Sonia Velton – Blackberry and Wild Rose
Published By – Quercus Books
Available Online and From All Good Bookshops.
What The Blurb Says:
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.
What I Say:
“But the world turns on a sixpence and our lives shifted the moment she walked through the door. She was like a cat sidling in uninvited and looking about.”
I am always completely honest with you all about my reading and blogging, and I am not going to hide the fact that recently, my reading had been a bit of a lost cause!
When Ella from Quercus kindly offered to send me a copy of Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton – honestly – I wasn’t holding out much hope, and was already worrying about what I was going to tell Ella about why I couldn’t review it!
The thing is, the minute I started, I knew it was just what I needed to help me want to start reading again, and to finally feel more like a reader than a machine!
Blackberry and Wild Rose is a clever and intelligent novel, filled with evocative writing, and two female protagonists who may come from two entirely different worlds, but are more alike than they would ever admit.
Sara Kemp is a young woman who after arriving in Spitalfields in 1768, is met by a woman called Mrs Swann who offers her a place to stay and rest. Unfortunately, The Wig and Feathers turns out to be a brothel, and Sara is effectively kept prisoner by Mrs Swann who tells Sara she has to pay back the money she has accrued on her bed and board. Sara has to keep working to attempt to pay off her debt, which of course is impossible.
Sara quickly realises she is at the mercy of Mrs Swann and the men who use her, and little by little, Sara seems to disassociate from her body and feel nothing. That is until one day a client treats her so badly she knows she needs to find a way to escape her existence, because simply existing is all she is doing.
Esther Thorel is seemingly the answer to Sara’s prayers. The wife of a respected Huguenot Silk Trader, a woman who is keen to be seen as charitable and kind to those less fortunate, dispensing bibles and food to those who need it, Esther is the sort of woman that Sara believes can help her escape her damaged world.
When Sara goes to Esther’s house to ask her to help, Esther’s curiosity and desire to be seen to be a benefactress of Spitalfields that she decides to employ Sara and welcome her as a servant in her household.
This seemingly selfless action by Esther is the start of her whole world turning upside down.
Esther’s silk trader husband Elias is determined to make as much money as possible, and as well as having many men weaving for him in houses all round London, he hires Bisby Lambert, a talented journeyman silk weaver to use the loom in the garret of his house to produce his master piece. Apparently in exchange for the chance for Bisby to be admitted to the Weaver’s Company, and Thorel to get the chance to sell a figured silk for a large amount of money.
Already, there is an unsettling shift in the Thorel Household. A new maid and a journeyman in their house means that the lives of the Thorels will never be the same again. Although Esther may have believed that Sara’s gratitude to her would mean that she had a supportive and hard working maid, she completely underestimates Sara’s determination to not settle for what she has been given, and instead she wants to be brought futher into Esther’s world as her lady’s maid, so she can become indispensible to her.
Esther may seem that she is living a blessed life, with a rich husband and a beautiful home, but right from the start, we are very aware that all is not as it seems in the Esther Thorel’s world. A keen artist, who loves to paint, but is also fascinated by the world her husband works in, and wants to design her own silk. He dismisses her entirely and tells her to be satisfied with her world and that is all as a woman she can handle.
Frustrated by the limits that other people put on her, dissatisfied with her marriage, and aware that her husband is more interested in the maid Moll than he really should be, Esther decides she wants to turn her painting of Blackberry and Wild Rose into a sumptuous silk and needs Bisby’s help to do so. Their relationship is beautifully played out, in an understated and controlled way, that serves to add to the intensity and frustration Esther feels about how she has to behave appropriately when faced with feeling genuine passion for the first time in a long time.
Similarly Sara is easing her way into Esther’s life, becoming the one person who is a constant and seemingly unwavering support. However, we as the reader are aware how although Sara may have left behind her life in a brothel, she is still controlled by others, without a voice of her own. Interestingly, Sara is fully aware of it too – and she is determined to change it.
This is an interesting theme that is deftly woven through the pages of this novel – that women are a commodity to be traded and owned, irrespective of class and age, and that a woman’s body is judged not only on appearance, but also by the ability to have children. Esther is unable to conceive and is judged by society for it, Sara falls pregnant but due to her social standing and unmarried status, she is judged by others who decide that she is not fit to keep her baby.
Motherhood is for me a recurring issue which runs all through Blackberry and Wild Rose, as does the notion of what being a good mother means. Esther has had an uneasy relationship with her mother, and is now denied the chance to be one, while Sara falls pregnant and when she has her baby daughter, she fully understands what it means to be a mother, and that how from now on her daughter has to be at the heart of every choice she makes.
As the novel weaves its way between the narratives of the women, as a reader we start to understand their decisions more clearly. There is an uneasy and at times strained relationship between the Esther and Sara, but they are united in the knowledge that both have seen each other at their most vulnerable and raw. Slowly they edge towards a common understanding and shared empathy and the novel gains an additional layer because of it. It is interesting to see how they are also the main characters, and that the men are secondary to them in terms of plot and character.
In Blackberry and Wild Rose, Sonia has written a beautifully pitched and elegant debut novel, filled with language and descriptions that are evocative and considered. It is also fascinating to see how relevant Esther and Sara’s stories are for women in the present day, and how far we still have to go to achieve the same rights and recognition as men.
I think that Blackberry and Wild Rose is the perfect novel to lose yourself in as the nights draw in. It is in Sonia’s skill as a writer that you are absolutely absorbed into a world that may have been part of Britain’s history centuries ago, but that feels so contemporary and necessary today. It is Esther and Sara’s story, and quite rightly so.
I loved it.
Thank you so much to Ella Patel at Quercus Books a gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.