Richard III held the title of  Duke of Gloucester from 1461 until his accession in 1483
Richard III held the title of  Duke of Gloucester from 1461 until his accession in 1483

Silk clothing in the Tacuinum Sanitatis (XIV century)
Silk clothing in the Tacuinum Sanitatis (XIV century)

Italian breviary showing women's figured silk gowns
Illustration c. 1380 from an Italian breviary showing women's figured silk gowns and a saint

William Caxton
William Caxton
English merchant, diplomat, writer and printer. First person to introduce a printing press into England

Medieval Book Reviews !
All Things Medieval !


Figures in Silk
by Vanora Bennett
Silk, women and political intrigue in the late medieval world

Vanora Bennett's FIGURES IN SILK looks at the late Medieval world through the eyes of two sisters, the daughters of silk merchant John Lambert.  Their different personalities govern the later choices they make.  Beautiful, extroverted and flirtatious, Jane makes her place within the court whereas the more quiet and plainer Isabel longs for independence and accomplishment.  Bored with her marriage, Jane Shore becomes the mistress of Edward IV and seemingly lives a pampered life of ease and wealth thanks to royal favor.  At first, Isabel feels an outsider in her husband's family, the house of Claver, but when her husband dies, Isabel joins forces with her mother-in-law Alice as an apprentice in the silk trade.  Earlier in the narrative, Isabel has a chance encounter with a dark mysterious stranger whose words influence the direction of her life, not only in the words he speaks but in her heart as this stranger, later known to her as Dickson, or Richard the Duke of Gloucester, becomes the focus of her love and passion.  Isabel takes more chances than her sister as she pursues a future in the silk trade while not flaunting her love life or court connections as her sister Jane.  As the court power shifts, each sister faces unexpected changes and challenges.

Set against the War of the Roses in the late 15th century, Vanora Bennett's FIGURES IN SILK presents a captivating portrait of two different women through the contrast of the court life of Jane Shore, a woman whose affair with Edward IV is documented in history, and the merchant life of Isabel Claver.  Vanora Bennett details the fascinating intricacies of the medieval silk trade from the varieties of silk threads to the complicated alliances between England and the Lombard silk merchants.  In characterization, Vanora Bennett is at her best in her protrayal of he relationship between Alice Claver and Isabel and later Isabel and the other silk workers.  Here, history, economics and personal interactions and aspirations all merge to create a narrative that sheds light into a lesser known area of history and the lives of historical women.  With her sense of independence, innovation and determination, Isabel makes for the most intriguing of the two sisters.  Through Isabel, the reader views Richard III through a unique prism.  Deeply in love with her Dickson, Isabel is a woman who also feels compassion for others.  Her love depends on her being able to deny the rumors of his political maneuvering.  New events force Isabel to tackle not only her passion but also the rumors about his nefarious actions.

FIGURES IN SILK is a fast paced work of historical fiction.  Although the author evokes many intricate details of the silk trade, the novel presupposes some knowledge of the political intrigue of the period.  Little time is given in the novel to clue readers new to the period into all the more subtle background of the court.  For readers familiar with the period, this lack of detail heightens the drama as the novel progresses.   One waits in anticipation for the unfolding of events about to occur, not knowing exactly how the pieces will come together but sure in the knowledge that change is around the next page.  Lovers of late medieval literature, like myself, will take a special delight in seeing William Caxton appear as a character, not only for the additional historical connections to this great figure in literary history (Records show William Caxton as apprenticed to a silk mercer at an early age) but also just to see him as more than a side comment in a work of historical fiction.  For me personally, this part of the novel was a welcome surprise and pure reading fun.

FIGURES IN SILK has much to recommend it to lovers of the period and historical fiction in general.  The prose reads easily with enough of a modern tone to appeal to those unfamiliar with the period (and lovers of the period who are not phased by the fictional element of historical fiction).  Some sections are quite lyrical or beautifully perceptive in the view of human relationships.  The contrast between the two sisters presents two different viewpoints of the period.  Vanora Bennett's fictional imagination focuses on the lives of strong women in this period giving a look beyond the blanket stereotypes often attributed to medieval times.  All the aspects of the silk trade and its connection to different alliances both economic and political is educational and suspenseful within the context of the novel.  Given the depth of Isabel's love for Richard III in the novel, more development of their relationship would have made her passion more believable, especially since in other areas, her character has more independence and spunk.  Perhaps, the contrast itself and the changes within her make for a more multi-layered character in Isabel but more space given to Jane's character and the emotional relationship between Isabel and Dickson as it develops would make FIGURES IN SILK a great memorable read.

Publisher: William Morrow (March 2009)

Review courtesy of Amazon Vine

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Copyright Merrimon Crawford  2009 All Rights Reserved