Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett

While I was on the treadmill this afternoon, I watched as Gordon Brown, his wife, and his two children took their leave of 10 Downing Street. Brown stood in front of the hoards of photographers, smiled, then climbed into a car, streaking through London toward Buckingham Palace to give his resignation to the Queen. I’m not British, nor have I paid much attention to British politics since I spent the spring of 2007 in Scotland, but I got a lump in my throat watching his car make his way down the city streets. It’s amazing to me that some of us are lucky enough to live in countries where the our leaders step down after public elections when history has shown us that it’s just as easy to hold your position through battle and murder. Say what you want about politics and politicians, but there are times when the system is beautiful.

I just finished another one of my historical fiction novels, one that shows us what happens when the established system just breaks down. Vanora Bennett’s Figures in Silk— yet another novel based in the Ricardian period—centers around Isabel, a wealthy girl turned silkwoman after the death of her young husband during one of the many skirmishes of the War of the Roses. As she labors to break the Italian stranglehold on the silk market and establish a manufacturing center in London, she enters into a relationship with a secretive man, Dickon. To say any more would be a spoiler, so I’ll let things go here.

What I find so interesting about this period of Plantagenet decline is how people lived with what was essentially the same war through several generations. Yorkists and Lancastrians faced each other on the battlefield time and time again, two sides of a single family warring for the throne at the cost of their country and their people. In this novel, we experience the deaths of three kings (four, depending on whether you’re counting kings that made it to their coronation or not), each time throwing England into a tizzy of changing dynasties and loyalties. Such instability stifles intellectual and industrial growth; I don’t think that I can be faulted in thinking that England’s renaissance happened mainly due to the relative calm of the Tudor period. When our governments are stable, so are we. A good percentage of our politicians know this and graciously remove themselves from a seat of power when called to by the people. Figures in Silk is not a novel that will go will be touted in literature classes ten years from now, but it bears a read if only to appreciate what we have now.

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