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Figures in Silk

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Overview

In 1471, merchant John Lambert marries off his two beautiful daughters. The elder, Jane Shore, soon begins a notorious liaison with King Edward IV. The other sister, industrious and clever Isabel, is wed to the scion of a wealthy silk dynasty—and faces a monumental challenge when her husband is killed. Forced into apprenticeship to her mother-in-law, Alice Claver, Isabel learns to love the exotic fabrics from Italy, Persia, Spain, Tunisia, and beyond, discovering both loyal friends and dangerous enemies in this ...

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Figures in Silk

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Overview

In 1471, merchant John Lambert marries off his two beautiful daughters. The elder, Jane Shore, soon begins a notorious liaison with King Edward IV. The other sister, industrious and clever Isabel, is wed to the scion of a wealthy silk dynasty—and faces a monumental challenge when her husband is killed. Forced into apprenticeship to her mother-in-law, Alice Claver, Isabel learns to love the exotic fabrics from Italy, Persia, Spain, Tunisia, and beyond, discovering both loyal friends and dangerous enemies in this breathtaking new world. But Isabel's most powerful alliance will be with sister Jane's royal lover. And when the political landscape shifts perilously, one sister will fall while the other rises—as dire choices are made that will change their lives forever.

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Editorial Reviews

The Times (London)
“A richly textured historical novel.”
Booklist
“Describe(s) late medieval trade and artisanship in fascinating detail. Stands out for its engrossing storytelling, multidimensional characters, and intriguing interpretation of everyone’s favorite love-him-or-hate-him monarch, Richard III.”
BookPleasures.com
“A splendid blend of romance and history.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Vanora Bennett knows what drives her characters, both fictional and historical, and they seem as real and easy to relate to as your next-door neighbor. Bennett’s medieval England comes alive in ways a reader can immediately relate to, even while being transported away from the modern world.”
Publishers Weekly

During the idyllic post-War of the Roses reign of Edward IV, two daughters of a wealthy merchant take divergent roads to success and power in Bennett's solid historical. Isabel, widowed young, resolves to pursue her mother-in-law's silk business. Isabel's sister, Jane, becomes Edward's third mistress, a position of comfort, though lacking in security. Isabel finds a lover of her own in Edward's brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester. When Edward dies suddenly and Richard makes a grab for the throne, the sisters must make difficult choices to ensure their survival. Bennett immerses readers at once in Yorkist England, and while the narrative favors the dynamic Isabel over the flirtatious Jane, it's easy to root for them both. Readers of historical fiction will be pleased with Bennett's sure-handed storytelling. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of 15th-century London, this latest from Bennett (Portrait of an Unknown Woman) centers on the lives of two very different sisters. Beautiful, flighty, and bored with her new husband, Jane Shore quickly catches the eye of the newly crowned Edward IV. Her younger sister, Isabel, follows a different path when she marries into the house of Claver, one of England's finest silk-trading enterprises. When tragedy strikes, Isabel finds herself playing an unexpected role in the family business and discovers a new life among the city's silk women and wealthy merchant class. Additionally, a chance encounter with a charismatic stranger forces Isabel to decide where her love and loyalties ultimately lie. Mysterious, romantic, turbulent, and rich in historic detail, Bennett's engrossing story of medieval England during the War of the Roses should appeal to fans of Sharon Kay Penman and Tracy Chevalier. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/08.]
—Makiia Lucier

