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Dress fabric to lust after

Blackberry and Wild Rose Book Cover Blackberry and Wild Rose
Sonia Velton
Historical Fiction , Women's Fiction
Quercus Books
10 Jan 2019

For fans of Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier, a rich historical debut set among the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields in the late 18th century.

WHEN Esther Thorel, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God's will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping 'madam' is too good to refuse.

Inside the  Thorels' tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress's blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

It is silk that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she strikes up a relationship with one of the journeyman weavers in her attic who teaches her to weave and unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household.

Spitalfields is an area of London that has always fascinated me, with its tall houses topped by glassed in roofs.

I knew that it had been settled by the Huguenot weavers when they came to Britain fleeing religious persecution in France, but knew little about the actual people other than their religion and that they wove silk.

This was also the time of the East India company’s explorations and settlement into the Far East, India, Alaska and North America. When they brought back furs, exotica and fabrics never before seen in England – and cheaper than silk too. Which is where this novel comes in.

I really enjoyed this faction/fiction about this period in history but would have been more impressed with the knowledge and storyline if I hadn’t heard about the book published just a year ago by Liz Trenow The Silk Weaver which is the (fictionalised) story of Anna Maria Garthwaite (as her real history has not been fully documented), who was the person who came to London and produced the realistic and beautifully detailed designs for silks, that in this story by Sonia Velton, is Esther’s role. Anna even persuaded a weaver to work on her silk as his Master piece. The flowers are amazingly detailed and must have taken a very long time to weave, stitch by stich, by hand, as mechanized weaving was not yet available for these fabrics, and the designs are woven in and not printed on.

This is an example of Anna Maria’s silk as held in the Victoria and Albert’s collection.

This is designed by an unknown silk weaver – held in the V&A’s Collection

Sonia’s story takes some of the facts about the Combinations, the Cutters’ Riots, and the hangings (there were 2 men hanged historically) and the known riots by the weavers as a direct result of the bringing in of printed calico and thus the drop in demand for silk, and the resultant loss of work and pay. But as my husband would say, there was always a small riot in London, they just never managed a big enough one to rival the French!

I enjoyed Sonia’s story nevertheless and found it well written and I did invest in the characters and the difficulties of life as a woman in this time – and how bad life was in London if you were poor – this is the time Hogarth painted his Gin Lanes and women feeding children gin to keep them quiet as they lacked food or milk.

But 2 novels published in the same year effectively about the same period with a similar cast of characters brings down the ranking of the second one.

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