Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Her Best Friend Is a Fairy

Gather 'round, children, because do I have a book to share with you.

It's called The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book, or Adventures Among the Knitting People, and it was originally published in 1918. My copy is a handsome, hardcover facsimile reprint from the wonderful folks at Lacis and I will be forever grateful to them for making it available.

Mary Frances

This was the last of long series* of how-to books starring Mary Frances, a little girl who had previously encountered the Kitchen People, the Thimble People, the Doll People and the Garden People. Apparently wherever she went, inanimate objects around her came to life and spoke to her. Nowadays we have medicines for that sort of thing; but Mary Frances just put up with it and learned to sew, knit, keep house, and cultivate begonias.

As The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book opens, our heroine is preparing for knitting and crochet lessons under the austere gaze of Great-Aunt Maria.

We don't learn much of Aunt Maria's backstory. She's either an old maid or a widow; but in any case she lives by herself with only her shawl and her bitterness to keep her warm. Her tongue drips the purest hydrochloric acid; a bracing counterpoint to the other characters, who wrap up every speech with a little pink bow.

Aunt Maria may well be my favorite person in the entire book. She's always ready to put the lid on Mary Frances when she swings manic and starts to bubble over. For example:
"Oh won't that be splendid, Aunt Maria?" cried the little girl. "I do want to learn so much!"

"It seems to me very strange that you do not know anything about such work," said her aunt. "Why, I made your father learn to knit when he was only six years old."

Mary Frances did not tell her Aunt Maria that her father had told her about those lessons, and how he had hated the work because, every time he made a mistake, his aunt would whack his chubby, clumsy fingers with a ruler...

"Mother would like to teach me," said Mary Frances, "but–"

"Your mother was not brought up right," snapped her aunt.
Mary Frances timidly reminds the old dragon that her mother was unable to learn to crochet because she had one lame arm, but auntie dearest accepts this excuse with evident reluctance.
"Oh yes," said Aunt Maria. "I remember now. But your arm doesn't hurt..."
Clearly, this is the sort of woman who believes that making a toddler pull a plow through a cotton field builds character. I just love her.

But we don't get as much of Aunt Maria as I'd like. In the best post-Edwardian fashion, Mary Frances's father is involved in a train wreck while traveling on business and her mother leaves the kids in Maria's care while she (also in the best post-Edwardian fashion) rushes off to nurse him. However, Aunt Maria's busy schedule of baking bread and reading temperance literature doesn't allow her sit around smacking Mary Frances with a ruler all day.

Enter the Knitting People.

Illustration

They are wacky little band that includes Knit and Knack, the Knitting Needles; Wooley Ball, the ball of yarn; Crow Shay, a (did you see this coming?) mischievous crochet hook; and Yarn Baby, a pushy little yarn doll with flyaway hair who disagrees violently with everything everybody else says at all times. I know this is a knitting book, but I think she should have been a rag doll.

Presiding over all is a good fairy named Fairly Flew. She is so-called because when she helps you with your knitting, people will say your stitches fairly flew off the needles. Also, she is a fairy who flies. Flying fairy Fairly Flew. Say that ten times fast.

Anyhow, while Aunt Maria's down in the parlor playing "The Lost Chord" on the harmonium and crying into her medicinal glass of brandy, the Knitting People jump out of Mary Frances's knitting bag and start ordering her around. Mary Frances, who at this point in her twelve years on earth has already dealt with talking thimbles, brooms and garden implements is not remotely surprised and goes along with it.

The lessons themselves, which are copiously illustrated with drawings and photographs (all superbly reproduced by Lacis) are actually pretty darn good. I'm tiptoeing around the edges of crochet, myself, and have found them to be clear and helpful–no mean feat for a work almost a century old.

And much of the other content is a refreshing change from modern children's pap, as well. Mary Frances learns real skills using real tools and is taught the basics in order to make things on her own using her own ingenuity to benefit herself and others.** And then the housekeeper makes her go outside and play tennis in the fresh air. Really, I can't fault any of it. It's certainly the sort of life I'd try to provide (aside from the hallucinations) for little Euphemia Gladys, my hypothetical daughter.

Mary Frances certainly benefits and within days she's turning out finished objects. Good thing, too. She has this lisping brat of a baby doll, Mary Marie, who unfortunately keeps coming to life to say things like "Mama, foots told," and then Mary Frances has to drop whatever she's doing and crochet a damn pair of slippers. Every five minutes, Mary Marie wants something to cover her cold feet or her cold ears or her cold butt or whatever. And just when Mary Frances gets her warmly dressed, she starts whining for a book bag, a toy ball...it never ends.

