04 June 2024

Review: Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor

Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor book cover

* Courtesy of Harper Collins *

Growing up and living in Victorian era London, Tatiana Caldwell is unexpectedly orphaned after losing both her parents in quick succession. It's 1864, and at the age of just seventeen and with very little to her name, Tatty (as she calls herself) emigrates to Australia for a fresh start. Driven to acquire and operate her own business one day, Tatty is hard working and far from squeamish when she begins working for Titus Crowe at Crowe Funeral Services.

I've always been deeply interested in Victorian funeral and mourning etiquette* and I loved reading about any and all aspects of Crowe Funeral Services in Sydney.
"Henry and Robert prepared the hearse - a very beautiful vehicle with four glass sides embellished with gold accents and otherwise painted a gleaming black - and the two magnificent horses pulling it. Their names were Spirit and Phantom, which Tatty thought were splendid names for funeral horses, and they were cloaked in black velvet drapes and wore tall head-dresses of thick black ostrich plumes. They were Belgian Blacks and had, according to Henry, cost Titus an absolute fortune to import to New South Wales from England." Page 44
It's disturbing to imagine Belgian Black horses being transported and confined below decks for the gruelling passage to London but they must have been an incredible sight to see on the streets of Sydney at the time.

Titus Crowe is a terrific character who came across as very Dickensian to me and I can easily see him on screen in a TV adaptation. (Miss Scarlet & The Duke comes to mind here, love that show!)

Here's an excerpt about mourning jewellery from Black Silk and Sympathy:
'Here you have your rings,' Mr Coverdale said. 'For ladies and men, black enamel on eighteen-karat gold, inlaid with In Memoriam perhaps, or we can add the deceased's name and date of passing. Alternatively, those details can be engraved on the inside of the band. We also have black enamel and seed pearl rings - they're considered very fashionable at the moment.' Page 68
Tatty attends funerals in the newly created cemetery and it was exciting to be reminded of Sydney's history when it comes to cemeteries, mortuary trains and mortuary train stations. In 2020 I started listening to the Grave Tales Australia podcast, and it was so engaging I went on to read and review their book Grave Tales: Melbourne Vol.1 by Helen Goltz and Chris Adams. 

Back to the book and my favourite section by far was Tatty's visit to the draper and haberdasher Mr Rodney Burton. Tatty discovers his store is three times bigger than the other stores, all the better to house his huge range of fabrics and notions including buttons, trims, nets, ribbons, beads, lace, artificial flowers and more. Tatty is thrilled to discover that at least a third of the well-stocked emporium is dedicated to selling materials associated with mourning the dead.
"As well as the ubiquitous black crape there was also bombazine, parramatta silk, merino, delaine and velvet, and for half-mourning a head-spinning range of fabrics with a little more lustre and life in black, grey, purple-mauve, lavender, violet and white. Burton's also sold a huge selection of handkerchiefs edged with black lace, black gloves, umbrellas and sunshades, black lace fans, black shoes and boots, and a good selection of shawls." Page 73
I'd love to browse that store, wouldn't you? In spite of the funereal backdrop of Crowe Funeral Services, the author has given us an engaging main character in Tatty to cheer for and a relatively light narrative that skips along at a leisurely pace in an early Sydney streetscape.

I haven't read any of Challinor's extensive backlist but I was pleasantly surprised - given the Sydney setting - to discover the author is a Kiwi residing in New Zealand. Better still, Black Silk and Sympathy is just the first in a series and I'm looking forward to some terrific funereal adventures with Tatty at the head of the funeral procession.

If you love Victorian or Edwardian era London and become excited when a mortsafe is mentioned, or you're seeking a light and enjoyable read that happens to be set in the colonial funeral industry this is for you. You can read the prologue and first chapter of Black Silk and Sympathy by Deborah Challinor here.

My Rating:

*For books on London cemeteries and death, check out my reviews for:
- Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold
- This Mortal Coil: A History of Death by Andrew Doig

The following books about Victorian mourning are on my TBR:
- Fashionable Mourning Jewelry, Clothing, and Customs by Mary Brett
- Mourning Art & Jewelry by Maureen Delorme
- Death in the Victorian Family by Pat Jalland

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