The Curious Case of the Mysterious Spinning Wheels

Last week I had to have oral surgery, and in between doses of pain medication, I reached for some light fiction from the public domain – three books that featured spinning wheels as plot devices.  It was interesting to see the change in how the spinning wheels were viewed in books from different eras.  (There was very little actual textile information in any of these books, but in case you are interested in textile processing in the past, I copied an account of bleaching linen thread at the end of the post.)

Here are the books:

In the first book, Helen and Arthur, or Miss Thusa’s Spinning Wheel, the spinning wheel features often in the story and is integral to the plot.  If you had to pick a typical Victorian novel, this would be a good choice.  Most of the female characters are humble paragons of virtue, and the male characters are strong and distant.  Two weak, self-seeking characters (one male, one female) throw vengeful complications in everyone else’s way, resulting in more opportunity for moral instruction.

There is a lot of lofty language like this,  a description of the heroine’s brother when he returns home from college:

…temptations, which a colder temperament might have resisted, often held him in ignoble vassalage. Now inhaling the hallowed atmosphere of home, all the pure influences of his boyhood resumed their empire over his heart—and he wondered that he could ever have mingled with the grosser elements of society.

Ah, “ignoble vassalage” – why don’t I ever get a chance to use phrases like this?

Against this background of flat Victorian characters there is one who is unpredictable. The spinster Miss Thusa is unlike any other fictional character I can think of, and she provides a stark contrast to the syrupy tone of the rest of the book.

She was so original and eccentric, had such an inexhaustible store of ghost stories and fairy tales, sang so many crazy old ballads, that children gathered round her, as a Sibylline oracle, and mothers, who were not troubled with a superfluity of servants, were glad to welcome one to their household who had such a wondrous talent for amusing them, and keeping them still. In spite of all her oddities, she was respected for her industry and simplicity, and a certain quaint, old-fashioned, superstitious piety, that made a streak of light through her character.

Grateful for the kindness and hospitality so liberally extended towards her, she never left a household without a gift of the most beautiful, even, fine, flaxen thread for the family use. Indeed the fame of her spinning spread far and wide, and people from adjoining towns often sent orders for quantities of Miss Thusa’s marvelous thread.

Miss Thusa is plain in looks and lifestyle, and set in her ways.  She sees herself as a simple God-fearing woman, and yet she tells wild stories of ghosts and doomed lovers, even when they frighten her audience.  I didn’t find her a likeable character, but it was a relief to encounter someone who must have been based on a real person instead of an ideal. (I have heard a toned-down version of one of her stories, “The Worm-Eaten Traveler.”  The version I heard was The Strange Visitor, and it includes spinning too, so I added the link.)

Miss Thusa’s author, Caroline Lee Hentz

Author Caroline Lee Hentz was 53 when this book was published, and only lived another three years.  I had never heard of her before.  With her Victorian descriptions of the “gentle, yet restraining influence which woman, in her purity and excellence, ever exerts,” and her superfluous adjectives, I dismissed her as a formula writer.  But it turns out that Hentz was pretty famous in her time.  She was friends with Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but wrote a novel to refute it, showing that leaders in the abolition movement were after personal gain instead of the good of society.  That novel is titled A Planter’s Northern Bride, and I think I will have to read it now.!

The second book, Spinning Wheel Stories, was published in 1884, 16 years after Little Women, and just four years before Louisa May Alcott’s death.  By this time the spinning wheel is just a device to link a group of short stories for children – in the frame story, a group of cousins on an extended holiday visit discover a spinning wheel in the attic.  They ask their grandmother to teach them to spin, and on successive evenings hear different tales.

As in Helen and Arthur, these stories are meant to instill values, but the language is much more direct and values seem more down-to-earth –  the children are urged to do honest work, enjoy simple pastimes, and get out in the fresh air.  There is one story about captive bears that is appalling by our standards, but some of the advice in the stories seems very modern, as when some finishing school students ask their teacher how they can be as energetic as she is – ” ‘Brisk runs are what you want, and less confectionery, sleep, and lounging in easy chairs,’ began Miss Orne, all ready to prescribe for these poor girls, the most important part of whose education had been so neglected.”

By the publication of the most recent book, The Riddle of the Spinning Wheel, in 1922, it seems that spinning wheels were so unfamiliar that authors could use them in nonsensical plot twists without readers protesting. Because no matter how little you know about spinning, I bet you know these two things about a spinning wheel –

  1. antique ones are made of wood.
  2. the wheel turns.
spinning wheel

This spinning wheel has some riddles of its own, that I will write about at a later date.

