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This article is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

Pictures from a Library

29: ‘A handbag?’ Byronic Connotations
Stella Halkyard
Image: Mary Chaworth’s handbag
© University of Manchester 2016

Mary Chaworth’s handbag

THE GENEALOGY OF THE handbag is as varied as it is vener-able. Originating in the Babylonian era, early handbags and purses were used in religious ceremonies. In Elizabethan England they were crocheted into inventive shapes representing clusters of grapes, frogs or other animals, and carried by ladies at court. During the seventeenth century both women and men used handbags, often emblazoned with symbols of thrift, their medium at odds with their message. In the second half of the nineteenth century the term ‘handbag’ conjured up an image of an object that took the form of a small piece of luggage. Made of leather, with a sturdy handle, metal frame, and replete with commodious compartments, the handbag in the latter half of the nineteenth century was a robust piece of equipage brandished by the likes of Lady Bracknell.

But the type of handbag shown here is a particular category of the species, dating from earlier in the nineteenth century and more exactly described as a reticule. The first person reputed to have used such an object was Napoleon’s consort Josephine, whose pocketless, empire-line frocks provided no storage space for the accoutrements of an empress or the de riguer young lady out for a night on the town. Designed to carry a cargo of essential accessories including handkerchiefs, smelling salts, rice paper (to dull unsightly shiny noses), snuff boxes, fans and billet-doux, reticules have, on occasion, been put to nefarious purposes, as reported in The Times on 9 May 1913, when ‘a group of Mrs Pankhurst’s young ladies produced half bricks from their reticules and flung them through shop windows’. Such events are, however, aberrations: the reticule is most at home in the drawing rooms of an Emma Woodhouse and an Elizabeth Bennett than the exotic landscapes of Don Juan.

And yet this particular reticule, made of linen canvas, worked in coloured wools and designed to create an optical effect using a stitch known variously as Hungarian, Bargello or flame, does indeed have Byronic associations, having been made and used by Mary Chaworth of Annesley Hall, for whom the adolescent Byron burned with a fiery passion. Mary reputedly flirted with Byron but ultimately spurned his advances, preferring instead the attentions of the dashing but dastardly Jack Musters. Byron soothed his wounds with pistol shooting practice and penning ‘too warmly drawn’ (Reverend John Beecher) paeans to his muse Mary, which he published in his first collections of Fugitive Pieces. Her handbag was found in the park at Newstead Abbey in 1812 by Byron’s coachman and is now preserved in the archive of the Byron Society, a fragile material vestige of the unrequited love of a vulnerable boy for a smart young lady, from a time before he was mad, bad or dangerous to know. 

This article is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

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