Kirkus Reviews
A substantial historical novel set in turbulent 15th-century England, when Richard, Duke of Gloucester, aspired to the throne. John Lambert, a silk merchant who's not as rich or prominent as he would like to be, has his heart set on getting his two daughters, Jane and Isabel, married off to improve the fortunes of his family, but the course of their loves does not run as smoothly as he'd hoped. Jane's husband refuses to consummate the marriage, and she becomes one of the mistresses (the "merry" one) of Edward IV. Meanwhile, her sister believes she's made a good marriage to Thomas Claver, scion of a family prominent in the silk industry, but after his unexpected death Isabel finds out she's destitute, for Thomas was not overly scrupulous in his spending habits. Isabel faces a few grim prospects: returning to her father or apprenticing herself to her mother-in-law, the formidable Alice Claver. Isabel chooses the latter option, and her diligence and astuteness serve her well. She proposes "importing" some Italians and setting up a more efficient silk business in the heart of London. She doesn't simply become a canny businesswoman, however, but also becomes romantically entangled with the handsome and charming Dickon . . . who turns out to be Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Things get thick indeed after Edward dies and Richard claims the throne. In one nostalgic scene Isabel recalls that Dickon taught her how to play chess, disarmingly (and ironically) stating that "the aim of the game is to kill the king." This casual observation becomes the political reality of the narrative. Ably explores themes of romance and politics.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061689857
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/2/2010
  • Pages: 475
  • Sales rank: 967,084
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Vanora Bennett is the author of two acclaimed novels, Portrait of an Unknown Woman and Figures in Silk, and an award-winning journalist. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the Times Literary Supplement, The Times (London), and the BBC. She lives in North London with her husband and two children.

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Read an Excerpt

Figures in Silk

Chapter One

Spring 1471

Outside the gates of London, the victorious army of King Edward IV and his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is camped, waiting to make a triumphal procession into the capital tomorrow. It is nearly a year since the popular Edward, king of England for a decade, was forced to flee his country, as a result of a plot to put his old rival for power, the former Henry VI, back on the throne. The plot has come to nothing. Pitiful, mad Henry VI is a prisoner in the Tower of London again, and will soon be dead. King Edward, handsomer and more golden than ever, is down the river at Westminster Palace for the night, being re-united with his wife, who's spent the past winter in sanctuary. He's taking a first look at the baby son born to her during his absence...his heir, the future King Edward V. Meanwhile, the relieved citizens of London, making preparations to welcome the returning king and his family, are hoping they've lived through the last convulsion of the fighting between the royal houses of York and Lancaster that we know today as the Wars of the Roses.

Isabel knelt with a rustle of tan silk. She didn't know the church, but she was aware of shadowy people moving round, or kneeling in corners. Not many, though. It was too late for Sext and too early for None. Most people would be out working. She put her hands up to her face, palmer fashion, staring down at the long, undecorated fingers in front of her eyes, shutting everything else out until even her eye's memory of the candle halos in front of her had faded. Her father couldn't really mean to marry her to Thomas Claver, could he?

Her lips began to formthe Latin words of prayer. She tried to ignore the picture in her mind, of Thomas Claver's thighs spreading on a window bench at the Tumbling Bear, and his mouth forming that slack, leering grin as he and her uncle both lifted their tankards to an embarrassed serving girl (trying to ignore them, as all servants did) and nudged each other obscenely. She shivered, but perhaps that was just because the prayer that had come to her mind was so somber. "O most sweet lord Jesus Christ, true God," she muttered, fixing her eyes on the calluses and needle pricks on her fingers, "who was sent from the bosom of the almighty Father into the world to forgive sins, to comfort afflicted sinners, ransom captives, set free those in prison, bring together those who are scattered, lead travelers back to their native land, minister to the contrite in heart, comfort the sad, and to console those in grief and distress, deign to release me from the affliction, temptation, grief, sickness, need and danger in which I stand, and give me counsel."

But however hard she concentrated on her fingertips and the movements of her mouth, she couldn't retreat into the muzz of incense and contemplation she was seeking.

