Readers have been obsessed with heroines who tumble down the economic and social ladder for centuries, from Victor Hugo’s Fantine to Hillary Duff’s Sam. The heroine of The Lacemaker must conquer both a downward social tumble and her fear of committing to romance, all while trying to keep her faith paramount – and her creator does a fairly good job of making her story a compelling one.
Lady Elisabeth Lawson is quickly caught up in the currents of the burgeoning American Revolution. Her father is fiercely loyalist, her mother so much of a lover of the cause of independence that she writes penny newsletters that bite back at the crown and have caused her husband to shun her. With war in the air Elisabeth’s mother is returning from Bath in England; and in the meantime, to strengthen his ties to the Loyalists, Lieutenant Governor Lawson has betrothed Elisabeth to Miles Roth, the protégé of the powerful Lord Dunham, in what looks set to be loveless, indifferent match. This is why Elisabeth deigns to be escorted to Dunham’s ball by Miles’ cousin, Noble Rynallt.
Noble has reasons all his own for flirting with Elisabeth. A widower who has thrown himself into the American cause with zeal and is being encouraged to spy on the loyalists, he has only just begun to return to the social whirl of Williamsburg when his fellow patriots begin to agitate against the Tory authorities and he finds himself Elisabeth’s only protector.
When the revolution begins and the Lawson’s townhouse is attacked and wrecked by a group of patriots and Elisabeth’s property seized for auction, her father flees in the chaos, leaving his daughter to the mercy of her neighbors. It’s Noble who takes her to his home seat of Ty Mawr, where romance begins to blossom between them. When word gets out that Elisabeth has carried letters containing information that might damage the American cause with her to Ty Mawr – leaving her suspected of spying for the rebels – Miles breaks their betrothal and her father refuses to give her the wherewithal to keep herself afloat. She’s given a choice: stay an American and become a patriot, or flee with her father to Jamaica. Elisabeth chooses to assume the nickname ‘Liberty’, to embrace patriotism, take her prodigious lacemaking skills into the public market, and to reject her sheltered upbringing. Noble is there all the while as she begins to prosper, even as she takes up spying on her Tory father to protect Noble and her newfound patriot friends. But can Elisabeth allow herself to love this rebel-rouser? And will Noble dare to love again when the memory of his wife’s death is so fresh?
The Lacemaker is old-fashioned in the best and worst way at the same time. The romance in general feels beautifully articulated and restrained; like a Regency transplanted to the colonial era. Religion perfumes its characters lives instead of being used as a cudgel against the reader’s sensibilities, and they act within the bounds of their Christian beliefs in a sensible fashion. But religion provides the characters no easy answers in the story and they are not perfect automatons in dealing with the strife injected into their lives.
Both Elisabeth and Noble are well-drawn characters, with deep regrets, virtues and flaws. Their romance develops carefully and slowly, and their eventual union is incredibly rewarding.
But there are some unfortunate flaws that drag the book down slightly. Most of the novel’s secondary characters are cardboard-thin and stereotyped; there is an unfortunate appearance by a maid who speaks in full Uncle Remus and Mammy tones, the French indentured servant (who naturally never chafes at her bonds) is prone to saying ‘ooh la la’, and Noble’s romantic rival and Elisabeth’s secular-minded best friend are eventually painted in less-than-flattering lights. Elisabeth’s father is a self-centered cipher, but her mother is well-rounded, and there is a lovely supporting role for Lady Tremain, who acts as a matchmaker for Elisabeth and Noble. There are also a few syntax and research bobbles (citizens would not have referred to Virginia as “colonial Virginia” in this time period; pink and blue were not gender-specified in the 1700s and in fact girls often wore blue and boys pink). But these flaws are tolerable and don’t really mar the enjoyability of the book.
The Lacemaker is a lovely story, and a beautiful, inspiring romance worthy of a recommendation.