REVIEW: Silk and Stone by Dinah Dean
Sometimes the miracles you were praying for were there all along…
Norman-born Elys de Wix fills her time with embroidery on the long pilgrimage to Rome to pray for healing of brother’s injury. She never thought much of it, until their new traveling companion, Saxon master-mason Aylwin, admires her skill. While not as handsome and diverting as Sir Fulk, when Elys is dreading entering a nunnery, it is Aylwin who whispers a solution: she could make a living from her embroidery.
On her return to England, Elys finds her brother Matthew living in Waltham, a little church known for its miracles. She has always known her calling was to be a mother, not a nun, but with her dowry already paid to the nuns, Elys will need a miracle of her own to find a husband, or someone who believes in her needlework, to keep her out of the cloister walls.
With glorious historical detail of Medieval Christian life and the crafting of religious objects from stone and silk, Elys’ journey to love and fulfillment will charm readers of historical romance.
This is one of Dinah Dean’s historical fiction books that I put off reading because I wasn’t sure if it was a historical romance or not. Plus, Dean only wrote so many books and reading it would be one less in my TBR pile. It is more a historical fiction book but it does have a romance, and a lovely one, too. Let’s go back in history to the 12th century when England was being fought over by two cousins and, as shown in this book – “The Siege Winter”, God and his angels slept.
In the opening scene, we see Elys, her imperious mother, her rigid Uncle Richard (a Templar), the meek gentlewoman Maud (put upon, ordered about, and in the end just happy to to be allowed to be a lay sister in a convent – such was the life of the medieval poor relation), along with Richard’s Templar soldiers who have traveled to Rome to pray for Elys’s brother who is suffering a gruesome injury. Having been to all the Holy shrines in England and a few others in Europe with no improvement in his wound, they arrive in Rome. Duty done (which was hard on the knees), they’re headed back overland (as none of the [weak, in Richard’s opinion] women will endure a ship journey if they don’t have to.) Along the way they meet and join up with a knight (handsome, Norman) and a master mason (not bad looking, Anglo Saxon).
With the miserable trip over (including a channel crossing by boat which was unavoidable as this predated the Chunnel by a millennium), the women learn that brother Matthew has journeyed to Waltham, that we last saw in “Daughter of the Sunset Isles” which has a reputation for miracle working. Who should show up but Aylwin who has been sent by his master (on King Stephen’s side) to carve a wonderful font for the church. During the trip home from Rome, he had given Elys some encouragement and tips on how she could earn a living and avoid being sent to a nunnery. Using her skill as a broideress, she gets some commissions to replace the purloined (by the Normans, of course) pieces (altar clothes, copes, etc) of the church. Her family might froth at the thought of her becoming a craftswoman but they change their tune when she reveals how much she will be paid.
Elys, her brothers, and Aylwin settle down and begin their lives in the village of Waltham which, as it’s (mainly) owned by the church, and is off the beaten path, has not come under the predation that many have suffered in England due to the unsettled times. There are some marvelous events and scenes of everyday life in a medieval village (May day, bi yearly markets, and haying) along with details of the (look at some real examples on the V&A website) embroidery Elys does and Aylwin’s stone carving (referred to as his mystery). As they spend time together, it becomes clear to the reader if not to (the slightly oblivious) Elys that she has an admirer. Aylwin has to state his case (and worth) to her family (who, as Normans, are slightly gobsmacked – who knew an Anglo-Saxon craftsman was worth so much but, still, is he worthy of her?). But fate isn’t through with these characters and the political climate and godless mercenaries are about to catch up with them.
Dean effortlessly includes and thus teaches readers little tidbits about everyday life in medieval England. Guilds and lodges control craftspeople but in return those same institutions gave them power and bound them together. If a mason, for instance, felt another mason was being hard done by, the first mason would be more than willing to go against those authorities to help a brother mason. (Hint, hint). Elys’s family might still be bemused that she would be paid such amazing amounts of money for her needle skills but other craftspeople would recognize and celebrate those skills. (Hint, hint)
There is a character from the Holy Land, whose father converted from Judaism. Though this character is treated well in the book, Dean mentions how Judaism is considered both a race and a religion and that this character prefers to stay in the background because of prevailing prejudice. What Aylwin, as an “oppressed by the Normans” Anglo-Saxon, tells Elys about this character, makes her think about how she, as a Christian Norman, hasn’t had to face things like this.
People were (very) religious and willing to journey to shrines and sites where miracles were reputed to occur and truly felt that prayers offered sincerely and earnestly would have a positive effect. Yet miracles could occur in other ways and who says that even if God might not have actually performed them, the offered prayers hadn’t in some way wrought the conditions that brought about what had been prayed for. I must say that unlike Diana Norman, Dinah Dean’s religious characters were, by and large, decent and caring people. I also enjoyed Aylwin and the other masons talking shop about the newfangled pointed arches and wall stress. There was a reason why medieval masons were so admired.
“Silk and Stone” turned out to be a great book with lots of historical details, a lovely and understated romance, and a Norman heroine + Anglo-Saxon hero. The heroine has agency, the hero respects her, and there’s a cat. And ferrets, and a warrener, and a reeve. So much medieval goodness. I’m very happy it’s now easily available. B+