Wisps of voices came unbidden into her head. Her father's: "an honor for the family . . ." and ". . . .mportant for the family to have Alice Claver's goodwill . . ." and ". . . .n excellent businesswoman; she's well connected, you know; she'll introduce you to people who can help you in life . . ." and ". . . .t's not what you know, it's who you know . . ." and ". . . .'m relying on you to do the right thing for the family." Her nurse's hurried, worried whispering, trying to make peace: "at your age you think it's all about love . . .?but all men are the same really . . .?I know he's a bit wild now, but you'll set him right in no time, get him working . . .?the important thing is to be in a good family; once you have babies you'll understand that children are all that matter in life anyway." Her sister, Jane, giggling under the bedclothes, somehow managing to be philosophical even in this misery: "Well, at least you know he likes girls. What am I going to do with that old stick Will Shore and his all-night ledgers? Just imagine trying to kiss him!"

It wasn't half so bad for Jane, Isabel thought furiously, trying to fight back the hot prickle behind her eyelids as she remembered her elder sister's bewitching face, all pale blond hair and flirtatiously downturned green eyes and charm, breaking into that rueful smile at the idea of having to marry Will Shore. Will might be a walking cadaver with no chin and no conversation except for what was on his books, but at least he was a man set on his path in the world. He was a freeman and a citizen; he had an honorable apprenticeship behind him and a business already set up. He'd bore Jane to death, but he'd keep her in the silken idleness she liked so much too, lolling on cushions and reading romances and planning her next gown. And she knew it. What did she have to complain about?

Isabel's shoulders heaved. The lump in her chest swelled to bursting, and, she found herself holding her head in her hands, squeezing helplessly at her closed eyes to stop the tears coming out, with her fingers salty and wet and her breath as fast and anguished as if she were running for her life.

A shadow moved nearby. Footsteps stopped a few paces away. She heard the faint click of spurs. She didn't care anymore. Now that she'd abandoned herself to the helplessness of her emotions, she couldn't have stopped the storm inside herself even if she'd wanted to. The footsteps moved away. But not far enough to forget them. A new candle flame blazed around the Virgin, enough to still Isabel's heaving chest for a moment. She fell silent, aware of the tears still coming through her fingers and the smeary mess her face must be, trying to breathe deep to control her sobs, rubbing at her skin to try to dry it off, waiting for the unwanted fellow worshipper to go away.

Figures in Silk. Copyright © by Vanora Bennett. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 117 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(35)

4 Star

(47)

3 Star

(24)

2 Star

(6)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 117 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    the key to this deep fifteenth century tale is the power struggles between the aristocracy and the rising merchant class

    The House of York English King Edward IV is out of money so must find new sources to replenish the treasury. Though young to be a monarch, the Plantagenet ruler knows the only group with cash is the affluent merchant class who control power based on their manipulating the rivalry for the monarchy between the Houses of York and the Lancaster.

    In 1471 wealthy silk merchant John Lambert suffers an economic setback, which forces him to marry his two daughters to rich spouses rather quickly. However, his offspring do not quite see life as dire as he currently does. His older daughter Jane starts a heated scandalous affair with the young monarch; eventually becoming his mistress. Thus he turns to his other child Isabel who he pressures into marrying obese silk merchant Thomas Claver. As Isabel struggles with the horrific thought of marriage to odious Claver, a stranger provides her comfort in a church. Even after doing her duty, Isabel has not forgotten the unknown person who was kind to her. When Claver dies, the stranger returns, but he is not quite the Good Samaritan the widow thought he was.

    Though the romances of the siblings are critical to the story line, the key to this deep fifteenth century tale is the power struggles between the aristocracy and the rising merchant class. Jane rises in influence through her being the king's mistress while Isabel's rise to power is through her knowledge of silk-weaving and global trade as she leads an effort to supplant Venice as the silk trade center. Together John's offspring appear to be the most influential figures in England as they "control" the king and the silk. Fans will relish this powerful historical as real persona embellish the look at an early globalization era with internal partisan strife that sounds so twenty-first century as history in general terms repeats itself.

