This was an absolutely captivating historical novel, set in the Wars of the Roses era but featuring behind-the-scenes middle class characters rather than the royalty and nobility whose stories are so familiar from that era (although they do make a appearances as well).
The main character in Figures in Silk is Isabel Shore, sister of Edward IV’s mistress Jane Shore. Like Jane, Isabel is a London girl who becomes entangled in the affairs (literally) of her betters through a chance encounter with Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Dedicated Ricardians may be put off by the picture of Richard this novel paints, but he is a much more complex character here than he usually is in the hands of either his admirers or his detractors.
The real heart of the novel, though, is the life of a working woman in London in those days. And by “working woman,” no, I don’t mean a woman of easy virtue — I mean a woman who worked for a living in one of the many trades practiced by women during the period. Isabel works in what we would call today the textile industry — she is trained in silk embroidery, but her real interest is in helping establish silk-making as a trade in London. The involvement of Isabel, her mother-in-law, and the other women they work with, not just in the craft itself but in the business and politics surrounding it, gives us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of women in this era.
Unfortunately, Vanora Bennett did not do my favourite thing for a historical fiction author to do, which is to provide an Afterword explaining the historical basis for her fiction. From the research I have been able to do on my own since putting down this completely engaging book, I gather that Isabel must be a fictional character, since very little is known about Jane Shore’s family. But the depiction of London life at that time, and of the working lives of women in an era I know little about, was absolutely fascinating. I highly recommend this book (though uncritical admirers of Richard III should beware!)