No Doubt She Sews Like Hell


THE NEEDLECASE by Elizabeth Bowen

“The front of the house loomed over them, massive and dark and cold: it was the kind of house that easily looks shut up, and, when shut up, looks derelict. […] It was not cheery in here.”

The three crowded mentions of ‘dykes’ just in the first paragraph (and, much later, “the dykes cut the country up with uneasy gleams”) all give false clues (“Her fingers looked as though they would always be cold, and Toddy dreaded their touch on her naked spine when the time would come to try on her evening dresses”), false clues as red herringbones relating to the resolution of this depleted Gothic of a story, a blank, cold house, yet a family house, in flat lands and, now inside, the whiffs of a ‘witch’ (as she is considered to be by one of the brothers) and her cigarettes betraying the Goth Miss Fox who is the needle woman employed by the family to overhaul all the dresses and other fabrics of the family, including the torn and now “martyred red dress” from ‘Making Arrangements’, (“My red tulle is ripped right round. It caught on a spur”) as well as all that same story’s stuffs and frills to wade through amidst the family’s meanly keeping of the lighting sparse at night — together, relevantly, with all the needles and pins and so forth from the female industry of ‘The Working Party’, including now Miss Fox’s own ominous needlecase as big as a Bible, with a photo inside it of her so-called ‘nephew’., ‘a nice little boy’, it seems. It was important for Miss Fox (“No doubt she sews like hell”) to get all the dresses and other sewing just right as the favourite brother Arthur in the family is bringing his potential bride home and they need to impress her. The other brother Frank is jealous, but the two sisters Toddy and Angela look forward to the occasion. Unless the story itself is different to the one I just read, a story like a stocking with a sudden ladder to catch up. For example, who was that nice little boy in the secret-but-somehow-flaunted photo from the needlecase? The outcome is both a surprise and not a surprise. Both a satisfying, clinching ending and an oblique unsatisfying open-ended uncaught-up ending, too. One of Bowen’s most wickedly artful stories, with dark needlepoint gleams … and a possible reputational downfall in the family fabric.

“But when we are all dressed up, I don’t know where we’re to go. Oh hell, Frank. I mean, really.”


My endless wading through the Bowen stuffs started here:

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