Dec 4 2009
On rare occasion, I come across a novel that seems so rich, so sumptuous, and so sublime, that I am afraid to reread it. The first reading experience is so close to perfect that I don’t think anything can equal it. Such was the case with Judith Ivory’s Black Silk.
When I first read the book in 2001, I fell in love with it from its earliest pages. Therefore, this time, I approached the prospect of rereading it with both excitement and trepidation. How could a novel possibly be so satisfying a second time? Yet how could a book that had transported me to such heights fail to enchant me again?
The storyline of Black Silk centers, to some degree, on Graham Wessit, the thirty-eight year old earl of Netham, and on Submit Channing-Downes, the twenty-eight year old widow of Graham’s cousin Henry, the Marquess of Motmarche.
Although we only get to see him in Graham and Submit’s memories, the deceased Henry plays a significant role in the book from early on, when his will sends his widow, Submit, to present Graham with a small bequest.
Henry’s death has left behind not only a venerable Marquessate and a wealth of unentailed properties whose possession has now become a bone of contention between Henry’s widow and his illegitimate son William, but also a small, mysterious black lacquer box whose contents call into question everything Submit thought she knew about her husband.
Submit was fifteen when she met Henry and sixteen when they married. Her father, a commoner who made his fortune from a butchering business, wanted very badly for Submit to marry into the nobility, and Submit was, if not exactly true to her name and submissive, then more than willing to make a social success of herself. Henry’s interest in her was wholly welcome to Submit, although her husband was forty-three years her senior.
For twelve years, Submit and Henry had a happy marriage, and their contentment with each other was as satisfying to them as it was incomprehensible to others. Since the marriage began with Submit sixteen to Henry’s fifty-nine, for all that Submit viewed Henry as a husband, not a father, he still had a significant role in shaping her character, her tastes, and her outlook on life.
After opening the box, Submit begins to wonder if there was another dimension to Henry, one she did not know about. She attempts to deliver the box to Graham, a cousin of Henry’s whom she has never before met, hoping that he will have an explanation of its contents -’ one that will enable her to continue to view Henry with the same admiration she has always felt for him.
But Graham is not interested in admiring Henry, and he himself is also a study in contradictions. He has many flaws, as Submit and society see it. For one thing, he is often embroiled in one scandal or another, a state of affairs that began when he was a young boy and his father shot and killed his mother (since Graham had been raised by nannies, this did not damage him as deeply as it might have otherwise).
The latest of these scandals is the pregnant girl who descends on Graham at his club in the first chapter, a laundress carrying twins she falsely accuses him of fathering. It hardly matters to anyone but Graham that he is innocent of these charges, since he is guilty of much else. Even his friends accept the pregnant girl’s word without giving the matter much thought, causing Graham to alternately nurse wounded feelings and ponder all that he may have, wittingly or unwittingly, done to bring about this circumstance.
Then there is the childlike joy Graham apparently takes in everything from extravagant house parties to his very married mistress, Rosalyn Schild. Rosalyn is popular, vivacious, and American, and Graham tries to be in love with her. But the affection Rosalyn inspires in so many people doesn’t add up to the solid commitment from Graham which Rosalyn craves and Graham thinks she probably deserves.
Into this situation comes Submit, bearing what Graham recognizes as Pandett’s Box, a container he would no more open than he would “a box full of adders.” Somehow, Submit’s presence turns into an invitation from Rosalyn to visit in her home, and Submit, who is staying at a very modest inn on a limited income while the court debates whether Henry was of sound mind when he left her the bulk of his estate, accepts the invitation.
Submit hopes to pin down Graham on the subject of Henry and the box, or at least, get him to take the troublesome container off her hands. But the Henry Graham describes is not the Henry Submit knew and loved. Although he took Graham into his home as a child, Henry’s attempts to discipline Graham met with resistance, and Graham’s view of his cousin and former guardian is far more critical than Submit’s.
Graham unsettles Submit, not just because he makes it difficult for her to enshrine her memories of her husband, but because of his seemingly capricious enthusiasm for things like fireworks and photography, his disturbing self-awareness when it comes to his notoriety and leading man looks, and most of all, the way he defies easy categorization.
For his part, Graham also finds Submit difficult to catalogue. She and her relationship with Henry are two enigmas, puzzles he can’t seem to solve. She is not what Graham thinks of as Henry’s type — and yet she was Henry’s wife, in every sense of the word. Submit’s presence in Rosalyn’s home causes Graham to begin to reexamine Henry, and Henry’s motives in sending Submit to personally deliver Pandetti’s Box.
If these two people aren’t complex enough, the other characters are also multifaceted. Henry, Rosalyn, William, and the pregnant girl I have already mentioned. There are also Arnold Tate, the Queen’s Counsel who represents Submit in her lawsuit and Graham in a paternity suit the pregnant laundress brings against him; Gerald Schild, Rosalyn’s faintly pathetic but also faintly heroic cuckolded husband; and an interesting former lover of Graham’s named Peg.
