REVIEW: The Hidden Thread by Liz Trenow
NOTE- There is a paperback version of the book called “The Silk Weaver.” This story has a HEA.
The Hidden Thread is a breathtaking novel about the intricate craft of silk and the heartbreak of forbidden love.
When Anna Butterfield’s mother dies, she’s sent to live with her uncle, a silk merchant in London, to make a good match and provide for her father and sister. There, she meets Henri, a French immigrant and apprentice hoping to become a master weaver. But Henri, born into a lower class, becomes embroiled in the silk riots that break out as weavers protest for a fair wage.
Dear Ms. Trenow,
I adore novels set in the 18th century. The wigs, the small swords and especially the luscious clothes. Usually the books are about the aristocracy – for who else could afford these things? – but when I saw this book on offer, I was delighted. A novel about the people who actually make this beautiful fabric and about the tumultuous events of the period sounded like something I needed to check out. I enjoyed the charming openings for each chapter from “Lady’s Book of Manners” and “Advice for apprentices and journeymen OR a sure guide to gain both esteem and an estate.”
So yes, the main characters here are the London merchants as well as the modistes, working class apprentices and journeymen. They are training towards becoming master weavers, at which point they can hope for a comfortable life, but they still not Quality. At this time in history the trade was dominated by French immigrants, driven to England by the Protestant religion issues in France. Though they were at first welcomed, now native English weavers are becoming angry over the continued immigration and also with the cheaper French cloth being smuggled in. The wealth of information on the weaving trade, fashions of the day and how the fabric is shifting from overblown patterns to more natural ones is easily incorporated into the story without becoming a history lesson. The information on how to weave realistic flowers with curves and shading is fascinating though I don’t totally understand it all.
The French émigrés have been driven out of their homeland due to their religion and are grateful to be able to practice their faith in peace in London. The French church is also a source of help in settling into their new home as well as a network for employment. Anna has lost some of her faith as has her vicar father after the slow, painful death of her mother. Much of London society that actually attends services are paying lip service and just showing off their clothes.
Anna soon discovers how restrictive the daily lives of the unmarried bourgeoisie London women are if they don’t have to actually work. No wandering about, no visiting without chaperones, and it would depend on the men in your life as to how much you could read of current events much less discuss them and learn of the wider world around you. At times she feels stifled by it. The one exception is Miss Charlotte, the costumiere patronized by Anna’s aunt. She is a single woman with a thriving business but nonetheless is subject to the whims of her customers. Still, Anna and Henri manage to meet and continue seeing each other.
There are several conflicts at work here. First there is the difference in their stations in life and society. Henri is a worker – working towards being a merchant one day if he can ever afford to set himself up in business but not there yet – while Anna is the daughter of a vicar and niece of an already established, prosperous mercer. Though he’s lived in England for years, Henri is still viewed as a French foreigner. Henri is also pulled into the protests against the unfair wages being paid the weavers who are close to starvation due to the imports undercutting local workers. Then there is the twist of Henri’s master offering to let Henri inherit the silk weaving business where Henri has apprenticed but with a catch: marriage to the daughter of the establishment. Once Henri would have been thrilled. Now he knows what true love is but he also has his mother to provide for and his future to consider. Thank you for not having Henri and Anna carelessly toss aside the truly life altering dilemmas facing them.
Anna recognizes how similar Henri is in actions and temperament to her beloved father. Yet, she still can’t see a way past the obstacles in their path. It was at this point that I began to get nervous about a HEA. But when Anna discovers the fate Henri faces, it galvanizes her and her father into action. Meanwhile, he, after meeting Henri, pronounces him a good and honorable man. There must be a way, I thought. Somehow Henri must be saved.
The merry-go-round of blackmail and favors being called in works on Henri’s behalf as everyone always has something they need kept quiet. Luckily for him, all this worked to his advantage and Anna was willing to press the person needed to get the ball rolling.
Henri’s prison realization that he needs to live his future life, should he be lucky enough to have one, on his own terms and to his own ends realistically gooses the, until then flickering, romance. Henri’s not going to settle for a woman he doesn’t love nor tie himself to a possible inheritance from his master that comes with any strings attached. The epilogue explains a lot and lets us know What Came Next but did meander on a little.
Brava for giving us a heroine who is of her times yet manages to carve out a life for herself beyond the norm and for this to be based on an actual person. Plus additional points for using working class characters and incorporating the dramatic events of the time in the weaving craft. I also enjoyed the employment of Georg Ehert, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Anna Maria Garthwaite and other historical personages to show the changing times and styles of the era which were moving more towards natural designs and elements in the Age of Enlightenment. B
“It is wonderful,” she said simply. “I would never have believed that all those details could be translated into the weave of a fabric. You have perfectly reproduced my very rough painting and turned it into a true work of art. Look, even my little beetle is here.” A single tear escaped down her cheek, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand.
Everyone laughed, and Henri felt that he might burst with pride. For a second, he was transported back to the market, hanging over the rails of the gallery overlooking the flower stalls, his heart beating wildly as he watched the shapes coming to life at the point of Anna’s graphite. From the moment he’d first held it in his hands the design had almost taken over his world: working out how he could make the loom weave it with the most faithful similitude, the meticulous scrutiny needed to translate it onto squared paper, the painstaking choice of yarn colors, the careful weaving and the satisfaction of watching the finished cloth emerging, inch by slow inch, rolling onto the take- up beam.
All the time, as he’d worked, Anna’s presence had been close, in his mind. And now she was here, in his house, with his family, holding his fabric, the fabric they had created together, the fabric that bore all his love for her. He could not imagine any place, or any company, in which he might find greater happiness.
Want to know more? Check out these beautiful fabrics created by Anna Maria Garthwaite, an actual 18th century designer.