I'm afraid my regularly scheduled short story post is being preempted. After a busy week it's been a busy weekend and not much reading has been done (not even as much as I dare). I am in the middle of a New Yorker story (very interesting one by Jess Row) though a little on the long side. The next Stefan Zweig story is also quite log, so I am not sure I'll read it next or skip around a bit in my collection. This is how it starts:
"Grey mist lay low over Antwerp, enveloping the city entirely in its dense and heavy swathes. The Shapes of houses were blurred in the fine, smoky vapour, and you could not see to the end of the street, but overhead there was ringing in the air, a deep sound like the word of God coming out of the clouds, for the muted voices of bells in the church towers, calling their congregations to prayer, had also merged in the great, wild sea of mist filling the cit and the countryside around, and encompassing the restless, softly roaring waters of the sea far away in the harbour."
Shall I keep reading? Hmm. I hope to catch up on my short story post later in the week. In the meantime I have been reading Stefan Zweig's novella, Fear, which I am finding very good going. Mostly though, I have been working on this week's class reading, Ron Leshem's Beaufort which reminds me a lot of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which is one of my favorite books. The Leshem book is so far, very good as well.
I do, however, have something of interest to share in the meantime that I came across in my reading this past week. I already mentioned how much I am liking Jill Lepore's Book of Ages, and both of the Franklins. What I love about reading nonfiction (one of the things anyway), is all the things I learn about people and places and history. Things I sort of knew (sometimes didn't know at all, too) peripherally. Lately I have been coming across words that are long established in my own vocabulary but that I have never thought of in terms of where they came from. Their own histories and hidden meanings. I keep meaning to jot them down and make note of them, but mostly I file the information away somewhere to retrieve at a later date.
Today, though, I make note of the word here. I've always known the word spinster means an unmarried woman--normally of an age where she is not so very marriageable anymore. Have you ever wondered where the word got its meaning? In one of Benjamin Franklin's letters to his sister, written when he had just turned twenty-one he told her he wished to send her a gift. "I had almost determined on a tea table but when I considered the character of a good housewife was far preferable to to that of being only a pretty gentlewoman, I concluded to send you a spinning wheel." According to Lepore this was a joke. A tea table would have been a huge extravagance, the sort only posh ladies would have. But he wasn't about to send her a spinning wheel either.
"Whether a girl warranted a gift of a tea table wor a spinning wheel was a measure of her virtue. The table was a symbol of female vanity, the spinning wheel a symbol of female chastity. 'Who can find a vertuous woman?' asks Proverbs 31. 'She layeth her handes to the spindle, and her handes hold the distaffe'."
At the time Benjamin was living in London and leading a somewhat decadent lifestyle. Did you know that the "wanton tea table" and the "virginal spinning wheel' were the subject of early eighteenth-century satire? In a 1702 poem by Edward Ward the city madam is:
. . . ripe to be undone
Loosing at last, so little in her Care,
Her Virgin Treasure on a Founder'd Chair
(Because she does not spin)
. . . bred,
Scarce knowing Hemp from Flax, or Yarn from Thread
While the virtuous country maid spends all her time spinning:
Her Needle, Bobbins, Knitting Pins, or Reel,
Some new Device, or the old Spinning Wheel
Are still Employ'd, and with Content Caress'd
So, a woman who spins is a virtuous woman, a virgin. A Spinster! I never thought of a woman who was an 'old maid', an unmarried woman as being one who spent her time in such a virtuous activity as opposed to those adventurous ladies with decadent tea tables and their intrigues!
Interesting, I thought! Something new tomorrow, however. (Though this is not the end of my fascination with the world Lepore is writing about I suspect). And short stories later in the week.