Reviewed by Emma Crowley
A novel of illicit romance set against the world of the silk trade in London
Anna Butterfield moves from her Suffolk country home to her uncle's house in London, to be introduced to society. A chance encounter with a local silk weaver, French immigrant Henri, throws her from her privileged upbringing to the darker, dangerous world of London's silk trade. Henri is working on his 'master piece' to make his name as a master silk weaver; Anna, meanwhile, is struggling against the constraints of her family and longing to become an artist. Henri realizes that Anna's designs could lift his work above the ordinary, and give them both an opportunity for freedom…
This is a charming story of illicit romance, set against the world of the burgeoning silk trade in eighteenth-century Spitalfields - a time of religious persecution, mass migration, racial tension and wage riots, and very different ideas of what was considered 'proper' for women.
Fans of Liz Trenow (myself very much included) have been kept waiting just about three years since the last publication from this author and I was beginning to wonder would we ever hear more from such a talented historical fiction writer. Thankfully she has now returned with The Silk Weaver which has the most sumptuous cover. So my only question before I begun this story was worth it the long wait? Well for the most part it was and I felt it was a departure for the author in terms of the era and setting she was writing about and she carried off to perfection. My only slight misgivings were that I felt the story took too long to establish itself and get going but then once this was achieved there was no let up in the plot and I enjoyed the book immensely. The author's previous books had never been set so far back in time as in 1760 the year this book takes place and I felt it was a real change both for me as a reader and Liz as a writer.
Although I love historical fiction at times you can become quite bored of the monotony of reading books set in or around either World War One or Two and I understand why so many books are set during this time but every now and then I like to mix it up within genres and this seemed like the book to do so. The more I read through the story and read the end notes it was clear this was a book the author had wanted to write for quite some time and it was evident throughout such vast and detailed research had been undertaken into all aspects of the plot and setting. Inspired by true events The Silk Weaver provided a fascinating insight into a time I would have given scant thought to previously and I suppose that's what endears me to this genre so much.
Anna Butterfield is travelling in a carriage with several other weary travelling companions making their way to the big city and hustle and bustle of London in 1760. It's evident quite early on that this is a big new adventure for Anna as she is leaving the quiet country village where she was born and raised and maybe not leaving through her own free will, but rather through circumstances and life events which took over. The reader can sense both Anna's apprehension yet excitement at moving to a city where dreams can be made and which couldn't be more polar opposite from all that she has known in her short life. There is a brief back story given regarding Anna and we discover she has been through a lot recently after nursing her mother before she succumbed to death. I wondered was Anna forced to leave home to live with her Uncle and Aunt and their children in London or was it voluntary? This wasn't made that clear until quite some chapters in so I didn't know how to view Anna. Should she be seen as someone who wanted a new experience and to move forward after such tragedy or did necessity force her Reverend father to send her away leaving his younger daughter to take care of the house?
I liked Anna from the beginning and I loved how her character attempted to go against social conventions without upsetting the applecart too greatly yet she still fought for that little bit of independence as a woman that she so desperately craved. I felt as a reader we were right there alongside her as she navigated this new and, I suppose to her, strange world in which she just wanted to soak right up and gain as many new experiences as possible all the while indulging her deep love of drawing and nature. Anna loves painting natural things but the city will be cramped and full to capacity with little or no green space. I did think her Aunt Sarah and Uncle Joseph (who works as a mercer) would be the villains of the piece but they weren't. Yes they had to be harsh and restrictive at certain times and they did want Anna to find a suitor in the hopes of leading to marriage but compared to other books I couldn't class them as evil tyrants. Their daughter Lizzie was a great conspirator when Anna needed one but I didn't think much of their son William even though he was utilised very cleverly when needed.
The chapters alternate between Anna and a young French weaver she encounters within minutes of her arrival in the city. Initially I felt having the different viewpoints there was some overlapping with details and scenes but the halfway mark when I felt the story picked up this vanished and everything really got going. All the setting up began to make sense and the major and minor stories started to come together in a frenzy against the historical backdrop of the weaving industry just showing how the workers had to fight for fair working conditions and payments and even today this is still the case worldwide in many jobs. So not much has changed in some ways.
Henri couldn't have been more different to Anna regarding all aspects of his life. I found his story as to how he travelled from France and eventually ended up working as a journeyman weaver for Monsieur Lavelle fascinating and it showed what a fearless person he was. It was obvious from the very brief first encounter between himself and Anna that they would meet again and that a spark had been ignited between the pair but so much was against them as is the same in many books. But I was glad this wasn't all focus on a love story between the pair, rather that obstacles were put in their way and this element didn't become the dominant force within the story rather it was one element amongst many that combined terrifically towards the end in a dramatic climax where the reader never truly knew what the outcome would be and I love to be still guessing the conclusion so late in a book. Henri was a fantastic character who was passionate about his profession as a weaver. He had great care and respect for all those around him particularly Monsieur Lavelle and he could see the end was in sight once his final masterpiece had been approved and he himself could become a master and attempt to establish his own business. Without the addition of Anna and discovering her talent for sketching exquisite pieces so rich and full of detail of nature Henri may never have had the chance to attempt to fulfill his dream. Yet it wasn't all smooth sailing and it was great that was the case it would have been too hum drum of a story if that had occurred.
Anna and Henri are polar opposites of each other in terms of background and ambition yet I could still see that there was that special something connecting them to each other. Anna had a lot to deal with acclimatising to a new city especially as unrest started to take hold. In one way she had to obey the rules set down by her aunt and uncle and society in general yet in others there was that fighting spirit deep within her just dying to be set free. She wanted to embrace her talent and love of nature but feels confined when her aunt starts the matchmaking process. Women at the time were viewed as best serving a purpose of running a household and establishing a family. I wanted Anna to be different to the norm, to step outside the box and listen to what her heart and mind were telling her. I loved how she showed great strength of character and such ingenuity when it was needed the most and battled to right a major wrong.
It's rare in a book to have two such strong lead characters but I believed Henri showed just as much metal as Anna when needed. I didn't like the turn of events that seemed to overtake his life and his task of becoming master weaver but on reflection it needed to be there as the book was inspired by true events and this circumstances added more flavour and depth to the overall story at just the point where I believed things may never get going and then everything took on a life of it's own and I couldn't wait to discover the final outcome for all parties involved. Despite all the very good points regarding this novel I wouldn't say The Silk Weaver is my favourite of Liz's books but it was certainly worth the wait for its publication and I just hope book five will not be as long in its creation. It's worth the read for the historical element alone and combined with a love story that has you rooting for a positive outcome you wouldn’t be sorry you picked up this book and enjoyed a few hours in the company of Anna and Henri and I hope you do to.
Many thanks to Pan MacMillan via NetGalley for my copy of The Silk Weaver to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.