I have spent part of the morning looking at a very interesting object in the Textiles and Fashion collection. It is a manuscript, written in rhyme, by a girl named Anne Sanders Wilson. She wrote it for her sister, Mary Wilson, in October 1832. It is ten pages long and is inscribed in a precise, tidy hand (all joined-up), and it tells the eponymous Miss Wildfire’s tale. A reader would be right to expect a story about a girl who’s named after cruel, frightening, uncontrollable burning destruction to be a bit of a sad one.
At the beginning, Miss Wildfire is a proud young lady, given whatever she wanted by her spendthrift wastrel of a father. She is, in her own words:
‘In ev’ry point I was his own true daughter
As if himself reflected in the water.
Above the common crowd I held my head,
And thought the vile earth honoured by my tread.’
She breaks the hearts of countless lovers, and indulges in a selfish love of expensive clothes and luxury. She does not listen to her friends’ pleas for modesty or for kindness. After a while, her ‘arrogance was checked’ by the death of her father, who leaves her with his debts and she is forced into beggary. She reaches a nadir when a milkmaid sets a vicious dog on her, though she is rescued by her former cook who gives her work as her maid.
Sadly, Miss Wildfire’s ugly pride again rears its head, and her haughtiness and lack of application means she’s forced out into the street by her ex-cook. She takes up with a band of gypsies for a while, before finding a group of kindly Quakers under a tree, who teach her how to make lace. She finally becomes humble, and marries a ‘precise, demure, upright’ Quaker, and ends with the warning, which still troubles her:
‘“Pride, as the wise man saith, is fit for no man
“And surely then, ‘tis most unfit for Woman.’
Miss Wildfire is far from a sympathetic character, and her purpose is to be a moralistic parable for the old proverb ‘pride comes before a fall’. If, as a teenager, my sister had written for me a preachy, poetic essay on how I should behave at a young age, I’d have suspected her of being a goody-two-shoes and would have told her where she could stick it. The fact that this object is intact and in beautiful condition would suggest that young Mary Wilson was quite touched by it, and kept it carefully. I suppose there were big differences in the world, and the decorum shown between teenagers, between 1832 and 2002.
The story is accompanied by a number of paper dolls; two heads (with different hairstyles), sixteen dresses and two hats. All are painstakingly detailed, hand-painted by Anne Sanders Wilson to illustrate the tale. I am based at the Clothworkers’ Centre usually once a week, overseeing study appointments. The best thing about about being here is the opportunity to view objects up-close, and learning about them first-hand. This morning was a particular treat as it provided the chance to see a remarkable object, made out of devotion and animated by a literary imagination and sharp manual skill. It also, once again, demonstrated the wonderful eclecticism of the V&A’s collections and I hope it will you, reader, wondering what else might be in the 7000-or-so drawers here at Blythe House.