Letter from Paris: Haunting a Scottish Graveyard
Fall has arrived, and can I just say thank heaven for wool? After a painfully dry summer, we’ve had buckets of rain during the past two weeks along with a plunge in temperature. Damp cold is no joke around here, where old walls and windows mean the air inside often feels just like the air outside. Shawls, scarves, and sweaters to the rescue.
As I write, bundled up like Mimì in the last act of La Bohème, it seems impossible that about a month ago I was sweating through my undershirts–in Scotland.
I’d never been to Scotland, but had heard from reliable sources that one thing Edinburgh would not be was sunny and warm. It was. On the day I arrived, the hotel I was staying at was repairing a plate glass window that had cracked from the heat.
So I spent as much of my visit as possible in the shade.
Fortunately, Edinburgh and environs aren’t short of leafy green spaces. I took two long, memorable walks along the Water of Leith, both beginning at Dean Village, a setting so picturesque as to be scarcely credible.
Dean Village—Brigadoon, eat your heart out
Since I’m in the Mary, Queen of Scots fandom, of course I also strolled through the gardens at both the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Stirling Castle.
The Garden at Stirling Castle
Then, of course, there were the cemeteries.
If you get a frisson of happiness at the sight of a well-carved skull, Edinburgh will make you wobbly with joy. Those old Scottish cemeteries do not hold back on Grim Reaper content.
The most famous grave in town, of course, belongs to a dog. Sweet, faithful Greyfriars Bobby, who held vigil by his late master’s tomb in Greyfriars Cemetery for fourteen years until, in 1872, he at last went to the big dog park in the sky. He is now commemorated both with a handsome monument, where visitors leave sticks, and a fountain outside the gates whose bronze nose is worn smooth from millions of loving pats.
The Goodest Boy
I went to see Bobby. Of course I did. But the grave I was most interested in visiting belonged to someone almost nobody remembers, but who is very important to me. And probably to you, as well, even though you may never have heard of her.
Jane Gaugain may be fairly called the mother of the knitting book. She was born Jane Alison, the daughter of a tailor; and married John James Gaugain, an Edinburgh merchant who traded largely in dry goods imported from Europe. These included not only fabrics and laces, but also the sturdy, beautiful “Berlin wools” from Germany: fine yarns that were available in a dazzling array of colors (thanks to the arrival of reliable artificial dyes).
It appears that Jane’s acumen helped the business to flourish. By the 1830s, the Gaugains were able to afford to move to premises at 63 George Street in the fashionable Georgian neighborhood of New Town.
To encourage yarn sales, Jane began providing patterns upon request to her customers, well-to-do women who had taken up knitting as a newly fashionable pastime.
In 1840, Jane produced what was, in effect, the first knitting book as we think of them today: The Lady’s Assistant in Knitting, Netting, and Crochet. There were a few publications, like The Workwoman’s Guide (1838), that had included some knitting instructions. But these were aimed at those seeking either to teach, or to become, professional needleworkers.
Jane’s book, on the other hand, is emphatically for the woman who knits for her own amusement. The patterns include many of those that remain the bread-and-butter of the modern knitting designer: shawls, scarves, home décor, garments for babies and children.
There are basic instructions for casting on and off, knitting, purling, increasing, and decreasing. There are abbreviations (with a key) and numbered row-by-row instructions–both apparently Gaugain inventions, or at least I have yet to see them in an earlier book.
The Lady’s Assistant was a wild success, running to 22 editions. Jane went on to publish many more books, and instigated an international boom of needlework manuals for the genteel hobbyist–the genre she pretty much invented.
Now, I learned all of the above largely thanks to the designer and historian Kate Davies, whose article “In the Steps of Jane Gaugain” I recommend for a much more detailed account of her life and career.
Davies ends with the note that Jane was buried in Dean Cemetery, in Edinburgh. Seeing as her work has made my life possible, I thought it would be appropriate to make a pilgrimage to her grave and express my gratitude.
There was one hitch. Nobody, so far as I could find, knew exactly where in the cemetery Jane had been laid to rest.
I arrived at Dean Cemetery on a sunny weekday afternoon with my traveling companion. Happily, he is a knitter who was enthusiastic about the expedition as I. The place was virtually empty. Of living people, that is. The dead were bewilderingly abundant.
All we had to go on was a picture we’d found online of the grave of Jane’s daughter, Theresa. Theresa died before her mother, and lies beneath a handsome obelisk. The inscription notably highlights her relationship to Jane–and doesn’t mention her father at all.
Unfortunately, we also didn’t know exactly where Theresa was. We had no plot number and no map. So we started walking, trying to be systematic in an old cemetery full of winding avenues. We hoped for a guiding hand from beyond, or a miracle, or dumb luck.
Instead, we got a shout from the man who was running the place that day. He’d seen us wander into the grass, and let us know (gently, but firmly) that the cemetery rules require visitors to keep to the paths. Was there something he could do for us?
I explained who we were looking for, and provided what little information there was: Jane and Theresa’s names, and their years of death. The gentleman leapt into action, first pulling from a safe in the office a series of enormous, leather-bound burial registers inscribed in that Victorian penmanship that is so often simultaneously delicate, precise, and difficult to read.
He scanned page after page, line by line. No luck finding Jane, but we found Theresa’s grave number.
You might think that would be sufficient, but no. The cemetery’s numbering system is … idiosyncratic. Rather than numbering the plots when the cemetery was laid out, it appears that plots were numbered as bodies were put into them.
So out came the cemetery map, also ancient, which covered the entire table. And our friend began to scan, and scan, and scan. And he found Theresa.
“I’ll have to guide you there,” he said. “You won’t find it on your own.”
Lead us he did, swiftly, until there we were in front of Theresa’s obelisk–which was half-hidden by an overhanging tree branch.
He wasn’t done with us, though. No. It perturbed him that there was no record of Jane’s burial where there ought to have been. Though we protested that he had already done more than enough, he insisted that he would do a little more rummaging around in the records.
Leaving us with Theresa, he hurried back to the office.
We took some photographs, then joined him. He looked triumphant.
There, on a single line in yet another enormous book,* were listed all those buried in Theresa’s plot.
After “S.L.T. Gaugain”–that being Theresa–there it was: “Mrs. Gaugain.”
Now it made sense. When Jane died, she was put into the family plot with her daughter. But as there was (we must assume) nobody left to do more than make the most necessary arrangements, the stone was never altered to reflect the later burial.
We had found her.
So we sat by Jane Gaugain’s grave for a while, peacefully knitting.
There’s more to this adventure, but as this letter is already so long I’m going to post it and save the rest for next month.
But here’s a hint for you.
*I was allowed to take a photo for my records, but in the case of this and all the other amazing record books at the cemetery, I’m not allowed to publish or share them. Those are the cemetery’s rules, and of course I am bound to respect them.