restricted access Needles and Threads in Text(ile)s by Dolors Monserdà, Mercè Rodoreda, and Maria-Antònia Oliver
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Needles and Threads in Text(ile)s by Dolors Monserdà, Mercè Rodoreda, and Maria-Antònia Oliver

Patriarchal literary theory, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar reminded us in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, has traditionally distinguished between texts, created by men using pen and ink, and textiles, fabricated by women employing needle and thread. Sewing, embroidering, knitting, crocheting, spinning, and weaving, according to men, were crafts, not art forms, and their merit was strictly utilitarian.1 A number of women writers and critics, however, have rejected patriarchal strictures and judgments. At times they have shown how constraining needlework can be; at other times they have vindicated it as a form of artistic expression or used it as a metaphor for female writing. The text(ile)s I examine range from Dolors Monserdà's 1904 novel La fabricanta to Mercè Rodoreda's stories "Tarda al cinema" and "Fil a l'agulla," both from the 1958 collection Vint-i-dos contes, to Maria-Antònia Oliver's 1979 novel Punt d'arròs and 1982 television script Muller qui cerca espill, all of which draw on various forms of needlework to reflect upon women's lives and their writing.

In Women, Work, and Representation: Needlewomen in Victorian Art and Literature Lynn Alexander notes that "Regardless of their social class, all women in Victorian England [and in Spain, we might add] [End Page 83] were taught to sew. Thus people encountering a woman sewing in literature or in art could identify with the character - either as women who sewed or as men whose mothers, wives, and sisters sewed" (9). The seamstress became an iconic figure and typically was depicted as young, of the middle class but impoverished, without a feminine role model, and the victim of exploitation (34). The most famous single representation of her is found in Thomas Hood's social-protest poem "The Song of the Shirt" (1843), and Hood's shroud image ("Sewing at once, with a double thread, / A shroud as well as a shirt" [124]) figures repeatedly in verbal and visual arts, including Monserdà's La fabricanta.

Dolors Monserdà (1845-1919) was a pioneering figure of Catalan feminism who broke with societal as well as literary norms. Novelist, poet, dramatist, essayist, and journalist, she took an active role as a social reformer and founded el Patronat per a les Obreres de l'Agulla. In her Estudi Feminista (1909) she explained that she wrote to reach a female public: "Escriure per a la dona i que els meus escrits poguessin ésser-li d'alguna utilitat moral i material, veus aquí els meus ideals literaris" (4).2 La fabricanta's subtitle, Novel·la de costums barcelonines (1860-1875), highlights Monserdà's interest in documenting what life was like for women during the second half of the nineteenth century in Barcelona and the part they played in the burgeoning textile industry. The protagonist, with the help of her husband, develops her father's two hand looms into a thriving family business, and most studies of the novel have dealt with this aspect of her life. What interests me here are several brief passages in chapters 2, 3, and 5 which serve to make clear that being industrious and entrepreneurial is not incompatible with being feminine. Antonieta is no less womanly for showing initiative and acting with energy.

Chapter 2, "L'Antonieta Corominas," centers on the main character and contrasts her warm, affectionate nature with that of the brother for whom she keeps house, a man who is cold and has no interest in what his sister has to say. The illustration that precedes the chapter pictures a balcony overflowing with flowers. The curtain draped over its edge provides [End Page 84] shade and privacy, and a bird cage hangs nearby. It is on such a balcony that Antonieta treats herself to brief moments of relaxation in spring and summer. The novel's description of the balcony focuses on the flower pots and the goldfinch for which Antonieta cares, activities that create an image of her as properly feminine and domestic, but two details suggest how confining her life...