Black Silk was one of the first two Romance novels I read, and to this day it remains one of my absolute favorites. Submit Channing-Downs, the woman who deeply mourns the husband who was almost three times her age, is so unlike most Romance heroines. Her hair has the quality of thick yarn, her teeth overlap, her skin is almost preternaturally pale against the unremitting black of her mourning clothes. She does not excel at small talk, is not given to socializing, and despite her sharply correct manners, her sharply mannered aloofness offers the impression of dour smugness. While Graham Wessit, Earl of Netham, seems, at least initially, like so many Romance heroes: profligate in his sexual exploits, an enthusiastic adulterer, and a darkly handsome, playfully charming rogue. As excessive and colorful in his habits and appearance as the fireworks he concocts, Graham initially seems to be Submit’s complete, radical opposite. All of which gives their ultimate happiness together the appearance of a miracle. But unlike the dues ex machina of so many fairy tales, the miracle of Black Silk is how powerfully and perfectly rendered this love story is.
When Submit Wharton married Henry Channing-Downes on her sixteenth birthday, she had no idea what to expect from this scholarly man 43 years older than she. Her father had named her to her purpose in life, but as Submit insightfully notes, he "was not very astute in his choices, merely lucky." And that luck had much more to do with the success of marrying his middle class daughter into society than in molding her personality. For while Submit was, in many ways, Henry’s "creature," she was not shaped into some milquetoast acolyte; rather, Henry pushed and challenged her into intellectual and emotional independence. That she tempered these with deep affection and love for her husband was more her choice than Henry’s, since he never mastered his discomfort with winning a pretty, bright, drastically younger wife.
And Henry is not alone in that; from his first peek at the young widow (he never saw or communicated with her until Henry’s death) Graham cannot make sense of Henry and Submit’s marriage, either, assuming the petite woman bound in yards of black silk must either be little more than an abused child grown sympathetic to her abuser or happily liberated from marriage to an impotent, arrogant, cruel old man. That she refuses both explanations baffles Graham, a man who, at 38, is at his own crossroads. He cannot decide whether he loves his mistress, a married American woman, Rosalyn Schild, who carts her cuckolded husband around like another piece of luggage, and whose audacious, extroverted beauty seeks the glamour of marriage to the Englishman who inspired the barely fictionalized sensation, "The Rake of Ronmoor" serial. A laundress has sued him for paternity of her twins, and despite his innocence, a sensational past has obliterated any convincing defense based on the truth.
While not in full ennui, Graham knows something in his life – he, most likely – must change, and that change occurs unwanted and unwontedly when Submit Channing-Downs shows up with a box of pornographic drawings featuring a much younger Graham Wessit and a popular actress. Henry’s will has instructed Submit to deliver the box to Graham, and neither is particularly happy about the result. Graham is forced to confront his unresolved feelings toward Henry, his cousin, his erstwhile guardian (Graham’s parents died tragically when he was eight), and a man who so deeply disapproved of Graham’s excesses that he did not protest when Graham was thrown out of Cambridge, prosecuted criminally, sentenced to prison, and then to the pillory for those pictures. That Graham was likely unconstitutionally capable of conforming to Henry’s expectations did not matter to either; Graham secretly wanted approval and Henry openly wanted obedience, and for years the two remained estranged.
The pictures, then, borne by Henry’s arresting young widow, seem both a punishment and a perverse opportunity. For Graham, there is one more chance to get back at Henry for being such an unforgiving son of a bitch. While Submit carries with her a small hope that Graham might help her in defending Henry’s will, which he wrote by hand in the service of excluding his only, illegitimate son, William, who is determined to win both title and property. William has already had Submit evicted from Motmarche and tied up the estate assets, leaving Submit with little money and even fewer public advocates. Graham, who has been half-heartedly lending William money, finds Submit’s independence and her isolation surprisingly appealing, even as he suffers embarrassment and anger over the "gift" from Henry of his scandalous past, hand-delivered by yet one more symbol of Henry’s superiority.
To say that Graham and Submit are befuddled and fascinated by each other is an understatement. From the beginning there is a force between them that belies their superficial differences, electrified by Graham’s antagonism toward Henry and Submit’s shock at the drawings (of course she peeked in the box!) and bafflement at Henry’s motives in sending her to Graham with them. Indeed, Henry’s presence dominates Submit and Graham’s relationship for much of the novel, by turns as judge, benefactor, antagonist, and primogenitor. At some points he seems a substantive presence in Submit and Graham’s tentative friendship, as Submit clings to his memory for support and Graham strives to re-direct Submit’s romantic interest to himself.
