For three entire pages at the start of the last chapter of The Rings of Saturn W.G. Sebald lists fabulous and wholly imaginary items inventoried in the Musæum Clausum of Sir Thomas Browne, ending, finally, with this fanciful object:
..the bamboo cane in which, at the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinianus, two Persian friars who had long been in China to discover the secrets of sericulture had brought the first eggs of the silkworm over the Empire’s borders into the Western world.
This prompts Sebald to embark on one of the longer and more complex of the meandering themes that comprise The Rings of Saturn – a more than twenty page meditation on the biology of silkworm moths and an abbreviated history of silk production spanning nearly 5,000 years from ancient China to the Nazi era. At one point, he mentions the mid-17th century revocation of the freedoms proclaimed in the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which caused some 50,000 Huguenots to flee France and emigrate to England, many of whom were experienced silkworm breeders and producers of silk goods. Of particular interest to Sebald was the fact that many of these silk workers settled in Norwich, creating “the wealthiest, most influential and cultivated class of entrepreneurs in the entire kingdom.”
…a traveler approaching Norwich under the black sky of a winter night would be amazed by the glare over the city, caused by the light coming from the windows of the workshops, still busy at this late hour.
Within a few sentences, however, Sebald makes a most remarkable turn by likening the hard labor of the weavers with that of “scholars and writers with whom they had much in common.” Weavers, scholars, and writers, Sebald claims, tend “to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, [and] it is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created.”
It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.
And so there, in a revealing metaphor drawn from silk weaving, Sebald has described the doubt that plagues writers, who weave with words that are infinitely more gossamer than silk. It’s not hard to imagine that Sebald is speaking personally here. Remember that at the very beginning of The Rings of Saturn the narrator is to be found lying in a hospital in a state of “almost total immobility” resulting from “the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” Perhaps this emptiness also encloses the fear that, as a writer, he might “have got hold of the wrong thread.” Most of us would argue that Sebald did not get hold of the wrong thread, no matter how difficult it might be for the reader to discern patterns to a book like The Rings of Saturn. And Sebald, too, immediately shifts to the upside of these melancholic professions. He points out that in spite of the mental illnesses that the silk weavers suffered they also managed to create some of the most beautiful, intricate, and lasting treasures out of the liquid thread that emerged from the mouths of silkworms. And he proceeds to list some of these treasures using the most dazzling array of words:
…silk brocades and watered tabinets, satins and satinettes, camblets and cheveretts, prunelles, callimancoes and florentines, diamantines and grenadines, blondines, bombazines, belle-isles and martiniques…That, at any rate, is what I think when I look at the marvellous strips of color in the pattern books, the edges and gaps filled with mysterious figures and symbols, that are kept in the small museum of Strangers Hall, which was once the town house of just such a family of silk weavers who had been exiled from France.
It was with great surprise and pleasure, then, that I stumbled upon a reference to the wonderful blog Venetian Red, where there is an extensive and well-illustrated article by Christine Cariati on James Leman and Anna Maria Garthwaite, two 18th century silk weavers of Spitalfields, the section of East London, which had once been the textile center for the city. Like Sebald, Cariati carries the story of the English silk industry beyond its demise and into our time.
An interesting aside to the Huguenot story is that one of the most prominent Huguenot families to settle in England was the Courtaulds, who fled from France in the 1680s and later became silk weavers. A descendant of this family, Samuel Courtauld, who took control of the company in 1908 (the firm invented rayon, a synthetic silk, in 1910), achieved great renown as an art collector. In 1932 he founded the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, to which he bequeathed his collection upon his death in 1947.
If you have never visited the galleries of the Courtauld in person, you may take a virtual tour at their website.