Thursday, December 18, 2008

Knitting in Literature, part 1: Miss Silver

Knitting in Literature 1 My cousin Laura recently turned me on to a series of mystery novels by Patricia Wentworth. "When you're all out of Agatha Christie, they're the next best thing," she explained. "And she's got this heroine, Miss Silver, who knits while she solves crime."

Naturally I was intrigued.

After reading a couple of the Miss Silver novels, I was even more intrigued--not by the whodunits, which are, as Laura promised, decent filler, but by the speed at which our vaunted heroine completes her projects. It's insane.

Let's take, for example, the story I've got to hand, Miss Silver Comes to Stay. 

Day 1: Miss Silver arrives in Melling, bearing her knitting. Characters make vague threats to one another.
Excerpt: Miss Maud Silver closed a capacious handbag upon her knitting and the purse from which she had just extracted her railway ticket, and descending a rather inconveniently high step, stood looking about her for a porter and for Mrs. Voycey.

So far, so good. I approve of large knitting bags.

Day 2: Miss Silver attends a tea party. That evening, someone is murdered with a poker.

Day 3: The village is abuzz with news of the murder. Police begin enquiries. Alibis and red herrings are produced. Miss Silver is engaged in her professional capacity as a private detective. While interviewing her client, she begins to knit a child-sized coat and matching knickers.

Excerpt: She kept her hands low in her lap, holding the needles after the Continental fashion as she and Cecilia had been taught by the German mistress, Fraulein Stein, when she was at school. It has the great advantage of making it almost impossible to watch either one's hands or the work.

So it's likely that Patricia Wentworth is either a knitter or knows a knitter, and based on the fact that Miss Silver isn't watching her work, I'm guessing this is all stockinette or garter stitch.

Excerpt: Miss Silver stayed until three o'clock. By the time she resumed her coat, her yellow fur tippet, and her warm black woollen gloves, one whole side of little Josephine Burkett's woolly jacket had been completed and cast off. At least an inch of the second front had made its appearance as a pale blue frill.

Miss Silver started this project after partaking of a one o'clock lunch with her client. This means she finished one front of a child-size jacket and then some in under two hours. The woman is a machine. (She finishes the second front that evening.)

Day Four: The policeman (who, handily, is an old pupil of Miss Silver's) asks for her help. Our Heroine knits the back of little Josephine Burkett's jacket, then finds some suspicious footprints outside the dead man's house.

Day Five: Miss Silver converses with her policeman friend. One of the suspects turns up dead. No knitting is mentioned, but we assume it's being done, because by Day Six Miss Silver has completed the back and seamed together the back and fronts.

Excerpt: She had her knitting in her lap. The two fronts and the back of little Josephine's jacket having been completed and sewn together, she was engaged upon the left sleeve, for which four needles were in use.

I prefer to knit sleeves in the round, too.

(Aside: At this point in my speed-reread I am struck by how often the paragraphs are interspersed with either "Miss Silver's needles clicked" or "Miss Silver coughed". Seriously. She coughs like it's punctuation.)

Day Seven: The murderer is discovered, but commits suicide before the police can make an arrest. Miss Silver knits.

Excerpt: She was well away on the second sleeve of little Josephine's jacket, and hoped to finish it before lunch. She would then crochet an ornamental edging all round and furnish it with bows of washing ribbon, after which she could start upon the knickers.

So she knits and crochets. And, in fact, does finish the sleeve while she's wrapping up plot points with her policeman friend.

And there you have it: A murder solved and a jacket knit in under a week. Is there anything Miss Silver can't do?

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