Will Graham win his paternity suit and clear his name? Will Submit win her own suit and become the wealthiest widow in England? Will William overcome the obstacle his illegitimate birth presents to the courts and become the next Marquess of Motmarche? Will Rosalyn ever come to care that her husband Gerald still loves her, or will she keep pining for marriage with Graham? Will anyone ever understand Henry’s mind, heart and his will (in both meanings of that word)? And who is writing The Rake of Ronmoor, a serial based on the thinly-disguised love life of one Graham Wessit? Most importantly, will Graham and Submit ever realize how marvelously well-suited they are for each other, despite their oppositions; how well they fit together regardless, or perhaps even because of, all their contradictions, ambiguities and sharp angles?
These are the questions at the heart of Black Silk, which is surely, from a literary perspective, one of the most accomplished novels in the genre.
I have to acknowledge that I have never had such a difficult time writing a review as I have with this one, for three reasons: (A) I was afraid I would fail to do justice to the many marvels of this book, (B) there is so much material to talk about in Black Silk that I feel I am in danger of writing a book about it, rather than a review of it, and (C) as badly as I wanted to enjoy this book unreservedly once more, the truth is that this time, I do have reservations.
Ivory plumbs her characters to an astonishing depth, and lets us see each one through the multiple perspectives of other people who are both blind to some aspects and keenly perceptive of others. She can also make me forgive almost anything — even Henry, whom I might normally view as a child molester, becomes a human being worthy of attention and sympathy.
If there is a more insightful author in the genre I don’t know who it is, and she is also a wordsmith of the first order. Her prose is like Graham: playful and celebratory. It has the richness of white chocolate mousse, and it is also filled with joie de vivre and generosity. She has a love for human foible and for every physical sense, and reading her, I feel as though she wants to fling her arms around the whole of creation itself.
The first time I read the book, I was enthralled from the very first pages, and so deeply absorbed in the many rich and subtle shadings of the characters, and in the beauty of the words themselves, that it didn’t even occur to me to think of this book as slow-paced. I remember shrugging when others complained that it crawled for them.
This time, though, I was really daunted by its length (I estimate it is about one and a half times as long as today’s single title romances) and it took me about forty percent of the book to get absorbed in the story. Oddly, it was the description of Henry’s courtship of the teenaged Submit that drew my attention more successfully than the beginnings of Graham and Submit’s relationship. But even after this point in the story, I could only read several pages at a time because there was so much to take in on each page, and the end result was that I took a full month to finish reading the book.
You know the line in Richard III, where he calls out “My kingdom for a horse!” This book is stunning, superlative, but for much of the time I was reading it, I felt I would have given a kingdom for a little more narrative drive, something to make me turn the pages- not fast, exactly, but faster.
If I had to try to verbalize what I feel, is that I wish Ivory had done more distilling. The novel lacked potency for me. There were layers upon layers of characterization, of symbolism, of subtleties, and there were linguistic pyrotechnics to equal Graham’s fireworks, but it was like something essential got lost, or tangled up, in all those layers, and eclipsed by those verbal shooting stars.
The book felt like a complex, elaborate, beautifully wrought intellectual exercise. The blood-pumping heart of the story seemed to me, this time, to be buried under layers and layers of cerebral fat. I could see that Graham and Submit were perfect for one another, but I wanted to feel a deep, irreversible connection between them. I wanted my heart to beat faster at the thought of these two people connecting.
I don’t know if it’s intellectual laziness on my part — I hope it isn’t — but when I read, I want to feel the characters are exposed to me, laid bare, in all their painful vulnerability and hearts full of yearning. Here, I just didn’t get enough of that. I got everything else about these characters, detail upon detail, but not enough of their deep, vulnerable cores. It’s like the story was as encumbered as Submit in her hoops; it couldn’t take off and run.
I felt as if there was a glass wall between me and the characters and I can’t really say why it was there this time but not the first time I read Black Silk. I can say that it makes me very very sad that I felt that way. I’m not sure if it’s a lack in the book, or a lack in me.
And so, grading the book is as difficult as writing about it. I now view Black Silk as a flawed but brilliant book; and whereas eight years ago I would have had nothing but praise for it, and given it an A+++, I will now add a word of caution for readers to be patient with it, and lower my grade to an A. Because even with all my reservations, I can’t give it less than that.
This book can be purchased in used mass market paperback. Avon also re-released the book in a nice trade paperback format which you can buy new or you can buy in ebook format from Sony or other etailers.
This book was provided to the reviewer by either the author or publisher. The reviewer did not pay for this book but received it free. The Amazon Affiliate link earns us a 6-7% affiliate fee if you purchase a book through the link (or anything for that matter) and the Sony link is in conjunction with the sponsorship deal we made for the year of 2009. We do not earn an affiliate fee from Sony through the book link.