It has long been my contention – and I always stressed it to students – that the best way of acquiring eclectic general knowledge is to read lots of fiction. Every story has to have a setting and a background and there are bound to be things therein that you didn’t know. You, the reader, absorb facts unconsciously and without effort. Or to put that more succinctly just go with what my students used to call Mrs Elkin’s Mantra: “People who read books know things”.
Well I knew nothing whatever about the eighteenth century Huguenot silk weaving community in and around Spitalfields in London but I certainly do now thanks to Sonia Velton’s warming entertaining novel (2019) about two women who get caught up in it.
Esther is the non-Huguenot wife of a stern, unappealing – and ultimately hypocritical and vengeful – third generation silk producer who now employs journeymen to weave for him. She is a secret artist who would desperately like to design silks but, conventionally, women are precluded from such work. The title refers to one of her designs, painstakingly mapped in squares for transfer to the loom.
Sara, daughter of a cook, is sent to London to employment but is intercepted by a ruthless female brothel keeper and works for some years as a prostitute. Then, for various reasons, she is enabled to move to Esther’s household as a maid. The tense relationship between these two very different women runs through the novel like a thread in one of the woven silks it describes.
As the plot unfolds we get, along with other things, the early days of trade unionism amongst bitter and belligerent weavers, several irregular liaisons, a horrifying account of childbirth and a great deal of corruption and self-interestedness. With one tragic exception the men do not, on the whole, come out of this story very well.
It’s a good read with lots of strong characters and I emerged reeling with what I’d learned. I’d never even thought about, for example, about what soon challenged this skill and craft of these workers – cheap imports of cloth like calico from India. Neither had I realised what a huge step it was for a man to complete his master piece and be accepted as member of a livery company rather than spending all his life doing piece work for someone else. And I certainly didn’t know that “cutting the silk” on the loom – vandalising the work to make a political point – was a hanging offence.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens