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.
Blackberry and Wild Rose is an outstanding debut novel from Sonia Velton and I loved the Spitalsfields setting and it has definitely inspired me to learn more about the silk industry at that time. Although the author touches on the history of the Huguenots families who settled in Spitalsfields after fleeing France, there is still a lot of story there to be discovered and I would love to learn more about those families.
One of our main protagonists, Esther, has married a master silk weaver from the Thorel family, one of the founding Huguenots families, and her husband, Elias, employs a number of weavers. Esther and Elias don’t have a happy marriage and there is a lot of tension in the household, mainly due to the fact Esther has failed to produce a living child and her disappointed husband is seeking comfort elsewhere.
Esther is a kindhearted woman who loves the silk industry and she has ambitions to make her own patterns, however Elias won’t take her seriously. Undaunted, Esther continues to create her floral patterns and manages to persuade one of her husband’s weavers, Bisby Lambert, to teach her how to translate her drawings into silk templates. Velton goes into a lot of detail as to how these templates work on the loom but it is very hard to picture it in your mind and I ended up searching for videos on YouTube to help me out. I watched a few videos charting the progress of silk straight from the worm to the finished article and it was utterly fascinating.
Esther’s character is loosely based on Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), a textile designer who created vivid floral designs for silk fabrics and many of her original watercolours can be seen in the V&A Museum.
Away from the silk business, Esther becomes involved with a young woman, Sara Kemp, who has fallen into a life of prostitution and is given a second chance when she is employed as a maid in the Thorel household. Sara and Esther share the narrative of the book and often given contradictory points of view to the extent you are never certain who is giving a truthful account. Out of the two, Sara was the harder to like as I found her character quite duplicitous at times and felt she had a chip on her shoulder when she should have been more grateful.
The pace of the novel is initially quite slow as everything is being set up, however the speed picks up as Esther’s ambitions are revealed and she begins to work towards achieving her goals. However, Esther’s desires become too wrapped up in Bisby who suffers serious repercussions for helping her. As well as contending with their personal issues, Sara and Esther are both caught up in the political upheaval as the silk workers demand higher wages from their masters. The social history is exploited dramatically as we learn about the abject poverty some people are living in, as well as the the issues around gender inequality.
It’s always an exciting moment when you ‘discover’ a new voice in historical fiction so I’ll be looking forward to seeing what Sonia Velton writes next.