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, 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. 

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? 

After reading and reviewing The Blue and finding it to be “a fast-paced and highly engaging historical thriller packed with period detail and peopled with characters that the reader really grows to care about”, Erin Britton was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask author Nancy Bilyeau about the book, its characters and the untapped potential of porcelain-based combat:

Erin Britton: Your earlier books (The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry) are murder mysteries set during the reign of Henry VIII. What inspired you to switch your focus from the Tudor period to the eighteenth century? Was it the period itself that intrigued you or was it perhaps more the skulduggery associated with the porcelain trade at the time?

Nancy Bilyeau: I enjoyed writing books set in the 16th century but it’s just one of several centuries that I’m particularly interested in. When I learned about the heated competitions among various porcelain factories, creating opportunities for theft, spying and imprisonment, I wanted to write about that—the skulduggery—and the perfect time for it was the mid-18th century.

EB: As The Blue makes clear from the outset, the stakes were very high when it came to new manufacturing techniques and new colours, not least because the on-going conflict between England and France was reflected in the rivalry between English and French porcelain factories. Both George III and Louis XV seem to have been heavily invested in the porcelain trade and the production of exquisite pieces of art. Did the English and French authorities somewhat stoke this rivalry in an attempt to gain the upper hand (since neither side seemed able to decisively assert dominance through combat)?

NB: That would be fantastic! Warfare via porcelain proxy. But to be honest, Louis XV put more energy and money into porcelain manufacturing—namely, Sevres—then all the Hanover kings put together. George I and George II showed no interest in it. George III did support his country’s porcelain industry but I’m not aware of his diving into the artistic details. George IV was the most artistically minded of the family, but porcelain wasn’t one of his “things.” Not one of those four kings had a mistress with the taste and vision of Madame de Pompadour. What I found interesting was the English aristocracy hungered for Sevres Porcelain even when the Seven Years War raged and the French seriously plotted an invasion of England.

EB: The secret that Genevieve is tasked with uncovering in The Blue concerns Thomas Sturbridge’s discovery of a new shade of blue for use in decorating porcelain. Many characters in the book are willing to go to extreme lengths to protect/reveal that secret. What made you focus on the colour blue rather than any other in this regard?

NB: Because for so long it was difficult to make paint pigment out of blue, to me that raised the stakes. None of the other colours posed such a challenge. I really enjoyed learning about the science behind blue. When I learned that in earlier centuries the best colour blue was made by grinding up a certain gem only found in a cave in Afghanistan, I thought, That can’t be right. But it was.

EB: Genevieve is a Huguenot and hence is considered to be something of an outsider or, at least, a person worthy of suspicion by both the English and the French. Although it is the fact that she is female that prevents her from pursuing her artistic aspirations and prompts her to accept Sir Gabriel Courtenay’s proposition, her background has a strong influence on her opportunities and motivations. What inspired you to give her a Huguenot background?

NB: I’m descended from a Huguenot who fled France in the 17th century, though he decided to sail for what was then New Amsterdam, now New York City, rather than immigrate to England. I live in NYC today. I’d been looking for a novel to put Huguenots into, it was in the back of my mind. When I was researching porcelain factories in mid-18th century England, I read that Huguenots were often involved in the factories’ early days, supplying their known creativity and artisan abilities. I was pretty excited to find that. I adored writing scenes set in Spitalfields, and was sorry to have to move on. I also thought that the Huguenots living in England would be in an interesting position in a war between France and England. I learned that the Huguenots of this time hated, loathed and feared “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” They were fiercely loyal to England’s Protestant monarchy.

EB: Unable to apprentice as a painter, Genevieve is able to find employment on the fringes of the artistic world, first painting flowers for fabrics and then decorating porcelain. Were these roles typical of the few opportunities available for female artists during the eighteenth century?

NB: Yes, in my research I discovered the amazing Anna Maria Garthwaite, who created floral designs for hand-woven silk dresses. She was so perfect for my book I decided to make my main character her former employee. She was a strong independent woman in Georgian England. And I found that there were some women who decorated porcelain.