    Harriet Klausner

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    Fascinating but just misses the mark

    As a reader with an interest in all things regarding Richard III and as an embroiderer myself, I was curious to see how successful this particular venture in Ricardian fiction would be. The primary character, Isabel, and her sister Jane are truly fascinating and the author has put flesh and bones on them. Isabel is understandable and likable. The premise, the establishment of a productive silk industry in England in the 1400's, even though that didn't happen until the 1600's and even then only with marginal success, is well constructed and believable. The sidebar characters, such as Will Caxton, add depth to the tale. The writing is excellent, with one annoying exception...the relationship between Isabel and the Duke of Gloucester. The more intimate conversations between them are awkward and stilted; they disrupt the flow of the story, though Isabel's thoughts about the relationship do work. And even though the author does not attribute all of Richard's supposed crimes to her character, she introduces doubts about him which are questionable historically if one has really read a great deal of material on Richard III. That being said, I would still have to recommend the book for its own merits, that being the well-written story of a competent professional woman in an age when women had few choices other than marriage.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 22, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Another Great one from Vanora Bennett!!

    This was an amazing book. It pulled me in right away and I couldn't put it down. Vanora has an amazing way of writing and I can't wait to see what she writes next.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    ROYALTY FROM THE WORKING CLASS VIEWPOINT

    I have read most of the historical novels about the Royals, so many of the characters already have a place in nmy mind. This story has a tale of the rich, the poor and the powerful from a new and intrigueing angle. I loved it and so will you.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    History Brought to Life

    Although not the best written book of historical fiction I've read the plot is quite interesting. It follows the life of a London silkwoman during the last years of England's War of the Roses and tells the story of her years long affair with a man who was not only reviled in his own day but through Shakepeare's storytelling has become history's most deformed and depraved monarch.

    Not rich in description of place - you don't smell the markets or feel the cavernous halls of Westminster - you do come to understand the cloth business of London and its relationship to Italy as well as the characters and their motivations. As the story unfolds, you come to understand the choices made by Isabel, the main character, as she defies the expectations of her family and winds up with a most unlikely lover. I enjoyed the way the author mixes the history of the mercantile class with that of the monarchy as both struggle to establish themselves in 15th century London. Word of caution - that depraved king I spoke of earlier? Well, he's not so depraved after all...

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2009

    What a Great summer read

    In the best of "historical novels" and fun to read. Easy on the eyes.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 15, 2009

    Overall good book

    I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to someone else. It touched on early women in business, as well as forbidden love. There was some suspense as well as drama.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2009

    One of the best books I've EVER read

    One of the best books I've ever read. At first I wasn't sure, in the beginning I was afraid it was going to more about silk and silk making than I wanted to know, but it wasn't. This was a fantastic book, very original - I didn't want to put it down and I didn't want it to end. I hope this author will hurry and write more books.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 10, 2010

    Want to know everything you never wanted to know about the silk trade, making silk, weaving silk, coloring silk, well you get the idea. This is a trade or how to book masquerading as a romance. The cover art is superb but the rest of the book is not.

    The book dragged and to be honest it became a chore to wade through it. If you want to know everything, and I mean everything, about the silk trade, how to weave silk, and so on in medieval times then buy the book. If you are looking for a nice romance book then takes you away, forget it. This book is best borrowed from a friend, borrowed from the library, but not bought. If you have a project due on making silk, coloring silk, weaving silk, selling silk, and want it set in medieval times well then use this book as a reference. The author was trying to write a historical romance along with authentic touches but went too far in detailing the silk trade. Come on already! Bring on the romance! Enough of the silk!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 13, 2009

    Historically Romantic Novel

    I found the story historically interesting, lots of colorful characters, romance in the kings court and bed...good read!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Power struggles

    "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Figures in Silk, a book about surviving life in London during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, certainly validates the old saying. Sisters Isabel and Jane experience first hand the effects of political turmoil, one from the outside, and the other from the inside, of court life. Both girls are unwillingly married at a young age, but neither marriage survives. One sister goes into the silk trade with her dynamic mother in law, and the other becomes mistress to the king. The plot is fairly standard issue for historical fiction with womjen protagonists, but its emphasis on political infighting, intrigue, and machinations, is its driving force. The author's treatment of Richard III is balanced, and major and supporting characters alike are well developed. Three dramatic but credible surprises make for a satisfying conclusion and an enjoyable reading adventure.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2013

    Good read

    I enjoyed the storyline, characters, and learned a lot about the time period and merchants of this era. It had some surprising twists and turns.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2013

    Excellent reading!

