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Figures in Silk: A Novel

Figures in Silk: A Novel

3.8 117
by Vanora Bennett

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“Bennett’s medieval England comes alive in ways a reader can immediately relate to, even while being transported away from the modern world.”
Christian Science Monitor


The story of two sisters caught up in the maelstrom of historic events, Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett combines the fascinating art


“Bennett’s medieval England comes alive in ways a reader can immediately relate to, even while being transported away from the modern world.”
Christian Science Monitor


The story of two sisters caught up in the maelstrom of historic events, Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett combines the fascinating art and history of silk making with political intrigue and a sweeping, unforgettable love story. A breathing immersion into a Tudor England torn asunder by the War of the Roses, Figures in Silk is historical fiction at its finest—a rare and welcome treat for readers captivated by the fiction of Tracy Chevalier, Sarah Dunant, Geraldine Brooks, Susan Vreeland, and the Boleyn novels of Phillipa Gregory.

Editorial Reviews

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.)

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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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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.

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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