM on July 26, 2011


Incredible.
posted by Madamina at 8:29 AM on July 26, 2011


It is cross stitch, the capital Is are one tiny cross stitch on top of the other.
posted by francesca too at 8:34 AM on July 26, 2011


For some reason, the phrase "silent scream" comes to mind. If only she knew that her voice would be heard by a sympathetic ear in a future, though not perfect, would be more prone to listen. Just amazing.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:37 AM on July 26, 2011


This is amazing. I'm a bit caught up on that first line. She couldn't write? In what sense? Oh, how women's voices were silenced . . .
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:17 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


You know what's really astounding is the content. I mean, yes, the needlework and dedication and precision and all that… but actually read what she wrote. It's line after miserable line of Chrsit-Please-End-It-Already.

Can you imagine how miserable her life must have been? Think for a moment if you were given just one piece of cloth to write your whole life story on, to sum up everything you believe in and think about—all the thoughts that run around in your head… and let's say it would take you a year to hand-stitch this message to posterity. Think about all the things you might say and then read what she wrote. I mean, she had all this time to really think about what she wanted to say, really plan it out. And what she says is basically that she is absolutely miserable and spent most of her time counting the days to her inevitable death.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:04 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. Cross stitch takes such patience and her work is so perfectly done. It must have been a sort of meditation for her, working on that piece, with the outpouring of her suffering rendered in such an exacting form.
posted by Salmonberry at 10:20 AM on July 26, 2011


Thanks for this moving post.

It's comforting to know that she might be glad that her "confession" is being read by people who live in a time where there are better choices for abused women, that there is therapy, there are lawyers who specialize in sexual harassment, that there are laws protecting employees from this type of sexual abuse, that there are online recovery groups, self-help books, suicide hotlines, antidepressants that work.

If there were morphic resonance, I'd send her my tender thoughts, righteous indignation about the abuses she survived and commend her courage for finding a way to get away, enduring the depression that happened, choosing a constructive life as a teacher and to surviving to old age.

I feel grateful to Elizabeth Parker for her embroidered one page journal, her truth sharing of the trauma she lived through, her misery, depression and journey. It's so interesting that expressing pain out loud in words, even in embroidered words on a piece handkerchief, can be an effective part of the healing process.
posted by nickyskye at 11:05 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


And what she says is basically that she is absolutely miserable and spent most of her time counting the days to her inevitable death.

Well, not exactly. This is the classic model of the evangelical conversion narrative, expressing heartfelt repentance for her sins and throwing herself on the mercy of God. It's a fascinatingly complex text, and the more I look at it the less I feel I know about it, but reading it simply as a tale of sexual and physical abuse and attempted suicide doesn't really do justice to the way that Elizabeth Parker chooses to present herself, which is absolutely suffused with religious rhetoric. Religion seems to have a double meaning for her, as both a source of despair and a source of consolation.

I'm a bit caught up on that first line. She couldn't write? In what sense?

One theory is that she couldn't write because she couldn't afford pen, paper and ink. But she also seems to be saying that she can't write with a polished literary style, so has to 'speak' instead. 'As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak ..' The irony, of course, is that in saying she can't express herself properly, she expresses herself with great power and eloquence.
posted by verstegan at 11:19 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, at least the story ends semi-happily, or not-totally-miserably:

Now an American historian, Maureen Daly Goggin, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Arizona State University, has uncovered new information which reveals that Elizabeth's fate was not to die young and alone.

Like her mother, she became a schoolteacher at the Ashburnham charity school, in her home village, and at some point in the 1850s was allowed to move into the Ashburnham almshouses. She lived there until she died, on 10 April 1889, aged 76. Although Elizabeth never married, she raised her sister's daughter, who remained living with her aunt into her twenties. It seems that after such troubled years of young womanhood Elizabeth went on to live a moderately comfortable life, surrounded by family.

posted by gottabefunky at 11:20 AM on July 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


This is amazing and moving. What a document.
posted by jokeefe at 12:58 PM on July 26, 2011


Thank you for this post! My husband and I visited London last year, and in the middle of this amazing trip I took a day and went off on my own and visited the V&A. This incredible work of art was hands-down my favourite part of my visit.

What gets me is that this wonderful document is hanging in a dark corner of a room filled with the most wonderful, astounding archive of embroidery I've ever had the pleasure to visit. I spotted it almost by accident, went over and read through the whole story. With tears in my eyes (the time it took to create this! The obvious pain and emotion!) I turned to the small card next to it.

Elizabeth died at 76, was happy and loved. I was so relieved! And then I thought about what I've written down about my life in diaries, and blogs, and emails. I would hope that they're not the only stories to survive me, and that someday I too will live a "moderately comfortable life, surrounded by family".
posted by deadtrouble at 2:33 PM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


Is there a link that has a full text transcript of the cross-stitch? I couldn't find it in the OP's links, but maybe I missed it? My curiosity is getting the better of me :)
posted by 1000monkeys at 6:44 PM on July 26, 2011


A friend of mine told me I should have stitched in my initials and the date as it was a work of art, but I didn't because it is not. It's just a kit, a work of patience and some skill, but it's craft, not art. Elizabeth Parker's manifesto is art.
posted by orange swan


Perhaps interesting aside: the term "masterpiece" originated in the fabric dying trade. An apprentice, to gain acceptance to the guild, had to produce a swath of well-dyed fabric. That was his "masterpiece."
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:35 AM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


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