The echo in the title is made clear for young readers by setting Yeats’ ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ as an epigraph. The ‘embroidered cloths’ in question are worked by young seamstress Mary Devereux, as she stitches all her dreams drawn from her beloved Devon countryside into a commission for Walter Raleigh. It is none other than the very cloak which Raleigh spreads in the mud under the feet of Queen Elizabeth (who treads heavily on Mary’s dreams in the process).
Recurrent reports of the death of the historical novel for children have been much exaggerated. This one is firmly within the tradition exemplified at its best by Geoffrey Trease – carefully researched and written with a focus on unknown commoners whose lives are touched by famous members of the nobility. There are many pitfalls in this kind of writing, as Trease himself pointed out. Here, the author’s depth of knowledge of costume and the art involved in its creation comes close to giving lay readers a little more than they might wish to know, though the enthusiast could well be fascinated (‘Whatever will we do without whalebone busks to flatten Lady Anne’s stomacher?’). The language, charged with high Elizabethan spirits, just about avoids what Trease mocked as ‘tushery’ (‘“Aha, ’tis the little seamstress!” Raleigh cried heartily as he passed by.’) It is perhaps too easy that all the lower classes – with the exception of a Catholic steward whose villainy is unrelieved – are honest, hard-working folk with admirable values; whilst the upper classes tend to the vain, petulant and duplicitous.
Nevertheless the plot – with its conversations in dark corners and flashing blades, its court pageantry and extravagance – drives along compellingly once Raleigh arrives on the page. He is indeed the most interestingly complex character, for neither Mary nor the reader can quite fathom where his loyalties lie – not least because Raleigh cannot either, since he is sufficiently self-aware to know that his chief loyalty is to himself. For Mary, the vanities of the Court, despite the worth the Queen places upon her skills as a needlewoman, are ephemeral and she returns to Devon to find, happily enough, that Plague and shipwreck have spared those she loved but feared were lost.