Updated: May 5, 2020
Written for the Jane Austen Society of India
“As soon as all had ate, and the elder ones paid, the carriage was ordered; and after some contrivance, the whole party, with all their boxes, work-bags, and parcels, and the unwelcome addition of Kitty's and Lydia's purchases, were seated in it.
--Pride and Prejudice
If Jane Austen were writing this scene today for a 21st century audience, she would have listed the items to be stuffed into the minivan (instead of carriage) as duffles, wheelie suitcases, backpacks, and shopping bags. These ubiquitous items would be immediately recognizable to us -- no one would need to be informed as to what a “duffle” is. If we were two hundred years in the future we might guess from the situation that it was a specific type of bag to hold personal items but we wouldn’t have a sense of how big it is, what material it was made of, soft or hard sided, and who typically would have used it.
We have the same problem with reading Jane Austen. She wrote for contemporary audiences who shared the same experiences and cultural frames of reference. As a modern audience, we can make some general inferences about the items she’s listing, we don’t really know what a “box” is or a “work-bag.” We know that she’s not referring to an amazon cardboard shipping box and the “work-bag” she lists is actually a very specific item owned by almost all women during her era. Janeites, those of us who love Austen and really delve into the details of her writing, strive to learn the subtleties of what she’s referring to and truly understand the world of her characters. We can do that with “work-bags.” And remember, a work bag is a slightly larger item as compared to a reticule, the small, delicate bag carried on your person (not listed by Jane as one of the items being packed into the carriage).
There are actually a number of extant work-bags in museum collections from Jane’s and previous eras so we can get a sense of the size, shape, and look of this critical item.
As we’ve discussed in an earlier blog post, the term “work” was abbreviated from “needlework.” Jane herself talks about her mother’s needlework: “My mother is very well, and finds great amusement in glove-knitting, and at present wants no other work,” meaning “needlework.”
All this work and the tools, the hanks and skeins of thread, the needles, the needle keeper or needle book, and the scissors would need to be contained and somewhat portable.
Anyone who does any type of needlework knows that you go where the light is. Additionally, women of this period would be working almost all the time, no matter what their class. If they weren’t writing letters, directing work in the kitchen or garden, teaching or supervising the education of younger people in their household, they would be plying their needle. Whether they were making shirts as Jane did for her brothers with fine hand sewing, or practical work such as darning stockings, or fine needlework such as samplers, pictures, or cushion and chair covers.
Work bags and their contents would have gone with women not just from room to room but from house to house as they visited friends and relatives across the countryside. And so we see Jane and Elizabeth, Kitty and Lydia shoving themselves into the carriage on their final leg home to Longbourn, with their luggage and their ever-present work bag for their needlework.