The Hidden Thread

Written by Liz Trenow

Anna Butterfield leaves her father’s Suffolk parsonage for the home of her uncle, a wealthy mercer in Spitalfields, the centre of the 18th-century silk industry. There she is to be introduced to London society in hopes of a good marriage. Accustomed to country freedoms, Anna is stifled by the proprieties and formalities enforced by her social climbing aunt, especially after she meets Henri, a French journeyman weaver. A talented artist, Anna’s graceful drawings from nature would make an exceptional pattern for Henri’s “master-piece”, the special weaving that might elevate him to master weaver. But marriageable young ladies do not collaborate with immigrant French journeymen. Anna and Henri must find a way to fulfil their ambitions and growing love.

While researching her ancestors, silk weavers in Spitalfields, Trenow discovered a countrywoman, Anna Maria Garthwaite, who became a celebrated pattern designer, concentrating on botanically accurate studies. Basing Anna on the pioneering designer adds veracity to the plot. Garthwaite lived in a time of conflict in Spitalfields: English against French, master against apprentices, wage strikes and food riots, make an exciting background to the story. Merchants’ drawing rooms and elegant balls are contrasted with the cramped attics where underpaid weavers worked on beautiful cloth. The action moves from Newgate’s cells to Gainsborough’s painting room where Anna meets the great artist.

Anna’s passionate need to paint and draw, frustrated by society’s crushing rules, makes her a sympathetic heroine. Although they are mostly stereotypes, other characters are sufficiently well-drawn to convincingly people the streets and houses of Spitalfields. One weakness is Henri, too vapid to be a believable lover or a brilliant weaver. However Trenow’s depiction of place and period and the silk industry make this an interesting, enjoyable read. Recommended.