I wouldn't be surprised Mary Frances often secretly suspected that Aunt Maria's lonely spinsterhood might be a pleasant alternative to having children.

I need hardly tell you that The Mary Frances Knitting and Crocheting Book, or Adventures Among the Knitting People has, in short order, become one of the treasured gems in my collection. In fact, Lacis has reprinted the sewing book as well and I plan to put it on my wish list. I'm hoping it'll give me a little more dirt on Aunt Maria.

*I first encountered Mary Frances when I pulled a copy of the sewing book out of a pile of garbage (where the weight of the stuff on top was canting the spine) in the rare books room at The Strand in New York City. I asked one of the dim-bulb twentysomethings who worked there to give me a price, which (after a forty-minute wait) he did–rudely. It was standard, marked up by 60%. Too rich for my blood. Frankly, I liked the rare books room at The Strand better when it was staffed by people who loved books instead of young dolts who would better spend their time organizing the goddamned stock instead of surfing the Internet.

**The end of the book even includes patterns for wartime Red Cross knitting.

65 comments:

Sue said...

OMG this is hilarious!

Bobbi said...

Mary Frances, Aunt Maria, and Mary Marie...must've been a good Catholic family!
Welcome back and thanks for sharing!!

Lara said...

I have a paperback copy of this book that I bought on clearance at Hobby Lobby a couple years ago. I think it's charming. You comments on the aunt are revealing, though. ;)

materfamilias said...

Named Frances Mary in the early 1950s, I was regularly called Mary Frances and now I wonder if this series of books had something to do with that. And I have to agree with bobbi re the Catholicism -- in my family, all the girls got some version of Mary (Marie, Miriam, etc.) inserted into our names somewhere!

Anna-Liza said...

That is one of the best book reviews I've seen in a while! Now I want the book--my 6 year old wants to learn to knit and he loves to read!

Andrea R said...

Ooo! I have the sewing one with the dolls! It's a reprint as well, softcover, and came with the patterns for all the dolly outfits.

It's a delightful read, a lot thicker than you'd think.

if anyone can snag either one of these books somewhere, it's totally worth it. (mine was a gift)

I also have the Pictorial Guide To Needlework, which is form teh 40's and was my grandmother's. It has some great sewing AND knitting chapters in there. wish I had a scanner.

knitography said...

That is awesome. Now I feel like going to my local used book store and digging around for goodies!

Cindy said...

You CRACK me up. Especially the paragraph on Mary Marie, that dam doll. My bookcase is over flowing, but now I need another! Thanks FH PS Love the Ravelry photo.

Mel said...

Oh my. I may need to get copies for myself and my aunt Fran (who goes by Mary to everyone outside the family). She'd love it, I'm pretty sure.

lesbianhousewyfe said...

What fun! And I love the name of your imaginary child. Mine is Esther Jezebel.
The story of The Strand just reminded me of my folder of crochet, knit and sewing books from the 40s through the 60s that my sister-in-law just dropped off. She works at a consignment store and an older lady brought them in. Lucky for me, the store didn't think anyone would pay for them! Woo-hoo!

MollyBeees said...

Hi Franklin! Thanks for the comment on my blog! I got the sock blockers in ebay from a place called Chappy's (http://stores.ebay.com/CHAPPYS-FIBER-ARTS-AND-CRAFTS_W0QQ_trksidZp1638.m118.l1247) I think they can put practically anything on the top, but I picked the moose because of my home state of Maine.

PS-I had a copy of this book as a child. I'll have to ask Mum where it went. What if it was an original version?!? Haven't thought of it in years!Thanks for the memory jog!

Roggey said...

A friend gave this to me as a gift a few years ago for my birthday (paperback version) - I thought Aunt Maria was a hoot. And I was surprised the damn yarn doll didn't end up in the garden - if you know what I mean...

Aidan said...

OOOH! I know! Why don't we put on a show? We can stage it for Stitches Midwest.

Can I be Yarn Baby? Please please please please please?

Too bad Dolores is too young (cough) to play Aunt Maria...does there happen to be a part for a hairy tipsy slut with style?

And then, after the film comes out, when we are all nominated for Academy Awards, we'll all wear knitwear to the ceremony.

