Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 21, 2019

The Blue (2018), by Nancy Bilyeau

I enjoyed this historical novel, recommended to me by Emma from Words and Peace when she came across my review of Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours which features a 14th century family of limners who create exquisite illuminated bibles and devotional prayer books. The Blue is likewise an historical novel about art, but it’s about 18th century porcelain, and the quest to create the colour blue.

The story features a lively young woman called Genevieve Planché, born in London after her parents fled the persecution of the Protestant Huguenots in Catholic France. Like many a contemporary heroine in commercial historical novels she is feisty, fearless and ambitious, and she accomplishes remarkable feats despite the constraints of her era.  There have, of course, always been remarkable women, but still, the reader must often suspend disbelief, especially towards the end of the story when Genevieve is impudent towards people who might easily have sent her to the guillotine without a second thought.  (If it had been invented by then.  It wasn’t, until 1789, and this novel takes place in 1759. But you get the idea).


Genevieve’s grandfather was, like many of the Huguenot diaspora, a weaver, but in England he takes up art.  That’s what Genevieve wants to do too, but alas, it is not merely her gender which precludes this but also her foolish behaviour in falling for a local ne’er-do-well.  When he, briefly endearing himself to the reader by undertaking activities vaguely reminiscent of early unionism, oversteps the mark by destroying a local business, Genevieve is thought to be in cahoots with him and promptly loses her apprenticeship drawing floral patterns for Anna Maria Garthwaite (who was a real life textile designer in Spitalfields, London).

Genevieve begins her narration by announcing her dubious status:

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. (p.1)

So it’s off to Derby for Genevieve, where she is to take up painting porcelain.

Since this work seems a soul-destroying fate worse than death to Genevieve, she is easily tempted by a seductive offer from the suave Sir Gabriel Courtenay.  He knows that the Derby porcelain works are on the brink of discovering the secret of the elusive blue pigment, and he promises her £5000 and passage to Italy where she can learn the art of history painting, if she can find out what he needs to know.  The plot whips along with Genevieve falling in love with the young scientist who she needs to betray, and an assortment of disreputable characters doing thuggish things to make sure that she doesn’t renege on the deal.

For me, the real charm of this book is not so much the mildly implausible but wholly enjoyable plot, but the story of porcelain: how exports from China tantalised Europe until the secret of its manufacture was discovered in Saxony and the Meissen factory began producing highly prized figurines and tableware.  Any excuse to make slideshows of these beautiful artworks is good enough for me:

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Naturally England and France were keen rivals for the prestige of making porcelain too.  In France there was Sèvres, backed by Louis XV and his mistress Madame la Pompadour, no strangers to extravagance.  (The blue you see in these pieces post-dates the years of the novel but I like them too much to leave them out):

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And in England, Wikiedia tells me that production of porcelain in Derby predates the commencement of the works of William Duesbury, started in 1756 when he joined Andrew Planche and John Heath to create the Nottingham Road factory, which later became Royal Crown Derby.  Wikipedia also tells me that the title of oldest manufacturer in England is disputed by Royal Worcester, who claim 1751 as their year of establishment).  

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How much of Bilyeau’s novel is factually based on industrial spying as part of the porcelain story is hard to judge without research, but the novel is at its best when her heroine confronts her qualms about the ethics of her behaviour.  Impulse and self-interest is at war with the terror of stepping beyond her role, and there is realism in the portrayal of Genevieve as a refugee who has very little in the way of possessions except precious memories, and she recoils from ‘befouling’ them with anything sordid.  At the same time, she shares with her beau Thomas, the quest for knowledge for its own sake.  And she really does want to be an artist in Venice…

I suspect that this novel would make a most enjoyable film!

Author: Nancy Bilyeau
Title: The Blue
Publisher: Endeavour Quill, 2018, 437 pages
ISBN: 9781911445623
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library via inter-library loan, with thanks to Bayside Library

Image credits (all from Wikipedia):

Meissen slideshow:

Sèvres slideshow:

Derby and Royal Crown Derby Slideshow:



  1. I saw this book recommended on Emma’s blog too and it’s tempted me ever since. My mother is a bit of a porcelain collector so she has drummed some names and history into me.


    • I just love it. As you can see from the Sevres slide show, we have that beautiful green tureen in our national gallery here in Melbourne. and I just love wandering around the cabinets and admiring it all. They have a great collection at the Hermitage too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had this marked to read for some time now and I’m so glad to read this review and see that you liked it.


  3. So glad you enjoyed it! I have read in other places how fierce industrial spying was and actually is still is. So I do trust in the author’s research, and that’s actually one of her strong points I think, at beautifully integrating background historical research into a great story. Not all historical novelists are that talented at combining both. Too often one of the 2 elements is lacking.
    I just read another amazing historical novel about art, again with great historical homework and awesome story: Olga’s Egg, by Sophie Law – about the Fabergé Eggs! and the Romanovs. Stunning, really:

    Thanks for all the images and references you included in your review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Big thanks to you for telling me about this book, and I’m going to chase up the one about the Romanovs in the new year.
      Glad you like the images!


  4. Reblogged this on penwithlit.


  5. Contrary to popular impression, Ilike “mildly implausible but wholly enjoyable plots” in my Historical Fiction – it means I don’t have to take them seriously. I won’t remember the name, but if I see this cover in the library I’ll borrow it to listen to as I work.

    Dad was descended from Huguenots on his mother’s side. He writes in our family history: “Abraham and Anne Luya were from Charenton, at that time on the eastern outskirts of Paris, where Abraham was recorded as a silk weaver”. So how about that! They fled to England in 1682 (just in time to meet Moll Flanders).


    • So like me you have French ancestry! Now that Brexit looms in real time, we must start a political movement to have our French citizenship acknowledged so that we can have EU passports…


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