My favourite kind of historical fiction is the kind where you learn something you didn’t know, and are inspired to find out more about the time and culture in which a book is set – and Blackberry and Wild Rose definitely left me interested in the history of silk!
Book: Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton
Read before: No
Ownership: Physical ARC sent by Quercus for fair review. All opinions my own.
Publication date: 10th January 2018. Available on Amazon here (affiliate link).
Blackberry and Wild Rose is a book that explores the lives of two women, Sara and Esther, against the background of the silk-weavers of Spitalfields in the eighteenth-century. Sara, a former prostitute, becomes a maid for Esther, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant. There’s a really clever balance of the personal drama, as both women become inextricably caught up in each other, and the historical scene, which plays out around them and shapes their lives. The gorgeous writing draws you into these intensely emotional situations, but all the while there’s beautifully textured history being woven through everything.
I knew a little bit about the Huguenot weavers before going into this book, but I relished the way that the book made everything come alive – you could almost hear the clacking of the loom throughout the house, and feel the silence when it stopped. This is a London of opposites – of beautiful silks and crushing poverty, of high morals and grubby actions. It was fascinating to see the technical aspects of how to make the silk, and then to visit the weaver’s lodgings and see their poor standard of life. There’s masses of research behind this book, but it feels effortless.
The two main characters are really two sides of the same coin, and it’s fascinating to look at how much they resent each other, as well as need each other. Sara is “rescued” from a brothel by Esther, but she often finds the work that Esther gives her as a housemaid more demeaning than she found prostitution. Esther, on the other hand, thought she was doing a kindness for Sara that was fully in line with her Christian principles, but she comes to realise that Sara forces her to examine her own weaknesses. Having these two characters in a house together creates a claustrophic and tense atmosphere that only needs the spark of the journeyman weavers to set the whole thing ablaze. The author excels at creating genteel but poisonous tension between characters, and the dual viewpoint means that it’s never easy to pick a side. It’s as if Esther and Sara are the warp and weft of a fabric – as the story grows, they become completely inextricable from each other.
This is a fascinating read that I found really powerful. I love seeing historical women’s stories brought to the fore, where you might previously only have learned facts, which tend to be based around men and men’s actions. Sara and Esther are two wonderfully faceted characters, and the silk aspect of the book is so interesting. If you like a deep historical read, then I definitely recommend this. Four out of five cats.
(I should mention: trigger warning for rape and other sexual abuse, and also extremely graphic depiction of a difficult birth. Let me know, as always, if you want to know which bits to watch out for.)