What the heck are Mrs. Vincy's "pink strings?"
September 13, 2019 6:31 AM   Subscribe

In George Eliot's Middlemarch, what the heck are Mrs. Vincy's pink strings?

I read Middlemarch in college for the first time, and was struck by repeated references to Mrs. Vincy's "pink strings," which Eliot seems to be using to signify something, which I could never really nail down (I even wrote a paper about it, in which I utterly failed to get to the bottom of the issue). I've included a couple of quotes from the book in which the strings are mentioned, in order to help jog y'all's memory.

I'm re-reading the book now, and I'm struck once again by the repeated references, and by the distinct feeling that Eliot was very deliberately signaling something specific to her audience by including so many mentions of pink strings, and that I as a contemporary reader just can't understand that signal. So what are they? Cap strings, obviously, but what would that have meant to a Middlemarch reader in 1872?

- This was said without any change in the radiant good-humour of Mrs Vincy's face, in which forty-five years had delved neither angles nor parallels; and pushing back her pink cap-strings, she let her work rest on her lap, while she looked admiringly at her daughter.

- [referring to Mrs. Vincy] and you may see yourself, brother, when a woman past forty has pink strings always flying, and that light way of laughing at everything, it's very unbecoming.

- [Mrs. Vincy] resigned no domestic function to her daughter; and the matron's blooming good-natured face, with the too volatile pink strings floating from her fine throat, adn her cheery manners to husband and children, were certainly among the great attractions of the Vincy house. . .
posted by saladin to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
To me it signifies a character trait that she is happy to be a bit avant garde, as opposed to adhering to every letter of societal expectations, of which there were many for women.
posted by london explorer girl at 6:35 AM on September 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

I would guess that cap-strings were usually white, so pink would be a very bold departure, probably associated with flighty fashionable unmarried girls.

When there was so much less scope for sartorial self-expression for women, especially women perceived as "matrons", tiny things like that must have been perceived as really big signifiers.
posted by Grunyon at 6:44 AM on September 13, 2019 [9 favorites]

I vaguely remember this coming up in one of my long-ago literature classes, and the explanation was that most bonnets at the time--and their strings-- came in neutral colours, especially for older women.

So, by having 'pink strings," she was being a little bit daring and perhaps also dressing a bit young for her age. She would also have had to make an effort to get something pink, which showed a certain level of attention to detail and self-expression.
posted by rpfields at 6:45 AM on September 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

She should not have pink cap strings. They should be white, or perhaps a sober color. Pink is far too coquettish for a woman of forty-five.

The cap itself was a sort of "modesty" garment, in that women started to wear one indoors sometime around or after the birth of their first child. Unmarried women did not, at least until they were obviously "on the shelf". So to have an obviously coquettish and "becoming" type of cap, at her age, shows the Mrs. Vincy is wearing things that are a bit too young to be completely respectable -- at least to puritanical people. After all, when Bulstrode is disgraced, what does Mrs. Vincy's sister Mrs. Bulstrode do?
When she had resolved to go down, she prepared herself by some little acts which might seem mere folly to a hard onlooker; they were her way of expressing to all spectators visible or invisible that she had begun a new life in which she embraced humiliation. She took off all her ornaments and put on a plain black gown, and instead of wearing her much-adorned cap and large bows of hair, she brushed her hair down and put on a plain bonnet-cap, which made her look suddenly like an early Methodist.
Eliot herself does not think that Mrs. Vincy's cap strings are morally wrong, or that her character is too lightweight, she just remarks on them in the context of Mrs. Vincy's personality and how other folks see her. How far into the "gentry" the Vincys can go is a fraught question in Middlemarch. Mr. and Mrs. Vincy, though good-hearted, are not quite the thing. The gentry are leery of them as social climbers, the "respectable" middle classes think they are getting too far above themselves, and Fred and Rosamund are far too indulged at the cost of their own future happiness.

Basically, Mrs. Vincy is the good-hearted 1830s equivalent of Amy Poehler as the "fun mom" in Mean Girls.
posted by Hypatia at 6:45 AM on September 13, 2019 [36 favorites]

I always assumed it was ties to some kind of hat, so to have them flying around her face all crazily instead of properly tied beneath her chin meant (a) she wasn’t well put together and (b) she was vivacious and moving her head around a lot instead of sitting calmly and demurely. The speaker who comments on her laughter is thinking “settle down and act your age woman!” and the speaker in the third quote is thinking “she’s so lively and warm.” Maybe the pink also signifies girlishness (as opposed to a womanly elegance or propriety), similarly with her round (childish, happy) face.

I bet you’re right that there’s something deeper there as well, though.
posted by sallybrown at 6:47 AM on September 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Further reading.
Also, “set her cap” explained
posted by Ideefixe at 7:08 AM on September 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

In the "further reading" link that @Ideefixe shares, scroll down to the image of Princess Catherine of Wurttemberg wearing a blue dress. Now scroll back up the page and look at the 2nd, 3rd and 4th paintings on the page. I understood Mrs. Vincy's cap to be like the one Princess Catherine is wearing -- untied, open at the neck, with the pink ribbons dangling about and calling attention to her face -- whereas she would have been expected to wear a cap more like the ones in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th images. Mrs. Vincy is not dressing untidily, she's dressing too young.
posted by OrangeDisk at 8:29 AM on September 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

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