Sunday, August 05, 2007

I love The Tailor of Gloucester

"When gentlemen wore ruffles and gold-lace waistcoats"

Many of Beatrix Potter’s stories begin ‘Once upon a time…’. The Tailor of Gloucester is unusual in that the story takes place at a specific period – ‘the time of swords and periwigs’ – between about 1735 and 1785. Beatrix went to extraordinary lengths to create an authentic setting. Passing a tailor’s shop in Chelsea one day, she deliberately tore a button off her coat and took it in to be mended so she could observe at first hand the tailor’s posture, tools and workbench. - Victoria & Albert Museums

The illustrations are even inspiring to me, who has no expert appreciation of tailoring.

But it wasn't until last night, when Lyddie and I were reading it together, that I realised how much information about social history young children absorb from stories and illustrations like this.

It sets the 18th century's economic scene right at the start: the wealthy people (like the Mayor of Gloucester) wore sumptuous, beautiful clothes which were - quite literally - painstakingly crafted to the highest standard down to the tiniest detail by people who often lived in abject poverty.

The Tailor of Gloucester couldn't afford candles:

"All day long while the light lasted he sewed and snippeted, piecing out his satin and pompadour, and lute-string;"

And by way of accommodation:

"The tailor was so poor he only rented the kitchen."

Lyddie's eyes widened at this. I could see her trying to think how it must be to live only in a kitchen. (I must remember to tell her our family story of the man who rented sleeping space in my great great grandparents' kitchen: they made a bed for him 'under the sink'! so I was told, though I've been puzzling ever since how it was possible.)

Reading this story gave Lyddie some more basic, deep understanding about real poverty and inequality which is an important thing to understand these days, in which relative poverty is being so widely discussed as such an apparent huge problem.

The Tailor of Gloucester worked until he was ill, then developed a fever and took to his bed for three days. There was no doctor, antibiotics or even any nursing care for him. As soon as he was able to stand, he went straight to his shop on Christmas day to try desperately to finish the Mayor's wedding clothes in time for the ceremony.

We're just reading stories, but we're learning about aspects of different lives from different times. I love Beatrix Potter's books for the way they illustrate the day-to-day mundane activities, like Mrs Tiggywinkle's goffering of Lucy's apron. Who even knows what goffering means, nowadays? Blogger's spellchecker didn't recognise it. (I just looked it up: it means "to make wavy, flute or crimp a lace edge, trimming, etc., with heated irons".)

No longer relevant, but good for building a complex mental imagery of a time gone by, when things were so different that even some of the words are no longer in use.


Blogger Dani said...

Thanks for that - lovely post.

I've learned a lot about history from reading historical novels to Pearlie. I think it's a really fantastic way to get a picture of how life was at a particular period in history.

8:17 pm, August 06, 2007  
Anonymous Clare said...

I had a fascination about Tudor history from when I was very young. Most of what I learnt came from historical novels - Jean Plaidy etc. - rather than from school, although we did cover it when I was 9.

A huge comment worthy of it's own blog post just started being written so will stop now and take up my own blog-space with it! :-)


10:37 pm, August 06, 2007  

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