This week’s guest post comes from Elaine Simpson-Long, who has been involved with the festival from its very beginning. Elaine runs her own book blog, Random Jottings, and last year co-hosted one of the festival’s most popular events, about the world of book blogging. This year she passes the baton on to her daughter, Helen McCarthy, who will be talking about her upcoming book, Women of the World: Female Diplomats in War and Peace.
To whet your appetite for what’s sure to be one of the ‘hot tickets’ of this year’s festival, Elaine offers us her review of The Forgotten Seamstress, the latest novel from bestselling Suffolk-born author, Liz Trenow.
Liz Trenow attended the Felixstowe Book Festival last year, where she gave a fascinating talk about silk and her first novel, The Last Telegram. I am delighted to say that she is returning this June to talk about her latest book, The Forgotten Seamstress.
It is a difficult thing to write a follow up to a successful debut novel, but Liz somehow makes it look easy. The Last Telegram featured the silk trade and, as Liz’s family has been involved in this trade for hundreds of years, she had a great background in which to set a novel. Her latest tells the story of Maria Romano, a seamstress who is taken from an orphanage to work at Buckingham Palace. There she is called to the room of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) to make some alterations to his investiture costume.
“On the far side was a person preening himself in front of a long mirror dressed in what I took to be a pantomime outfit…..he had white satin knee breeches with great rosettes at each knee, with a doublet which barely came down to his thighs and a coat and a cape in purple velvet with furry trimmings…”
The work is done, but the Prince calls for her on other occasions and an affair starts. Maria is in love with him, but it is only fleeting on his side and Maria soon finds she is pregnant. When this is discovered she is whisked off to what she thinks is a nursing home to have the baby. Instead she finds herself in an asylum, where she gives birth to a baby boy and is told he has died.
The story is told in three strands. We have the first person narrative of Maria; interviews she gives to a social worker undertaking research on the asylum inmates; and finally, the point of view of Caroline, who has just split up with her boyfriend and has been made redundant. These three stories interweave as the book progresses, leaving us guessing until the very end.
Central to the book is a patchwork quilt belonging to Caroline’s grandmother. Maria made the quilt over the many years she was incarcerated in the asylum and she stitched her love story into its pattern. What triggers Caroline’s research is a small piece of silk used in its creation, one of the May Silks specially woven for the wedding dress of Princess May (later Queen Mary). “Mary’s wedding dress had a train of silver and white brocade, and was embroidered with a design of rose, shamrock, and thistle in silver”. How had Caroline’s grandmother come to own this quilt and what happened to its creator?
Because Liz lives in Colchester, as I do, it was a joy to identify for myself the locations and descriptions in the story. What is so horrifying about the asylum is that many women were sent there not because they were mad, but because their families wanted rid of them, perhaps because they had had an illegitimate baby or had been disgraced in some way. The author has clearly carried out extensive research into how these patients suffered from abuse and maltreatment.
I loved this book as much as The Last Telegram and if you are looking for a stonking good read, then this is for you. You will not want to put it down…