Elizabeth did not decorate her sampler with flowers or patterns; instead she recorded her emotional turmoil: “As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully intrust myself,” she began.
The sampler recounts her birth in 1813 to “poor but pious” parents – a labourer and a charity school teacher – with nine other children. At 13 she became a nurserymaid for Mr and Mrs F, then, against her parents’ wishes, a housemaid for Lieutenant G, who treated her “with cruelty too horrible to mention.” She claims that after she spurned his sexual advances, he threw her down a flight of stairs for “trying to avoid [his] wicked design.”
Concealing her trauma, Elizabeth found a more benevolent employer. But eventually her trauma surfaced and she had a nervous breakdown (“my reason was taken from me”) and attempted suicide (“I acknowledge being guilty of that great sin of self-destruction”). She creates a vivid image of her suicidal despair, longing to go into the woods alone and end her life.
In the final third of her sampler, Elizabeth prays for mercy from God to keep her “from evil thoughts” and “sin and misery”. Her confession covers half of the fabric and ends mid-way through a sentence “what will become of my soul” – the rest is blank cloth.
Elizabeth’s life did not end as abruptly as her sampler. She remained single and worked as a schoolteacher at Ashburnham Charity School. At some point during the 1850s, she moved into the Ashburnham almshouses, until her death at 76, on the 10th April 1889. Perhaps after venting her turbulent emotions in cross stitch Elizabeth kept the sampler as a reminder of her despair. I wonder how she would have felt if she had known that her private thoughts would one day be on public display?
Find out more about Elizabeth's sampler on the V&A website