Bennett plunges into the fertile history of the reign of Edward IV, the winding down of the York and Lancastrian War of the Roses and the short-lived kingship of the infamous Richard III. While royal machinations figure large in the novel, the drama is played out on a smaller stage: the mercantile interests of the silk trade.
The Mercery is a finely-structured mechanism controlled by local guilds, the trade strictly regulated. When silk merchant John Lambert arranges the marriages of his two daughters, Jane to a dull businessman and Isabel to the young Thomas Claver, he has no idea of the events that have been set in motion.
Jane will divorce her unappealing older husband and become the mistress of Edward IV. Isabel will be widowed soon after her marriage, learning the trade from her mother-in-law, passionate about the silk business, and enamored of a handsome stranger who offers sage advice in a quiet tavern.
Both sisters will be drawn into politics by virtue of their romantic associations, Jane as Edward’s mistress, Isabel conducting an affair with her dark stranger from the tavern, only eventually learning her lover’s true identity. Jane’s relationship with the king allows Isabel an opportunity to win Edward’s support for a bold business venture that could revolutionize the market for Londoners. But politics is ever unpredictable; Edward’s sudden death shifts opportunities and allegiances.
This rich vein of history, from the end of the Plantagenets to the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, yields a sympathetic protagonist, a young woman of imagination and business acumen who enters a successful partnership with her mother-in-law, Alice Claver. But with Edward’s sudden death and Richard III seated upon the throne of England, all Isabel’s plans come to naught in the face of this new king. In the end, regardless of who sits on the throne of England, it is Isabel’s loyalty to her lover that both sustains and defeats her.
In service of her trade, Isabel enjoys a close proximity to the royal family - Edward’s wife, Bess Woodville, and her children, especially Bess’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. She also is privy to political secrets, eventually trapped in an emotional conundrum between her lover and the future: “It was always like this, despair or euphoria, with nothing in between.”
Wrapped in the drama of her love affair, Isabel seeks solace, but she cannot avoid the great unanswered questions of the era. What role does Richard III play in the fate of the Princes in the Tower? Pursued by both Richard and Henry Tudor, is Elizabeth of York truly an innocent?
Devastated by her lover’s duplicity, Isabel is a witness to history, her story but a small part of the unfolding drama, the end of a dynasty and the final battle of the War of the Roses. Bennett’s novel beautifully merges larger-than-life characters with those found in history’s footnotes, merchants like Isabel and Alice Claver critical to the economic power of the country. As the world moves on, Isabel’s love of her trade is a powerful aphrodisiac to her pain.