I have my acceptance already written: "I'd like to thank Elizabeth Zimmerman, Charlene Schurtch, and Brenda Dayne. Yonkele, Dolores, Harry and the rest of the crew -- just the best group of people a knitter could hope to work with. The people at Benetton, who kept the flame alive...Thank you. I know I'm forgetting someone. And I'd like to dedicate this award to Gladys Amedro, who died before her time, but whose artistry lives on."

Diana said...

Did you happen to see that Lacis also has a repro of the sewing bird from THE MARY FRANCES SEWING BOOK available in their novelty section? Just adorable.

JanKnitz said...

I hope you wait until poor little Abby is at least 3 before you start rapping her knuckles and telling her that she can't go out to play until she finishes just one more row, Auntie Franklin Marie!

LOL, I've always been tempted to get this book and maybe now I will.

=Tamar said...

Ouch, those enormous knitting needles held like pencils! Carpal tunnel in the making. I bet she only knits doll-sized stuff because, like me, when holding them that way she can't figure out how to get more than five stitches on the needle between the tip and her thumb.

More Aunt Maria!

mad angel said...

Franklin, what a hoot! I bought a paperback copy for my youngest daughter a few years ago. I'm going to order her to find it for me, since I doubt she will ever read it at this point. She seems to have forgotten all about the pleasures of spinning and knitting. (Well, I TRIED to bring her up right...sigh...)

Aunt Maria sounds a lot like my mother. Ulp.

Must check it out anyway. Ulp. [involuntary eyebrow twitching sets in]

Marin (AntiM) said...

"...she should have been a rag doll."

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

*sniff*

Lynne said...

That's the best book review I've read in a loooong, looooooong time! It even achieved the objective of making me want to go out and buy the damn thing!

Jeanne said...

Nowadays we have medicines for that sort of thing

OMG, Franklin, this is the funniest darned thing I've read in ages! It's hard to believe that stories of blatant child abuse and psychosis used to pass as suitable children's literature and craft instruction. LOL!

Knitting Painter Woman said...

I could use more fairy friends. Glad these hve been re-issued!

LaurieM said...

Reminds me of Louisa May Alcott. She wrote far more than Little Women, and somehow I've been drawn in to reading most of it.

Kristen said...

Oh this is simply precious! I love your proto-feminist spin on it, heh.

Carson said...

Ah, such strange cosiness.
Aunt Maria sounds rather Methodist to me..do you think she wuold be seeking solace in medicinal brandy?

TheAmpuT said...

That's what I need. A knitting fairy.
I knew something was wrong.
I wonder how many kids actually learned to knit from the book? I learned from an illustrated kids book when I was 7, but it lacked the drama of this one. I wonder if I would have picked up the needles with this book though! I think it may have scared me off!

On another note: I have lived local to Laci's for over two decades now, and still have never managed to make it in there. Thanks for reminding me that I really must remedy that.

dale-harriet said...

Oh my yes, this has been a favorite of mine for ages! But I haven't reread it recently...hang on, I'll be right back.

OK, I found it, now I *willI* reread it. I agree with you; I'm of the "a little one-on-one time with a wooden spoon builds character" school - and my children have a great deal of character in spite of very LITTLE one-on-one time aforementioned. (I'm madly sorting through the wardrobe to decide what to wear when I meet you next month in Eau Claire....and I refuse to be held responsible for my reaction when I do so. Just sayin'.)

quinn said...

Flying fairy Fairly Flew. Flying fairy fairly few. Flying flairy fairy few. Fairly flying...
oh fluck.

manic knitter said...

Oh, I love the entire series of Mary Francis books. Especially the hallucinations. The price on them has went up quite a bit since I collected them several years ago but all of them are still floating about out there, bossy thimbles, bossy needles, and hateful Aunt Maria included. I just noticed that Amazon was stocking them the other day. The doll you will find, is never satisfied. Not with her knits, not with an entire wardrobe. Nothing satisfies that selfish doll. I bet she was a gift from Aunt Marie.

AuntieAnn said...

I love it that the author's first two names are (practically) -- Jane Eyre. Mary Frances isn't an orphan, but it seems as though she might as well be.

grrlmonster said...

i... must... have... this.

end of story.

thanks for opening my eyes to this.

c.

Susan said...

Aunt Maria reminds me a bit of my late great-aunt Vesper Belle. She was more of a gardener, though. She would pay a child twenty-five cents for digging out a bushel of dandelions.

No brandy for Aunt Ves, though. No, indeed. Her people were temperance folk. One one memorable Christmas call, she unbent enough to allow my father (her favorite nephew) to coax her to take a thimbleful of sherry with her slice of fruitcake.

