Stitching the Nelson Quilt – Our Hero Emerges

Since I first wrote about the Nelson Quilt in August, I have stitched together nearly 700 of the total of 3,200 one inch squares, and it is very exciting to see the Admiral emerging.

Nelson on the Wall

Close up, he is virtually impossible to see; the piece looks like a random collection of squares, but earlier today, I borrowed a wall, hung him up and, with enough distance, took a good look at Nelson’s face.

The Nelson Quilt is forcing me to work in a whole new way. I’m usually quite relaxed in my approach to stitching. I buy varying lengths of fabric that I like, with no firm idea about how to use it. I pick out swatches at random, and make up patterns as I go. The Nelson Quilt is different. I have to be very organised. The fabric is all labelled and, as it is cut down to make one inch squares, it is colour coded and stored in separate boxes. The template papers are subject to a complex system of numbering. Even the threads, mostly in various shades of brown, are stored on a special stand so I can quickly match up the colours.

Nelson at a street party in Penge

Nelson at a street party in Penge

To begin with, I was worried about losing track of pieces and kept the Nelson Quilt strictly indoors, but as I have become more confident about the project, he has started to go out and about. I pieced his hair on the way to the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, and worked on his coat while on a train to Rochester for second hand book shopping (appropriately, I picked up an excellent dictionary of sailors’ slang). He has been sewn at a street party in Penge, and I joined sections together on the beach at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, before taking him back to Portsmouth Harbour.

Sewing Nelson on Ventnor Beach

Sewing Nelson on Ventnor Beach

Waiting to cross the Solent to Portsmouth Harbour

Waiting to cross the Solent to Portsmouth Harbour

I conceived this project after viewing Maurice Elvey’s biographical film, Nelson, made in 1918. Elvey’s film made me think about Nelson’s place in popular culture and I started to seek out Nelson-related artefacts. The collections at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich include 3,742 pieces of Nelsonalia – a good place to start. Significant pieces are on display in the Nelson, Navy, Nation exhibition, but there are many more Nelson vases, figurines, paintings, medals, snuff boxes and other  items in the care of the Museum. They also look after a small number of celebratory and commemorative textile items.

Dress Flounce was embroidered in honour of Nelson and worn by Emma, Lady Hamilton at Palermo in 1799. A sewer called Mary Lupson made a Sampler that showed off her skill with satin stitch, cross stich, French knots and cord stitch and incorporated the words “Nelson – hero of the Nile – 1799.” A Silk Picture, possibly made from a commercially available pattern, depicts Nelson’s coffin and the funeral carriage on which it was taken through the streets of London. A Snuff Handkerchief commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar and depicts the formation of the Fleet as well as reproducing Nelson’s famous signal “England expects every man to do his duty.” And so on.

I could spend hours going through the collection and picking out favourite objects – they really are fascinating.

I am finding lots of inspiration for the Nelson Quilt in these artefacts – and when I think of Mary Lupson sewing her sampler in 1799, I like to think I’m part of a community of stitchers that reaches across the centuries.

Sewing Regency Romance with Georgette Heyer

Regency Plate Blocks

I like to listen to audiobooks while I sew. Charles Dickens, Hilary Mantel and Josephine Tey are all in my listening library; another author who also features strongly is Georgette Heyer. The drama of Devil’s Cub, the humour of The Unknown Ajax, the tribulations of April Lady – all these make good quilting accompaniment.

Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) was an incredibly prolific writer, with 40 historical novels and 12 thrillers to her name. Her most popular books are her Regency romances. Many people do not take Heyer’s work seriously, but her books are engaging and well written, and her background research impressive. Heyer was a thorough researcher and stickler for authenticity. She kept meticulous, extensive notebooks about the historical periods about which she wrote. These notebooks were filled with her drawings and references relating to styles of dress, types of carriages, and even slang usage.

Given my listening habits, I was delighted to find some Regency Costume Panels at Quilters Trading Post which immediately reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s heroines.

Georgette Heyer Block

Could this be Sylvester’s Phoebe? Or The Grand Sophy? I don’t think it is my favourite heroine, Horatia from The Convenient Marriage,  but it could be Regency Buck’s Judith.

Despite their popularity, hardly any Heyers have been adapted for film or television. There is a German television version of Arabella and a British film adaptation of The Reluctant Widow, directed by Bernard Knowles and released in 1950.

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

In principle, Heyer was keen for her novels to be filmed, partly as a way of easing her financial worries. Unfortunately, she found the filming of The Reluctant Widow an unpleasant experience. Her 1984 biographer Jane Aiken Hodge, quotes Heyer thus: “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham [Studios], and am trying to think what I can do about it. I feel as though a slug had crawled over me … They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” Perhaps Kent’s earlier ‘bad-girl’ roles in films such as Caravan and Good Time Girl influenced Heyer’s perception.

Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography reveals that Heyer wanted her name removed from the film because: “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting that it is putting me right off the stroke.”

The Reluctant Widow

Heyer failed to have her name removed: the opening titles of the film read: “Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe in The Reluctant Widow. Based on the novel by Georgette Heyer.” She did not see the film herself, but her son did – and walked out, furious, half way through.

Had Heyer seen the film, she may well have found it turgid rather than salacious; there is no chemistry between Jean Kent and Guy Rolfe as Elinor and Lord Carlyon; and the novel’s exciting sub plot about French spies is rendered dull, even though the usually excellent Kathleen Byron is one of the plotters. The character of Nicky – one of Heyer’s impeccable comic creations – is no longer an irrepressible youth sent down from Oxford University following a prank involving a bear, but a callow boy who wouldn’t play a prank of any kind.

So, if you don’t know Georgette Heyer, I wouldn’t waste time seeking out this poor film adaptation, but go straight to the novel – Heyer’s irresistible take on the Gothic romance. Or better still, get an audiobook and sew along to it.

Reluctant Widow Editions