EB: After Genevieve is recruited as a spy by Sir Gabriel Courtenay, she is briefly schooled in the spycraft of the time and given some useful tools of the trade, such as invisible ink and a Bible with a hidden compartment. Were these tools typical of those used by spies during that era? Were spying in general and industrial espionage in particular significant concerns at the time?

NB: That type of spycraft was embryonic in the Seven Years War. Invisible ink and hidden compartments were used, but not too much as yet. The American Revolution was a more spy-driven war. Up to this time, the British government and the French government hired various shady characters to spy on enemy troops and government officials for the money. We’re not talking about MI6. They were in the right place at the right time, and looking for cash. Both nations’ governments also employed people to go through the mail of unsuspecting citizens. There was no genius spymaster, like a Sir Francis Walsingham under Elizabeth I. It was Louis XV who ramped up the game by making use of more sophisticated spies who could carry out missions and do some real damage. One of his favourite spies was a brilliant aristocratic man who often dressed—and passed—as a woman and loved to fence wearing a dress.

EB: While Genevieve, Thomas and Sir Gabriel are all fictional characters, many of those they interact with during The Blue were real people. For example, the Derby Porcelain Works really was founded by Andrew Planche, William Duesbury and John Heath. How did you go about working real people into your story? Was it difficult to strike a balance between their documented histories/personalities and the need for them to behave in certain ways to move the story forwards?

NB: When I researched Derby Porcelain Works, Sevres, and Spitalfields, it just seemed like the most interesting real-life people of those places needed to join the fictional characters. I did take some liberties with the Derby people, but I didn’t contradict what is known, I just added to their known quantities of ambition and determination with some subtleties, contradictions, and shades of grey. I fleshed them out. I also tried to make sense of Madame de Pompadour, who is a bit of a puzzle really.

EB: The concepts of beauty, art and colour are all central to The Blue and, as such, it is a very visual story. It seems perfectly suited to being adapted for cinema or television. Are there any plans for the story to be filmed?

NB: Yes, as a matter of fact I’m in the final stages of negotiation to sell the rights to my novel to a successful screenwriter and producer.

EB: You have an academic background in history and The Blue has clearly been extremely thoroughly researched. Do you enjoy the research process associated with writing historical fiction? Does it ever prove difficult to decide which details to include and which to omit when your research uncovers something interesting that may be only tangential to the story you (initially) want to tell?

NB: I love the research work of a novel, and I’m happy whenever I can find something obscure yet juicy. I work hard to weave things in, not spotlight the historical chestnuts.

EB: Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Do you have a set routine?

NB: I wish!! I write whenever I can find a spare minute, morning, noon, or night. My favourite thing to do is wake up really early, say 4:30 am, make tea, and write on my laptop in the darkness.

EB: Are there any authors who you feel have particularly influenced your own writing?

NB: In writing historical fiction, I was influenced early on by Mary Renault, Norah Lofts, and Daphne du Maurier. I am in awe of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton and Leo Tolstoy. I wish people wouldn’t act like Tolstoy is a chore. His novels are psychological and very gossipy. He’s obsessed with social class; so am I.

EB: What are you reading at the moment? Do you have any favourite authors you would like to recommend to our readers?

NB: I just finished a delicious Gothic mystery called The Lost History of Dreams by Kris Waldherr. I’m a huge admirer of the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr. Atmospheric, tense and witty.

EB: Finally, I’ve just been reading the announcement (11/04/19) that Endeavour Quill will be publishing your fifth novel (many congratulations!). I believe Dreamland is based on the early life of Peggy Guggenheim, but can you tell us anything more about it? 

NB: Dreamland is set in pre-World War One New York City, and yes the main character is loosely based on Peggy Guggenheim, who was the daughter of the black sheep of a large, fantastically wealthy family and who actually worked in a little Bohemian bookstore. The novel is set during six weeks in the summer of 1911, in one of the most luxurious hotels in America at that time, the Oriental Hotel in Brooklyn, just a mile down the beach from Coney Island, dubbed Sodom by the Sea. Cultures really clash!

Our thanks to Nancy Bilyeau for taking part in this Q&A.

The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau
Endeavour Quill 9781911445623 pbk Dec 2018