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 strikes up a relationship with one of the journeyman weavers in her attic who teaches her to weave and unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household.
Thank you to Quercus Books, NetGalley and Sonia Velton for the chance to read and review this book.
This beautifully written piece of historical fiction was a joy to read from beginning to end. The author instantly transported me in to the 18th Century with her vivid and eloquent storytelling and the opening chapter had me hooked. When I read her description of how Sara came to work at the brothel after her arrival in London my heart broke and from that point I was unable to put this book down.
The story is narrated in alternate chapters by Sara and Esther, a choice that I loved. Told in the past tense, it was fascinating to read the same events from different perspectives and see the subtle variations in their accounts. It also showed us how naive the women were in their own ways, neither one understanding or thinking of things from the other’s viewpoint. Both women were flawed, complex and had many layers to their character. This meant I would vary at times between which character I empathised with and enabled me to find something about each of them I could relate to. I did find their intense dislike of each other an amusing part of the story and enjoyed their scathing comments about each other. The decision to make Sara resentful of her new position was a choice I think made the story more interesting and that inevitably fed into some of the conflict between them. Reading how Esther was so fixated on her own version of morality that she was blind to her hypocrisy and sanctimonious behaviour made me infuriated so I understood Sara’s resentment to some of the things she’d say. I enjoyed seeing how both they and their relationship with each other changed throughout the story, especially as things escalated in the story towards the end.
I also like how the book highlighted the difficulty of being a woman in that time period. Rich or poor life was bleak for the fairer sex at that time and the veneer of perfection and opulence projected by women with money and esteem simply hid the truth of their sad and difficult situations. All women were at the mercy of men and if you were married or not you could find your situation precarious and be in the workhouse or the hangman’s noose for a perceived wrong. Yet because women like Sara lived with their flaws and the harsh reality of their lives out for all to see, women such as Esther looked down on them. But men were not immune to struggle either and we saw how the rich master weavers held their power over their employees as well as their wives. They didn’t pay them a fair or living wage and resented the idea that their employees should have any working rights or a say in how much they earn. They viewed the world as theirs and the women and workers were there to simply serve their needs as they deemed fit. In the story these situations led to characters doing things they might otherwise have thought better of and led to devastating and shocking consequences as things spiraled out of control.
The Blackberry and Wild Rose is a delightful and engrossing debut novel with a multi-layered storyline and interesting characters. I loved the author’s writing style and couldn’t stop reading as the plot twisted and unfurled before me. I’ve found this genre to be a favourite of mine this year but until recently I’d mostly read books concentrating on the 19th and 20th Century. This book was based in the 18th Century and was clearly well researched in terms of both the time period and the silk trade on which the story is based. If you enjoy historical fiction then this is a book you should read.