So, try to imagine how a spinning wheel like this could possibly be used as an instrument of murder.  (Anonymously, in a room full of people.)  And then, no matter what you come up with, I bet it would still make lots more sense than what the author came up with.  I am going to put their ridiculous ideas at the very bottom of the post.  And if you leave your own ideas in the comments, I will be entertained.

The Riddle is one of a series of books featuring investigator Hamilton Cleek, “the man of forty faces.”  (Author Thomas W. Hanshew died in 1914, so I would imagine his wife Mary E. Hanshew actually wrote this, just using his name for marketability.)

This book is a sort of combination of a Sherlock Holmes story, mixed with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.  Evil Italian stepmothers, poison plots, cranky Scottish lords, canny detective, helpful Cockney sidekick, gracefully fainting heroine, altered will, family curse, the works.  Here, let me let the heroine explain her case in her own words:

“Mr. Deland,” she said brokenly, “help me, please—please! I am in despair; every moment that passes! I am terribly afraid for Father’s life, even as I have told Mr. Narkom here. But there are some things which a woman cannot tell. Those things which she feels in her heart—and has no concrete facts with which to explain them. Father will die if you do not come to my rescue immediately. He will die, and by no natural means. I tell you, my father is being poisoned slowly, and because of his very taciturnity none of us can save him! Even now, as I sit here, something tells me that things are not right with him, or with Ross, my brother! All my life long I have had these premonitions. There must be gipsy blood in me, I think. But there it is. Oh, help me to save him, to save my brother Ross’s inheritance. And my blessing will go with you to the end of your days!”

To give you a further insight into the plot, a lot of it centers around the boot sizes of all the male characters.

I do not recommend this book, except if you are in the mood for a laugh, but just in case you are determined to read it, stop reading this post now!  I am going to put the long excerpt from Helen and Arthur about the linen bleaching, and after that is the spoiler about The Riddle of the Spinning Wheel.

*The only actual textile processing information in these three books is from Chapter Four of Helen and Arthur:

In the spring of the year, Miss Thusa always engaged in a very interesting process—that is, bleaching the flaxen thread which she had been spinning during the winter. She now made a permanent home at Mr. Gleason’s, and superintended the household concerns, pursuing at the same time the occupation to which she had devoted the strength and intensity of her womanhood.

There was a beautiful grassy lawn extending from the southern side of the building, with a gradual slope towards the sun, whose margin was watered by the clearest, bluest, gayest little singing brook in the world. This was called Miss Thusa’s bleaching ground, and nature seemed to have laid it out for her especial use. There was the smooth, fresh, green sward, all ready for her to lay her silky brown thread upon, and there was the pure water running by, where she could fill her watering pot, morning, noon and night, and saturate the fibres exposed to the sun’s bleaching rays. And there was a thick row of blossoming lilac bushes shading the lower windows the whole breadth of the building, in which innumerable golden and azure-colored birds made their nests, and beguiled the spinster’s labors with their melodious carrolings.

Helen delighted in assisting Miss Thusa in watering her thread, and watching the gradual change from brown to a pale brown, and then to a silver gray, melting away into snowy whiteness, like the bright brown locks of youth, fading away into the dim hoariness of age. When weary of dipping water from the wimpling brook, she would sit under the lilac bushes, and look at Miss Thusa’s sybilline figure, moving slowly over the grass, swaying the watering-pot up and down in her right hand, scattering ten thousand liquid diamonds as she moved. Sometimes the rainbows followed her steps, and Helen thought it was a glorious sight.

One day as Helen tripped up and down the velvet sward by her side, admiring the silky white skeins spread multitudinously there, Miss Thusa, gave an oracular nod, and said she believed that was the last watering, that all they needed was one more night’s dew, one more morning sun, and then they could be twisted in little hanks ready to be dispatched in various directions.

“I am proud of that thread,” said Miss Thusa, casting back a lingering look of affection and pride as she closed the gate. “It is the best I ever spun—I don’t believe there is a rough place in it from beginning to end. It was the best flax I ever had, in the first place. When I pulled it out and wound it round the distaff, it looked like ravelled silk, it was so smooth and fine. Then there’s such a powerful quantity of it. Well, it’s my winter’s work.”

Okay, from an elaborate account with actual historical information to the ridiculous detective story.  Here is the spoiler – The spinning wheel in the old lord’s library has been electrified, AND somehow part of it has been cut away, and a pistol hidden inside the secret compartment.  Then electricity is used to make the gun fire.  The investigators figure it out when one of them puts his hand on the wheel and gets a shock.  How does the wood conduct electricity?  And even if you could hide a pistol inside a spinning wheel, how would you make sure that it was aimed the right way, since the wheel turns?!!  I told you that whatever idea you came up with would be better!