    Vanora Bennett manages to capture the atmosphere of the 15th Century with great success. Entertaining subject matter and storyline. I am looking forward to reading "Portrait of an Unknown Woman".

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  • Posted July 22, 2012

    Highly recommended

    I liked the part about the silk industry the best. Stories about the English royal families have been over done.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2012

    Very good historical novel

    I really liked this book. It is about a girl who works her way up in the weaving/sewing trade in 1400s London, but it is also about love, friendship, commerce, history, mystery, arts, and more.

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  • Posted June 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Disappointing

    I am a fan of historical fiction and when I saw FIGURES IN SILK in the bargain pile, I grabbed it. From the description on the back book cover, I thought I'd be enjoying the story about two sisters, but I was sorely disappointed. The book focuses mainly on Isabel who we first meet as a 14-year-old sheltered girl from a wealthy family and her fears about being forced into marriage with Thomas Claver. In the first scene she is praying/sobbing in church when she meets a "hard" stranger with a "wolfish" smile. She is instantly captivated by him and so begins her decade plus affair with Dickon (aka Richard, Duke of Gloucester). When she agrees to share a meal with him, it feels unbelievable that an innocent girl with no worldly experience would agree to do this.

    Isabel goes on to marry Thomas Claver and her life is set on a path of silk merchants. There are some good parts in the book especially Isabel's determination to find her place in the Claver household when her husband is killed after only two weeks of marriage. I was rooting for her at this point in the book, but the endless descriptions of silks, fabrics and the intricacies of the silk trade were boring and I ended up skipping pages at a time.

    The author clearly misses the mark in not focusing more on the sisterly relationship of Isabel and Jane. I actually thought Jane's story was quite interesting, but there were only snippets of how she became the mistress of King Edward, survived being arrested as a witch and imprisoned in Ludgate Prison. Even with this turn of events, Isabel remains enamored with Dickon/Richard and never once believes that he has done despicable things to become King. For such a smart business woman, Isabel can't seem to connect the dots.

    Another point where the reader must suspend belief is throughout the book both sisters are having affairs for 10+ years, but neither one ends up having a child. That seemed totally unrealistic along with the scene involving the arrest and execution of Lord Hastings. For this one scene only Richard is portrayed as the "mad" king. It was totally out of character with how Richard had been portrayed throughout the story. The ending of the book seemed contrived and not satisfying at all. I didn't care what Isabel did. This book could have been a fresh take on Richard III's rise and fall during the War of the Roses, but it falls short on so many levels that I cannot recommend it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2012

    Another good read!

    I wish the ending would have been different, but it was a great book.

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  • Posted January 15, 2012

    Excellent read

    This is the first novel I have read by Ms. Bennett and was pleasantly surprised. The story kept me fully engaged from the start. The premise revolves around the Lambert sisters and their relationships with Edward IV and Richard III. Will be reading more by this author as I thoroughly enjoyed her style and delivery of material.

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  • Posted September 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Pleasant read

    Richard III has been much maligned and this book is no exception. Though, in this novel, he comes across as just petty. The beginning of the novel was absorbing and written in the measured style of Bennett's "An Unknown Woman", but, somehow, the last part feels less lyrical and a bit rushed. Still, it is a rather enjoyable story. The story of Isabel and, to a lesser degree, her older sister Jane Shore makes for a good, pleasant read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2011

    Great Quick Read!

    Loved the book! I finshed it a One Day, because I didn't want to put it down!Easy reading and great for anyone who enjoys historically based fiction...

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