Blackberry and Wild Rose
This debut novel by Sonia Velton is set in Spitalfields, London, in the late 18th century when the Huguenots had brought the silk industry to England after fleeing from religious persecution in France. Esther Thorel is married to a master silk weaver; she paints and has an ambition to see one of her paintings translated into silk, which is the material from which most clothes for the wealthy are made, but harder times are coming. Esther also takes on a young girl called Sarah Kemp as her lady’s maid. In the kitchen, Moll is the kitchen maid, and working on a silk loom at the top of the house is Bisby Lambert, a journeyman silk weaver who wishes to be admitted to the Weavers’ Company. It is around these characters that the novel is written. Life is hard, men rule in every aspect, and women are regarded as worth nothing more than to keep an orderly house and produce the next generation.
The story is based on real people and real events. Esther herself is based on Anna Maria Garthwaite, the foremost designer of silks in London at the time, and many of her designs can still be seen in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The silk riots took place when cheaper Indian calico threatened the trade and men were hanged for taking part in them. The story is well written, and I empathised easily with the women concerned. I knew nothing about this period in our history and found it to be a totally fascinating read. The author’s note at the end is well worth reading before you read the novel itself, as it explains much.