There was a time when the ability to manufacture porcelain with the color blue was one of the most closely guarded and valuable secrets. If you would like to know what those times were like, Nancy Bilyeau’s newest historical novel, The Blue, will take you there.
HERE’S WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT
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 porcelain manufacture, 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.
She also learns much about love.
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?
HERE ARE MY THOUGHTS
I love acquiring new knowledge, and when that happens in the context of a piece of compelling fiction, the learning process is sublime. When that fiction is beautifully crafted historical fiction, the experience is magnified––it’s like taking a time machine back to the events in question. And so it is with The Blue. From the first line, I was drawn in, and I felt like I was there.
HERE’S A PEEK AT THE FIRST FEW PAGES OF CHAPTER ONE
AMIABILITY HAS NEVER BEEN COUNTED MORE IMPORTANT in a woman’s character than it is today. Which is why I’m twenty-four and unmarried and without friends or employer, only a grandfather for company. It doesn’t matter. Ambition consumes me, an impossible one. It’s what delivers me into the back of a hackney carriage on this December night, holding a party invitation that doesn’t bear my name as I make my way from Spitalfields to Leicester Fields.
My grandfather and I live on Fournier Street, one of the most respectable in Spitalfields, a street where, never mind the longing and greed and fear that nibble at the souls of a good many neighbors, all say their prayers after supper and snuff the candles. Not so along the route through London to Leicester Fields. From my swaying carriage, I see lights leaping in many windows and hear the shouts and the laughter. London is alive, and so am I.
After more than an hour, the carriage jerks to a stop as it is has many times. But on this occasion, it’s not in order to allow another to rumble forward. Thump, thump, thump. The driver pounds his stick. I’ve arrived.
The carriage door swings open to number thirty, Leicester Fields, the home of England’s greatest living painter, William Hogarth.
As I step down, I catch sight of handsome houses rising along each side of the square, illuminated by coal-lit street lamps that stand to attention like tireless soldiers. The largest by far is Leicester House, tucked behind a courtyard, containing whichever Prince of Wales is presently draining the country of gold with his peevish schemes. I know from the newspapers the names of some of the other residents, wealthy doctors and striving merchants and low-rung nobles. But now is not the time to gawk.
I’m not sure what I expected from Hogarth’s London home. The solid terraced building, third from the left on the southeast corner, gives no outward evidence of artistic genius. Yet I know I’ve come to the right place, by the lights bursting from the windows and the roar of many voices. This is the man’s Christmas party.
I fully expect the servant at the door to give me trouble. Raising my chin, I try to look as if I belong in the rarefied world of Leicester Fields. Unfortunately, a bitter cold wind envelops me, making my earrings, the only ones I possess, sputter against my neck. I shiver in my dress. I did not bring my winter cloak — how could I? It is too plain, the garment of a modest, God-fearing Huguenot woman of Spitalfields, not the West End. Sober manner and somber dress, such is our creed. Without a word, I thrust the invitation into the gloved hand of the silver-wigged servant. He does not look down at the card.
“Have you no escort, Madame?”
“None is required.”
He peers at the writing and frowns. “This was sent to Pierre Billiou.”
“My name is Genevieve Planché and I am his family — his granddaughter,” I reply. My mother died of smallpox when I was eight. My father being dead of typhus three years before that, Pierre has long been my only family.
I say, as casually as I can manage, “Grandfather is ill, but he wished me to convey to Mr. William Hogarth in person his wishes for a merry Christmas.”
The servant purses his lips.
I take a step closer. “I’m sure Mr. Hogarth would be most angry to know that a member of the Billiou family was made to feel unwelcome.”
A smile crinkles the servant’s face. With a mocking flourish, he beckons for me to enter. I straighten my shoulders and follow him, determined to maintain the appearance of being accustomed to such occasions, when the truth is I’ve only attended two artists’ gatherings hosted by my grandfather and they consisted of three or four old friends grumbling about their commissions over goblets of cognac. I’ve never attended a party among London society in my life.
I cannot help but catch my breath and blink, rapidly, as I walk from the entranceway to a large room, high-ceilinged and brightly lit, yet hazy. Greasy oil lamps sputter on the walls, candelabras and candlesticks flicker everywhere else. The din is ferocious, as if all crammed inside the walls speak at once. After a minute or so, I perceive that every single person in the room is a man. Young and old, fat and thin. They wear frockcoats and wigs, goblets in hand. Wrinkle-faced men cling to long-stemmed clay pipes. A quartet of young men laugh in the corner
A fire crackles in the tall fireplace. Yet a damp-cloud smell of human sweat hovers over this crowd, mingling with the musk oil many men use to conceal their odor — unsuccessfully — and the tobacco smoke and the holly branches heaped around the pink punchbowl, in sole deference to Christmas a fortnight away.
