“We see blue everywhere in the natural world, in the sky and the sea and lakes, even the little bubbling streams, but what do we really see? It’s ephemeral. A reflection of something else. The seeming abundance is a trick. It doesn’t exist in a tangible form that we can adapt, make into pigment for you and all your fellow artists to use over the centuries.”
While Nancy Bilyeau’s earlier trilogy of books, The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, are historical mysteries set during the reign of Henry VIII, with The Blue she has leapt forward a couple of centuries to the 1700s and changed direction somewhat to produce a top-notch historical thriller that encompasses the oppression of women, the persecution and suspicion of religious minorities, the on-going conflict between England and France, the changing artistic landscape, and the early days of industrial espionage.
Genevieve Planche dreams of being a painter. Unfortunately, eighteenth-century society in general, and the London art scene in particular, can’t seem to comprehend the idea of a woman working as a serious and talented painter. The nearest she could achieve, and this despite the fact that her grandfather, Pierre Billiou, is a respected painter himself with a good many connections and a desire to do right by his granddaughter, was a job creating floral designs for the fabrics used to make dresses for fine ladies, and she lost even that after her former fiancé, Denis Arsenault, led an apprentices’ revolt and was accused of stealing money from his employer. After her last-ditch attempt to secure a proper apprenticeship as a painter goes embarrassingly wrong, Genevieve realises that she has no choice but to agree to her grandfather’s plan that she move to Derby and take up work as a designer in the porcelain factory founded by her cousin.
Porcelain is one of the most precious commodities of the age and, although Genevieve perceives her new job to involve a sort of exile from the serious art world, a great many other people consider works of porcelain to be amongst the most beautiful and most valuable works of art. The secrets associated with the manufacture and decoration of porcelain are closely guarded, with fortunes being made and lost, to say nothing of lives being ruined and ended, in the quest to achieve the perfect formula. The French have had the upper hand in the porcelain trade for a long while, but there are rumours that the Derby factory is near to creating something that will rival the best the French have to offer. Nevertheless, porcelain has little allure for Genevieve until she realises that her new job could serve as a useful means to an end.
Sir Gabriel Courtenay was present during Genevieve’s latest episode of social embarrassment and he attempted to aid her, although the fact that he pays a visit the next day to the house she shares with her grandfather comes as a surprise. Having heard that Genevieve is due to commence employment at the Derby Porcelain Works, Sir Gabriel has a proposition for her: if she agrees to work as a spy for him – that is, to steal the secrets of porcelain manufacture and, more importantly, of the new shade of blue that is rumoured to be in development – he will arrange for her to travel to Venice and train as a painter. It really seems to be an offer that she cannot afford to refuse. After all, when the opportunity to become a serious artist is at stake, what’s the harm in a little industrial espionage?
Genevieve is a plucky, resourceful and astute heroine, a woman who is certainly ahead of her time. From the opening of The Blue, when she breaches many a social convention by crashing a soirée hosted by William Hogarth, then England’s greatest living painter, to her agreement with Sir Gabriel Courtenay and her decision to infiltrate the Derby Porcelain Works, to her art and her budding relationship with Thomas Sturbridge, she demonstrates both a great strength of character and a great determination to follow her dreams, regardless of whatever the prevailing opinion about those dreams may be. She also has a very clear understanding of how others perceive her and of the extent to which she fits into eighteenth-century London society:
“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.”
Clearly, her struggles have not robbed Genevieve of her sense of humour. She has a wry wit that helps her to make it through some decidedly difficult situations, both before and after her arrival in Derby. Although she quite readily agreed to Sir Gabriel’s spying scheme, and while she remains desperate for the opportunity to fulfil her artistic ambitions, she is certainly not a person without a conscience. Her Huguenot upbringing and her faith are often at odds with her chosen course of action and she sometimes struggles to reconcile her beliefs and feelings with the tasks she feels she must accomplish. This sense of conflict helps to make her such a compelling character. She’s wise, worldly and ahead of her time in many ways, but that doesn’t mean she can’t get in over her head.
Of course, it’s not only her conscience that Genevieve must struggle with as she attempts to root out the secret of the fabled new blue, she also has to live up to family obligations, to settle into her new living situation in Derby, and to keep the factory authorities off her track. A number of intriguing characters – some good and some bad – stand between her and the accomplishment of her task. With her cousin Andrew having stepped down to pursue a career on the stage, the Derby Porcelain Works is now run by William Duesbury and John Heath, who are both highly suspicious and rather volatile personalities, although the majority of their dirty work is carried out by the odious Major Tarkwell, who is wary of Genevieve from the start. It’s lucky then that she also manages to cultivate allies in the shape of Evelyn Devlin, Thomas Sturbridge, and her fellow porcelain decorators.
Nancy Bilyeau has a background in history and has previously proved her mettle when it comes to historical fiction. The Blue has clearly been extremely well researched – both the setting and the characters ring true of the period – real historical personages mix with fictional characters and the story is packed with interesting historical detail, including the process of colour creation and the early tools of the espionage trade, but the book wears that research lightly. Nothing detracts from the story. The varying obsessions and desires of the different characters are clearly portrayed, as are their foibles and doubts. The story itself is intriguing, nicely twisting and intricate, both in terms of the actual secret of the Derby blue and of Geneviere’s own role in matters. The Blue is 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 5*
The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau
Endeavour Quill 9781911445623 pbk Dec 2018