These days, dolly would be named Dolly Madison and asking for Abercrombie clothes and a Wii.

Jenna said...

If this style of book tickles your fancy, please check out another in the series (this one is about the kitchen folk) at http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/books/book_64.cfm

It even has all the illustrations scanne in.

woolywoman said...

I love old books, too. But I was disturbed by the racist yarn baby thing in this book, historically correct, maybe, but still racist. It took the bloom off the rose, as it were. Good call on the Mary Marie dolly. She's like a freaking condom advertisement.

Paper Tiger said...

There was a time when the people at the strand were not horribly cranky? I love the stories of Old New York. :)

I remember going to sell books there once and having the owner ask me, "What are you doing with your *good* books?"

Tikabelle said...

I knew my parents didn't name me Maria for nothing!

Anonymous said...

Aunt Maria sounds like the nuns that we had back in grammar school. Scary.....

Mary said...

I have the the Knitting/Crochet book, the Sewing and the Cooking book. As you say, they are delightful. And my full name is Mary Frances, so my family things I need to have these. Lucky me.

Will Pillage For Yarn said...

Oh we love the Mary Frances books! I can't believe I didn't have this one. Thanks for posting, I gotta get this one for our collection! :-)

Seanna Lea said...

I love old books, and the art on the cover reminds me of the older art for the Little Women books.

I'll have to check it out. It looks like a keeper to me.

FiberQat said...

Mary Frances, who at this point in her twelve years on earth has already dealt with talking thimbles, brooms and garden implements is not remotely surprised and goes along with it.

Then the hormones hit and after she poisoned Aunt Maria with arsenic she ran off with a biker named Dutch Marie and knitted her a bike cozy.

La Cabeza Grande said...

Thanks for enriching my mental library. I'd never heard of this series before. The shame of course is that i consider myself fairly well-read.

OT: Me love Euphemia Gladys! My imaginary child is named Helvetica Humbert.

tricotchick said...

I love it when you talk about books. What a treasure you've found! I'd love to hear more about Aunt Maria also!

What a wonderful post. Thank you Franklin!

Kathy said...

Fabulous find, Franklin; I've got to get my hands on it: My Mom is Mary Frances and I suspect her mother was *not* raised right plus I have a group of knitting elementary students who might enjoy some of that business!

And what a coincidence! My best friend is also a Fairy!

TO in SP said...

Soooo ... you're saying I SHOULD listen to the voices and do what they say because it will lead to self improvement?

Anonymous said...

LOL!

Thank you for this hysterical book. I may have to buy it myself . . .

Scienceprincess

MamaDeb said...

I adore Mary Frances. I spent a year looking for a copy of her first book, where she learns how to cook from the Kitchen People (first recipe? Toast!), and I now own a first edition. Cost me a pretty penny and entirely worth it.

I happen to have just finished rereading my facsimile of the knit and crochet book - I also own the sewing and the housekeeping ones in facsimile - and I love Aunt Maria. I think she's slipping hallucinogens into Mary Frances' morning tea and doing the real teaching.

(And, yes. Mary Maria is extremely annoying.)

Book had me picking up a crochet hook to make a petticoat for a doll I do not own. :)

Eldronius said...

Thank you so much for sharing this "gem" as you call it. I find old stories like that very warming, and I may have to try and get a copy for myself.

firefly said...

Mary Frances, Aunt Maria, and Mary Marie...must've been a good Catholic family!

In my family, there was a Margaret, then a Mary, then a Margaret, then a Mary ... kind of like an Irish Goodfellas, with the Peter and Paul thing.

Our best friends were leprechauns.

Kate said...

I've always envisioned a future with my shawl and my bitterness to keep me warm. You really need to practice to get a good warm bitterness, though. None of this half-arsed whiney sort.

The cover of that book is giving me flashbacks to a series of books I used to havem, involving the adventures (in rhyme, natch) of a band of sticky, chubby little children, adn then the elegant sylphs they turned into, whose idea of an exciting evening was playing 'hide the slipper'

Hmmm... I wonder what happened to those books?

Also, the damn doll's attitude reminds me of my sister - on teh one hand, it's nice to knit for someone who appreciates your work. On the other hand... knit it your d**m self!

The Mad Crocheter said...

This book has shot up to #11 on Amazon's crochet bestsellers list. Behold the power of Franklin!

Rosi G. said...

Euphemia Gladys? You sure you're not part Mexican, or maybe Dominican??