Not one of them speaks to me. I feel gazes drift my way but none move a muscle to include me in their repartee. The man closest to me turns to offer me the expanse of his broad back.
Two men who cannot be older than twenty-five share snuff from a crimson box. One pinches his nose afterward to keep from sneezing while the other shakes his head. They glance sideways at me and put their heads together, laughing at some nasty little joke.
I refuse to be embarrassed. They should be embarrassed. From the tempo of this room, no one would know that England is presently at war with France and that young men are dying, horribly, in places like Quebec and Saxony. These gallants don’t care about the fact we might not win, that the British banks are strained to breaking point and taxes keep rising along with the cost of food.
But I have a more immediate problem. I don’t see anyone that matches the description of William Hogarth — and I perceive by the roar of laughter elsewhere that this is but one of several rooms packed with party guests. How am I to maneuver my way through a house of haughty men?
It is at that moment I see it — one of Hogarth’s own prints hanging on the wall.
The party guests no longer exist as I make my way toward it. My grandfather owns a book of reproductions of Hogarth’s art, and I’ve seen his paintings mounted at the Foundling Hospital, which he generously finances. But now, with a shiver of awe, I look upon one of the artist’s most famous prints: a pretty, innocent young woman from the country, holding the pincushion of a seamstress, inspected by a crone in front of a crumbling London building. Two leering men hover in the background.
“A fine Harlot’s Progress, wouldn’t you say?” rasps a voice.
I whirl to face a man lower to the floor than myself, a hunchback in fact, and not a day under seventy. His bloodshot eyes gleam with amusement under a wig perched precariously on his narrow skull. No doubt he wishes to embarrass me with his question.
“Yes, that is the title of this series of prints,” I say calmly. “This country girl arrives in London, seeking honest work, and is taken up by procurers and pimps, determined to ruin her. Which they do, of course. She’ll die of the pox in a few years.”
A sound emits from the man, half laugh, half sputtering cough. “A prim and proper young lady who tells a tale of a prostitute without a blush?” he says. “I must know your name.” He crouches a few more inches in an attempt at a bow. “I am Joshua Holcroft.”
“I am Genevieve Planché,” I answer, “and I am here to represent my grandfather, Pierre Billiou, who was invited but sadly could not attend.”
Mr. Holcroft thinks for a moment. “I am acquainted with Pierre Billiou, a fine painter, yes, but I haven’t set eyes on him in five years, at least.”
“Grandfather was invited to this party, be assured, Sir.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that he was invited. Hogarth casts a large net, as you can see with your own eyes. But Billiou is a Huguenot, living among his people, the silk weavers in Spitalfields, if memory serves. I can’t believe a French Protestant would send his own granddaughter here alone, disastrously dressed.”
Taken aback, I look down at my best wool dress of darkest green, trimmed with white lace. “Disastrously?”
“My dear, it’s not a dress for society.”
“I suppose that is why no one has acknowledged my existence here,” I say, chagrined. I must make a proper impression on Hogarth himself. Nothing should detract from the seriousness of my request.
“Hasn’t your grandfather taught you anything? Even if your frock were acceptable, it’s not possible for a man to approach a woman standing alone at a party such as this. Your lack of escort creates an insurmountable problem.”
“You surmounted it.”
“I am old and ugly and —” he holds up his goblet — “more than a little drunk. Perhaps if there were another female present, she could take you in hand and smooth matters over.”
“And there are no ladies here, anywhere?”
“Of course, of course, some wives of wealthy art patrons are upstairs, sitting comfortably with Mistress Hogarth or gossiping together. And that is all. There’s no place for a young woman in the world of art besides the sort we see here —” His eyes, twinkling with malice, swivel to the wall where A Harlot’s Progress hangs.
HERE’S WHAT A FELLOW WRITER HAS TO SAY
‘Nancy Bilyeau’s passion for history infuses her books.’
– Alison Weir, Historian
HERE’S A LITTLE BIT ABOUT NANCY
Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, DuJour, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at City University of New York and a regular contributor to Town & Country, Purist, and The Vintage News. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. The Crown, her first novel and an Oprah pick, was published in 2012. The sequel, The Chalice, followed in 2013. The third in the trilogy, The Tapestry, was published by Touchstone in 2015. Her fourth novel, The Blue, will be publishing on December 3, 2018. Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
HERE’S WHERE YOU CAN CONNECT WITH NANCY
AND HERE’S WHERE YOU CAN CONNECT WITH HER PUBLISHER
AND HERE’S WHERE YOU CAN BUY THE BLUE
Please add The Blue to your Goodreads bookshelf. And, please take a look at Nancy’s Goodreads Shelf.