Figures in Silk

Written by Vanora Bennett
Review by Sally Zigmond

Vanora Bennett’s debut was the fascinating Portrait of an Unknown Woman. In her second novel, she turns her attention to the previous century.

Jane Shore, mistress to Edward IV, is one of the most intriguing of history’s lesser players. However, Bennett relegates her to a secondary character and creates a younger sister for her. This novel is the story of a long-term secret love affair between Isabel and Edward’s brother, Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III.

This affair, as Isabel makes clear, is nothing like her sister’s dalliances; rather, it’s a deep love through which the contradictions that have made Richard such an intriguing and controversial figure are expressed. However, we gain no new insights. Bennett’s Richard is the post-Tey modern manifestation, essentially noble in spirit, well-intentioned and wise but flawed by ambition and a quick temper.

The novel also follows Isabel’s progress from mercer’s daughter to wealthy, ambitious silk merchant. History tells us no silk was woven in England until the Venetian monopoly was broken, but Bennett has written an almost plausible tale of Isabel’s secret venture to weave silk in Westminster. Maybe it is only my cynicism that finds the ready assistance of a young William Caxton a little too convenient in furthering this enterprise.

That aside, Bennett weaves both fact and fiction into a densely plotted, complex novel. She is particularly adept at depicting the bustle, intrigue and jealousies of the London merchants, and I applaud the way she clearly distinguishes between life in commercial London and that of the royalty and government of Westminster. I found the sections on the history of silk interesting, although sometimes the author allowed her research to hinder the narrative. I wish, though, that the author had either written a novel about Isabel and Richard’s passion or one about Isabel, the successful businesswoman. Somehow trying to do both didn’t fully do justice to either.