I'm Dominican. I have aunts with all kinds of crazy names. One, Aproniana (I can't remember her two middle names cuz they're too hard to spell), was quickly shortened to Aniana. Neither of those two names would've helped the child survive in any school in the good ol' U. S. of A. these days.

And Aunt Maria - she's definitely one of my aunts, too. :P

Sea said...

Lovely post, I enjoy old children's books myself. Especially "how to" books.

Am I the only one who's rather startled when Franklin swears?

Mary Frances said...

Hi Franklin,

I have all the Mary Frances books (and a set of note cards with Mary Frances illustrations on them) bought because I thought they would look cute on my shelves, me being named Mary Frances, but I never really read any of them. I'm making a beeline to do that now, thanks to your hysterical review. Who knew I had such treasures just sitting around?

Through my childhood I just went by "Mary" - until I got to college (a Catholic women's college) where everyone else was named "Mary". There everyone had to go by both first and second names or no one would know who was who. So I changed from Mary to Mary Frances.

We have no spinster Aunt Maria's in our family but we do have a spinster Aunt Kate who, in her youth, worked as a nurse for an eye surgeon. Because of her position, she was in possession of a glass eye. My sisters and I never learned any dometic skils from Aunt Kate who had none (and who's now 85 and still has none, but she would let us shine her shoes in exchange for getting to play with the glass eye.

What kind of "people" would I have halucinated while staying with Aunt Kate were I a little more perceptive or had Aunt Kate allowed me more than a few sips of her nightly beers? Hmmm, care to collaborate on a new set of Mary Frances books for a new generation?

P.S. Does little Euphemia Gladys looks as cute as your niece? How about including her in your portrait for the new book so we can see? I can just see her with her little crook staff thing leading Dolores to school with her!! Euphemia Gladys had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb....

KnittingPuppy said...

I've ordered one for myself now! I bought from Alibris.com .... much less expensive and many more available than at Amazon.

Krista McCurdy said...

I had to laugh at this-- my partner is an antique book dealer and I think we have a copy of this book-- certainly we have a bunch of the other Mary Frances books. www.handsomebooks.com.

I wrote the descriptions for all the books we have on the website, but frankly I think you would have done a much better job.

kmkat said...

Little Mary Frances is holding that right needle like a pencil. Was that how Fairly Flew the Fairy taught her? For shame, FF, for shame.

I for one think you would raise delightfully cynical and intelligent children. (Just like mine, in fact :-)

StashDiva said...

Thanks for the review, somehow Aunt Maria made me remember an old move Tatie Danielle that is about a rather nasty aunt. I think I will have to buy this book, I wish I had one when my kids were growing up then I could have made treats about buying them that bloody doll ( they would have driven the aunt to day drinking without braking a sweat,so no threat there )

jeanfromcornwall said...

I have the sewing book - original not facsimile. Just opened it at random - Mary Frances is going to make a fur lined cape for the doll - and she went and overruled the Scissors, who thought she would want to use the cat for the fur lining.

This is a book for children?

Sahara said...

You know, I forgot about this book! Ancestors, I had loaned my copy out; bad business.

I have to revisit it. Thanks!

Thistle said...

Mary Frances learns real skills using real tools and is taught the basics in order to make things on her own using her own ingenuity to benefit herself and others.

Which is why I enjoyed the Waldorf school my kids attended (K-8) for so many years. Handwork is part of the curriculum -- and not as an afterthought, either.

Jade said...

This is great! I never knew there was a knitting/crochet book in the series. I have my great grandmother's copy of the sewing book and I used to make doll clothing from it all the time when I was younger (Mary Marie is terribly needy indeed). Your review was hilarious though. Thanks so much for sharing!

TuesdayFortnite said...

Not only do I want this book, I NEED this book.

That and I have to rename my favourite crochet hook.

YarnYenta said...

I love these books. I loved reading them to my girls. We bought them boxes filled with sewing and knitting equipment and let them "play". The older 2 girls sewed skirts for the younger 2 girls plus all their dolls.

my 15 yr old now knits, crochets, weaves, spins on her own wheel and spindles....and they hide fairy treats for the 6 yr old.
i totally blame mary frances!

Flying fairy Fairly Flew.
thamks for sharing the article!

AztecQueen2000 said...

Read the sewing book, if you haven't yet. Aunt Maria scolds her for leaving the sewing room a mess and then very fussily teaches Mary Frances how to make buttonholes, thus inciting the wrath of all the Thimble People.

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