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Book Review: Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett

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King Richard III of England has been portrayed in a myriad of ways in literature. From Shakespeare to the modern day, this character has run the gamut from criminal, to fool, to cad. Most notably, he has been an evil hunchback who threw two defenseless boy princes in the Tower of London who later would be killed merely because they were in Richard’s way to succession to the throne. Or he was a ne’er-do-well gadabout who paid no attention to the fate of the boys, but stopped at nothing to get the crown. He even was portrayed as gay (for whatever reason) on Broadway.

Richard III

In Figures in Silk, author Vanora Bennett takes the bold path of presenting Richard, or Dickon as she calls him, as a romantic figure. While this seems to go against history, a quick look at the facts shows that the case is hardly closed on whether he murdered princes Edward and Richard. Modern historians are more apt to say the boys could have fallen prey to the Tudor king who followed Richard III: Henry VII. As for his looks, paintings and woodcuts hardly portray an ugly old man. He also could hardly have been a hunchback, as he was a decorated warrior of his time.

So, knowing this, Bennet set her heroine, Isabel Claver, off to a doomed marriage to a man who dies a few weeks after the wedding. Rather than go home in shame to have her father boss her around, Isabel stays with her mother-in-law, a likable old shrew who runs an all-women silk business. It makes good money and Isabel learns the trade from the bottom up.

Her father is also in the trade but never thought a woman should work, so is humiliated by Isabel’s choice. He writes her out of his will. Isabel’s sister Jane Shore, marries well, but quickly becomes the mistress of King Henry IV and no one blinks an eye about that choice.

Meanwhile, Isabel, who met a young man on horseback before her marriage, runs into him again. This time, feeling freed and empowered by her status as a widow, she has supper with him and then, inch by inch, draws close enough for him to become her lover. It isn’t until they are finished with the act of love, that she finds out he is the king’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester. And married.

She’s disturbed at his marital status at first, but soon disregards it when it becomes obvious he doesn’t care for his wife—it’s only the land she holds that matters to him. They carry on their clandestine affair for years when the two find each other in Westminster, she on business and he when he comes to the palace. But things begin to get disturbing when King Henry dies prematurely and only young Prince Edward, age 9, is left as an heir.

Isabel runs about telling everyone that Richard, Dickon to her, will solve the problem by becoming a regent king. Instead Edward and his young brother are shut up in the Tower of London, Richard moves to execute Isabel’s sister Jane’s new lover (and Dickon’s former best friend), and for the coup de gras, Jane is put in jail. All this happens and Isabel still sleeps with Dickon again, which strains credulity, but she cuts a hard bargain. Let Jane out of prison, or he will never see Isabel again. He follows through.

However, his acts of cruelty and the brutal way he seizes the crown of England are so shocking that Isabel never has another romantic encounter with him again. Indeed, he even discusses marrying young princess Elizabeth (not that Elizabeth) when his wife dies an untimely and suspicious death. Isabel’s heart is crushed. It’s over and he’s a power-mad cad.

Throughout the novel, the author teaches much about how silk is made, sold, traded, and worn at the end of the Middle Ages. But somehow, as rich as this material is, it’s all overshadowed by the royal romance. Good strong characterizations make up for plot bloopers—giveaway coincidences that are meant as foreshadowing. The ending has a too, wide-open, toss-a-dart-on-a-map feel to it, which left a sense of disappointment.

About Lynn Voedisch