Analysis of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Needlecase

This short story was published in Elizabeth Bowen’s 1941 collection Look at All Those Roses. “The Needlecase” recounts the arrival of Miss Fox, a young seamstress, at the home of the Forresters, a formerly aristocratic family that no longer has the means to keep up the family home or the manner of living expected of them. They have hired Miss Fox to give their home and their clothes a semblance of wealth in order to help woo the heiress to whom the currently absent eldest son Arthur has become attached: “Everyone knew, Arthur knew, that Arthur must marry money.” This, it is made clear, is but the latest in a series of eligible young women that Arthur has hoped to marry, and his absence throughout the narrative is portrayed as typical of the young man, whose duty is essentially to be agreeable to others in the hope that this will one day make him his fortune.

The Forresters are able to afford the seamstress’s services only because she, too, has fallen into desperate circumstances: She has an illegitimate child she is working to support. The family is both fascinated by the newcomer and her story and eager for her services; one of the daughters, Toddy, rushes to the attic where Miss Fox has been installed, bringing her dresses in need of repair. As Miss Fox looks over the work at hand, Toddy inspects the seamstress’s belongings, most notably the needlecase of the title. “ ‘As large as a family Bible,’ said Toddy, pleased. And like a family Bible, it had a photo stuck inside.” The photograph is of the woman’s illegitimate son, and the seamstress soon snatches the needlecase away. The family continues to discuss the two matters at hand: the scandalous story of their current visitor, and their current misery while waiting for the money that will be the result of Arthur’s potential marriage. When the second daughter, Angela, comes to speak to the mysterious Miss Fox, she is told a story: Miss Fox has met the absent Arthur at another house where she was employed. He asked her for one of her sewing dummies to use in a game, and despite her best judgment (“I should have known better; I ought to have known my place.”), she lent it to him. The dummy fell and was damaged, and though Arthur was sorry, he never made amends, and Miss Fox’s reputation suffered. While telling this tale, the seamstress offers her needlecase to Angela, who is repairing a stocking, and the photograph inside takes on new significance: The boy in the picture is the very image of Arthur himself.

The device of using a family that has lost its wealth and the ancestral home that is slowly bankrupting them is a recurrent theme in Bowen’s work, and though it is never explicitly stated, this theme undoubtedly alludes to the decaying situation of the Anglo-Irish (portrayed in such Bowen novels as The Last September, A World of Love, The House in Paris, and The Heat of the Day as well as in short stories such as “The Back Drawing- Room,” “Her Table Spread,” “Sunday Afternoon,” and “A Day in the Dark”). Analyses of “The Needlecase” often focus on the strong implications of class hierarchy: The name of the main character, after all, alludes to the fox hunt, one of the aristocracy’s favorite ways of amusing themselves. However, as the conclusion of the short story makes clear, the character is associated not only with animals but also with objects: She substitutes herself for the dummy in her story, a comparison reinforced by the narrator’s description of the character as “sculpted” and “carven.” Indeed, the other principal character in the story is wholly object: The family home is both the setting of the narrative and the motivation and justification for the action. The description of it as “a disheartened edition of Mansfield Park” obviously refers to the Austen novel of the same name and further emphasizes the importance of class distinctions in the story. Like Mr. Bertram, absent while attending to his plantations, Arthur resorts to questionable means to keep the family home in existence; like Fanny Price, Miss Fox is both accepted and kept apart from the aristocratic family with whom she has a close bond. (Acknowledged or not, her son represents the next generation of Forresters.) The difference in the fortunes of the Austen and Bowen heroines suggests that in Ireland, the breach between the Protestant ascendancy and their Irish neighbors cannot be easily “patched up,” even by the talented seamstress.

Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. London: Vintage, 1999.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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