The extent to which Henry brings Submit and Graham together and the extent to which he keeps them at odds seem roughly equal. Graham wants so much to understand this woman who some liken to a crow (or in William’s case, to a spider), because "whatever it was about her that attracted, it was subtle." Like the way she can acknowledge Graham’s magnetism without being drawn too close to a man who dressed "as if he wanted not merely to bowl a person over but knock her down with his good looks." She disapproves of his experimentation with fireworks, while he disapproves of her unremittingly black wardrobe and dutiful mourning affect. And while both are at loose ends, emotionally, neither can find a safe harbor in the other’s company. In short, Graham and Submit rattle each other in profound ways. Submit is not interested in the trappings of Graham’s superficial bounty, while Graham is pruriently interested in what lies inside Submit’s dress, as well as her mind and heart. Graham is smarter and more insightful than he appears, while Submit is more rebellious and romantic than she appears. It is on some level chemistry – like the friction igniting Graham’s fireworks – that makes their attraction so frustrating and so irresistible:
“You are devastating,” he said honestly. Her skin, he realized, was flawlessly smooth, something a man wanted to touch. What she was was tactile. She had a fine, gold down along her cheek. He watched her mouth, waiting for it to open, thinking of the teeth that overlapped in front. He ran his tongue along the back of his own.
"Don’t do this," she said.
"Pretend I’m your sort." Her eyes slid to him rather meanly. "Or you mine."
"I don’t have a sort."
"Of course you do."
"Laughing, pretty women." A pause. "Mrs. Schild."
He made a disgusted sound. "So I am the dark and morose fellow with a penchant for trivial women."
"Mrs. Schild is not trivial."
He made a glum twist to his mouth. “You were meant to deny the whole description.”
He rolled out flat on his back.
In many ways, Black Silk is an elaborate strip tease, as these two characters slowly peel away their own and each other’s layers. And for much of the book, their budding friendship is quite chaste, which is ironic considering it is built quite solidly on a foundation of profanity, heretical disobedience, and impure desires. Yet there is an honesty in their evolving closeness that is disorienting enough to make them more and more visible, and therefore vulnerable, to each other. And over time that shared vulnerability begins to replace Henry’s ghostly imposition.
Henry’s importance, though, is not extinguished in Submit and Graham’s eventual union; in fact, it is the mystery of Henry’s motives that endures beyond the book’s conclusion. The aura of prurience surrounding his relationships with both Submit and Graham is not completely dissipated, either, although I would argue that it is transmuted by the authentic compatibility between Graham and Submit, as well as the prospect of their deep and lasting happiness together. And in that there might be a clue as to what Henry still has to offer these two people so powerfully shaped – positively and negatively – by what the world seems to expect of them.
Graham was confounded to remember Henry that week and his damned philosophical approach to life as he made what Henry would have called “Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.” To survive, all mortals had to trust in someone, something, Henry claimed. Though, unlike his friend Kierkegaard, Henry was not a God-trusting man; he made the leap of faith in himself-‘as if he were God. In any event, for Graham it was an unsettling leap. He didn’t truly trust Tate, or Fate or Life, or even Henry or himself, for that matter.
In (simplified) Kierkegaardian terms, without that leap of faith, a person grows a hole inside that he tries to fill with various God substitutes. Thus grows his spiritual "despair," his distance from God and from peace, which creates unhappiness and dissatisfaction and can drive a person to curse and rebel against God (as Henry admitted on his deathbed he had done). So here are Graham and Submit – one of whom has so many friends and virtually no one he can trust, while the other has lost the one person she could trust, leaving her virtually friendless and homeless – feeling contradictorily attracted to someone who represents everything they distrust.
What does Henry’s refusal to take that leap of faith mean for two people Henry brought together in such a strange way? For Graham, "[a]ll his life, it had been perhaps simply this: Not wanting to be different from Henry so much as wanting all he had in common with Henry to total a different sum-‘a happy existence." Submit, who had been happy with Henry, found in his death the fear that “[w]ithout him, it seemed a part of her grew dark, as if a light had been turned out, an aspect of her never to be fully known and loved again.”
There are many enmeshed images in Ivory’s novel and symbols accumulate quickly and plentifully: the black silk of Submit’s dresses and the black satin lining the notorious box of pictures; the ambiguities created by Henry’s obsessive will and the complexities among Submit, Graham, and William’s interconnectedness; Darwin’s theories and the question of whether Submit and Graham can adapt and evolve beyond their incomplete selves. Black Silk is intellectually rich and infused with a variety of philosophical and scientific principles and theories. It is a dense book, a difficult book, at times.
But for me, its brilliance lies in that powerful image of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, which is echoed and reflected in the balanced fulfillment that Graham and Submit’s relationship ultimately represents:
“Submit, listen to me. There are probably good reasons why we shouldn’t be together. But the overriding fact is I love you, and you love me-‘you need me. I can keep your life from becoming hopelessly earthbound. And I need you, as sure as leaps in the air need gravity.”
The leap of faith Submit and Graham take is not essentially spiritual, although it certainly transcends anything they had previously experienced. And unlike Henry, who could never accept his own happiness with uncomplicated contentment, Graham and Submit have the opportunity to combine their very opposite, elemental characteristics such that their leap is one to faith in love – their own and each other’s – to joy and acceptance and the trust that comes from the interdependence of two unique and independent individuals. In this, I find Black Silk’s superlative (A+) genius, along with my own joy in knowing that the faith I place in the world Ivory creates is unquestionably a leap worth taking.
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.
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