Blackberry and Wild Rose, the debut novel of Sonia Velton, is entrancing. So many novels are hyped prior to publication but disappoint on reading. This does not. Carefully imagined and cleverly plotted, it kept me reading until the end. It reminded me of Tracy Chevalier’s early novels in which the reader is immersed in a historical world down to the smallest detail.
Blackberry and Wild Rose tells the story of two women in eighteenth century Spitalfields, London, where the houses are full of weavers and looms clatter every hour of daylight, set alongside the everyday noise, bustle and smells of market stalls, shops, inns and bawdy houses. In 1768, Sara Kemp arrives in Spitalfields from the country, sent away from home by her mother for something she does not understand. Obviously alone and lost, she is taken up by Mrs Swann and put to work in her brothel. Esther Thorel is an Englishwoman married to a Huguenot master of silk. Dissatisfied with her life with a husband obsessed by his business, Esther paints naturalistic flowers which she longs to see reproduced in silk. Dismissed by her husband, instead she fulfils the role expected by her husband and does good works with other Huguenot wives. When the paths of the two women cross one day outside the Wig and Feathers tavern, the lives of many people change. Sara, trying to escape Mrs Swann, must pay an unaffordable sum of money for her freedom. Esther pays the debt and employs her as maidservant in her household. Esther’s husband Elias is unaware of Sara’s background. Both women are blind to each other’s plight. Esther sees Sara as a charitable case, simply helped; Sara despises Esther’s inability to see the truth in front of her nose. It is apparent that there is one set of rules for men, another for women. Though so different, Sara and Esther are essentially trapped by their sex and by their roles, and dependent on the prosperity of the Thorel silk business.
Eighteenth century silk weaving was a highly competitive business, threatened by the import of light, cheap printed cottons imported by the East India Company. As the margins of the masters, including Thorel, are cut, the wages of their journeymen weavers are cut too. The weavers gather together in ‘combinations’, early trade unions, to press their case. Some are militant, issuing ultimatums. Some are violent. As this instability threatens the Thorel livelihood, Esther and Sara individually set off on paths which lead them into a conflict which ends in death. Both must make decisions; to tell the truth and suffer, or to lie and survive.
The woman are credible, contradictory, selfish, generous, often peevish and unlikeable. They are not modern women, with the morals and expectations of modern life, placed into a historical setting. Although both are independent and often wilful, they are eighteenth century women and so may not be to the taste of some readers. The men are similarly selfish, ambitious, deceitful and nasty – with one or two exceptions – and utterly believable. These are not stereotypes, there are characters which redeem faith in human nature, but this is not a novel in which the role of women is enhanced from the factual truth of the time. The story ends with a trial at which the judge says, ‘I understand that all this is difficult for you – a servant and a woman – to understand…’ But the men in this story underestimate the women at their peril.
The story of Esther, silk designer, is loosely based on the real Anna Maria Garthwaite, whose patterns and silks can be seen in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. The title of the novel is one of Esther’s designs. Excellent.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
BLACKBERRY AND WILD ROSE by @Soniavelton #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Q4 via @SandraDanby