REVIEW: The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau
In eighteenth century England, porcelain is the most seductive of commodities.
In eighteenth century London, porcelain is the most seductive of commodities; fortunes are made and lost upon it. Kings do battle with knights and knaves for possession of the finest pieces and the secrets of their manufacture.
For Genevieve Planché, an English-born descendant of Huguenot refugees, porcelain holds far less allure; she wants to be an artist, a painter of international repute, but nobody takes the idea of a female artist seriously in London. If only she could reach Venice.
When Genevieve meets the charming Sir Gabriel Courtenay, he offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse; if she learns the secrets of porcelein, he will send her to Venice. But in particular, she must learn the secrets of the colour blue…
The ensuing events take Genevieve deep into England’s emerging industrial heartlands, where not only does she learn about porcelain, but also about the art of industrial espionage.
With the heart and spirit of her Huguenot ancestors, Genevieve faces her challenges head on, but how much is she willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of the colour blue?
Dear Ms. Bilyeau,
Tell me a book is set during the mid 18th century and I’m already halfway to reading it. When it promises to let me into a world I’ve not explored before, I’m delighted. This book is both of those and more: fine porcelain; religious freedom; growing industrial might; and the fate of Kings, countries, and chemists. Plus most of the characters are middle or working class!
Genevieve Planche is a granddaughter of Huguenots who fled from France after King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. His determination to have all French Protestants converted to Catholicism or else drove talented artists to seek refuge in England. Though her family live in Spitalsfields as did the characters in “The Hidden Thread,” Genevieve’s grandfather broke with tradition and became a painter – something Genevieve longs to do as well. But women are not thought capable of doing serious art so instead of apprenticing herself to a master and learning about oil painting and composition, she is relegated to painting watercolor designs for the beautiful fabrics created by Anna Maria Garthwaite. That is until fallout from the beginning of rebellion against the pitiful wages paid to silk weavers ends her employment there.
When she has a chance to seize her dreams, she does so. Only her actions gain her nothing except humiliation and cause her beloved grandfather pain. Yet her rebellion against taking a position as a painter in the Derby Porcelain Works does bring her to the attention of a man who says he will be able to help her. If she will work to discover the secret behind a breathtaking new color for porcelain, Sir Gabriel Courtenay will see that she gets to Venice with £5,000 in her pocket and a chance to train with a master artist.
Though the idea of spying is distasteful to her, the opportunity to study and become what she’s dreamed of, and what England has denied her, overcomes her scruples. After all, it’s only paint for pots and not government secrets. Sir Gabriel filled her in on the cutthroat competition among the porcelain works of various countries but though he won’t reveal who his backers are, Genevieve knows there are several other English porcelain companies all fighting to get the newest thing and snag the fickle, wealthy buyers. She’ll slip into her position in Derby, discover the secret behind this amazing color and no one will be the wiser or hurt. Right? But what will happen when Genevieve discovers the truth behind the color and the price that must be paid?
So yeah, I had no idea about the complexities behind the plot for “The Blue.” As a woman who never had those types of barriers placed between me and what I wanted to do, I ached for Genevieve’s thwarted dreams. The terror of the Huguenots at the thought of England falling under the control of France is made clear in the history of Genevieve’s family and the family retainer who escaped imprisonment and torture before fleeing to safety in England. The English might still look at them as foreigners but these people are fiercely devoted to their new country and Genevieve considers herself to be as English as anyone.
The details of the factory and the artistry of the pieces being made by Derby surprises Genevieve and she slowly discovers herself becoming driven to gain the approval of the painters who in turn are eager for the designs she will make for them. She quickly realizes that her espionage will not be easy nor will it be a victim less crime. This is their livelihood and porcelain factories can easily go bankrupt if competitors gain an advantage. One person has already died trying to gain the secret and security is smothering. Plus there’s a someone behind the secret – someone Genevieve finds herself falling for even as he falls for her.
The change in her views comes about naturally and the whole excess of security is believable given the history of the battle and spying to discover the secrets to make and decorate porcelain. It was worth a king’s ransom and that’s what people were willing to pay to corner any advantage in the business. The villain is smoothly evil and diabolically manipulative while Genevieve and her Someone are just as determined to triumph in the end. I didn’t see one direction coming that the book took but enjoyed it and the chance to see a real life legendary relationship. There were a few little anachronisms with clothes and Genevieve’s future is left a bit open-ended but the rest more than made up for that. I love books that teach me stuff without the lecture or the exam and this one delivered. B+
Want to know more?
The Billiou-Stillwell-Perine House is the oldest house on Staten Island and was started by the author’s ancestor, a Huguenot who fled Europe in the 17th century.
Images of various porcelain makers – note this is a site that also offers pieces for sale.