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Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton @soniavelton @QuercusBooks

January 7, 2019

Source: Review copy from Netgalley
Publication: 10 January 2019 from Quercus Books
PP: 416
ISBN-13: 978-1787470750

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 unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household and set the scene for a devastating day of reckoning between her and Sara.

THE PRICE OF a piece of silk may prove more than either is able to pay.

I have really enjoyed reading historical novels of late and Blackberry and Wild Rose is no exception. In the tradition of Laura Purcell and Jessie Burton, Blackberry and Wild Rose is a rich read, full of atmosphere, redolent with class politics and full of the small details and petty slights that make for a strong feeling of realism.

The narrative is set around the Huguenot silk weavers many of whom settled in London’s East End following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, when 400,000 Huguenots had to flee France or be massacred for their religion.

Young Sarah Kemp has recently arrived from the country and in her naivety has been tricked into working in a brothel. She is fortunate to be rescued by Esther Thorel, in an act of Christian charity. Esther offers her a position as a domestic maid, although Sarah is sometimes doubtful whether she now has a better fate. She has a difficult relationship with the existing maid in the house and petty jealousies run rampant.

Esther is married to a silk weaver but has found herself in a difficult position. She married for love, but has been unable to produce an heir and now her husband, who married outside the Huguenot circle, is looked upon as not quite of the same social standing as his peers.

So Esther is isolated and like Sarah, is trapped in the life she has opted for, only with higher social standing.

Sarah talks herself into becoming Esther’s personal maid and a strong relationship begins to develop between them.

Esther has an artistic bent and dreams of seeing her designs translated into silk, but her husband is hardly the type to encourage such feminist leanings. Esther, however, is not so lightly put off and she begins to make regular forays into the attic where her husband has rented out space to a journeyman weaver seeking to become a registered Master Weaver.

Sarah, meanwhile, has found her own connection with the weavers of Spitalfields as she embarks upon a relationship with the weaver at the centre of a fomenting revolution as the threat of printed calico begins to bite upon the craftsmen’s earnings.  

Velton beautifully captures a time of great upheaval and social turmoil as progress and imports threaten the livelihood of silk weavers, who are now more easily tempted into rebellion against the perceived perpetrators of their downfall. Although Parliament attempted to ban textile imports to preserve the domestic industries, Spitalfield workers were known to enforce their prerogatives directly by attacking people in the street thought to be wearing foreign prints. Conflicts were no less fierce within the weavers’ community, between masters and labourers where workers combined to maintain wages by attacking those thought to be undercutting prices.

Velton takes one household and its characters and uses that to showcase the social and political change that is happening in the 1760’s. Effortlessly marrying excellent research with strong storytelling, Velton weaves her own pattern of betrayal, ambition, love and hope.

The Spitalfields of the weavers comes alive in this well written tale and the position of women is nicely juxtaposed in maid and madam.

Verdict: A well told tale of two women, love, betrayal and ambition in a time of social change.

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Sonia Velton grew up between the Bahamas and the UK . She has travelled widely since then, including a stint at the European Parliament in Luxembourg as a Robert Schuman Scholar.

After graduating from university with a first in law, she qualified as a solicitor at an international law firm. She soon realised that corporate law was not for her and spent the next seven years specialising in human rights and discrimination law.

Sonia relocated to the Middle East in 2006. Eight years, and three children later she then returned to the UK and now lives in Kent. Sonia used her career break to establish her family and write her first novel. Now that her youngest child is almost at school she hopes to devote herself to writing full time.

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