More about "For Only One Short Hour"

Sr. Contributor

It seems almost impossible to find a Victorian novel or work of art that doesn’t either idealize or critique the role of the chaste, obedient, and housebound woman. For Only One Short Hour by Anna Elizabeth Blunden does the latter, and specifically calls attention to the injustices faced by working class women.

An alternative title for this painting is The Seamstress, because it depicts…a seamstress. Sewing was a common trope in Victorian art. In a time when women were meant to do very little, sewing was an accepted and encouraged activity. Think about it; sewing kept women inside, it required concentrated seriousness, obedient practice, and it contributed to the home. It’s no wonder that many Victorian works display the sewing woman as an ideal of purity and femininity. I believe the saying went, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and you can’t be bitchin’ if you’re stitchin’.”

High class women sewed to display their feminine accomplishments with fancy work: embroidery, knitting, and crocheting. The ability to produce fine fancy work was even a consideration during courtship for the middle and upper classes. Lower class women often learned fancy work, but typically dealt more in plain work: the making or mending of simple garments. As domestic jobs were essentially the only type available to women at this time, the working class girl was usually taught sewing in lieu of reading, writing, math etc. One can imagine that this lack of formal education did nothing but perpetuate a cycle of inescapable domestic work and poverty for lower class women. 

Such self-perpetuating penury is exactly what this painting is asking the viewer to scrutinize. The work is inspired by an 1843 poem by Thomas Hood called The Song of the Shirt, in which a seamstress laments working in inhumane conditions to just barely scrape by. Hood wrote the poem to bring attention to the plight of the working poor who often endured grueling physical labor in dangerous conditions. If you are thinking sewing doesn’t seem so bad, try holding a needle in a room without heat (because you can’t afford coal) in the English winter; squinting in the candlelight as you hunch over to get a closer look at the tiiiiny stitches you need to make hundreds of times in order to complete one shirt. You don’t get paid by the hour, but by the piece (aka piecework), so you have no choice but to finish X amount of shirts through the cold night so you can afford a loaf of bread. 

Hood based the poem on a widow he knew named Mrs. Biddell who, with no other means to support herself, was forced to sew day and night in order to provide for her starving children. The title of the painting comes from the poem’s line:

With the sky above my head,

And the grass beneath my feet

For only one short hour

To feel as I used to feel,

Before I knew the woes of want

And the walk that costs a meal!

In the painting, we see a woman pausing from mending a shirt to look out her window and pray. From the title’s source material, we can assume that she is praying to escape her work and go outside, even for a moment. It is notable that this industrious woman is depicted with an angelic expression, in spotless and simple attire. This very intentional depiction was meant to contrast the popular image of the poor as dirty, lazy, and ridiculous in order to gain the sympathy of the upper class viewer. Indeed, the poem makes it clear that it is intended to gain the sympathy of the rich with the lines: 

Stitch! stitch! Stitch!

In poverty, hunger, and dirt,

And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,—

Would that its tone could reach the Rich!

She sang this "Song of the Shirt!

The message of the poem and painting is more specifically about worker’s rights than gender politics. With that said, it is safe to assume that Blunden was deliberate in choosing the female subject of Hood’s poem to comment on disparity. Though from a lower-middle class background, she knew what it was to be placed in undesired gendered work. As the eldest of three daughters she had reluctantly trained and worked as a governess out of duty, not of her own volition. In this training she certainly would have experienced first hand the expectation on women to remain domestic, and the mere act of her leaving her governess gig to become a professional artist is proof of a belief that women could do more.

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