The year is 1660, in the old county of Westmorland in northern England. Although the Civil War is over, and Charles II is restored to his throne, animosity continues to rankle between the country's Royalist and Puritan factions. Mistress Alice, a young wife from the village of Netherbarrow still in mourning for her younger sister, spends her days growing plants in her summerhouse and capturing their beauty in art.
When Richard Wheeler first shows Alice the lady's slipper, growing in an isolated wood on his property, she feels she must remove it for its own protection and paint it before the flower fades. Richard, a former officer in Cromwell's army who found peace among the Quakers, knows she has taken the orchid but can't prove it. As Alice continues to deny the theft, Ella, the Ibbetsons’ crafty maidservant, finds Alice’s discarded slippers, ruined after her late-night expedition, and steals them for herself.
Two others are drawn to the orchid: Sir Geoffrey Fisk, the hard-nosed local squire, who hopes its roots will cure his skin condition, and Margaret Poulter, a pagan wise-woman. "There was an odd scent about it, as if it was half in this world and half in some other darker world," thinks Margaret, knowing Alice’s obsession with the plant will bring her more than she intends.
The plot moves along smoothly as it speaks to universal themes such as honor, redemption, and finding a place to belong in a land marked by class inequities and religious intolerance. In a work that displays such a strong love for its regional setting, perhaps it's no mistake that the most sympathetic and rounded characters are those with their eyes open to nature’s wonders and mysteries. Their surroundings, both outdoors and in, are described with remarkable clarity of detail.
A dark and gripping tale deeply rooted in rural English history, The Lady's Slipper reads at times like a 17th-century folk ballad come to life. Though neither bawdy nor ostentatious, as novels of the Restoration court in distant London can sometimes be, it stands well on its own merits, a novel as rich and haunting as the setting it evokes.
The Lady's Slipper was published in late November in the US by St. Martin's Griffin (trade pb, $14.99, 464pp; photo at very top). My copy, which I'd preordered from Book Depository long before I knew a US edition would be available (this happens a lot), was published by Macmillan New Writing in June in hardcover at £12.99. St. Martin's has generously provided me two copies for a giveaway. For a chance to win, leave a comment on this post by the end of the day Friday, December 10th. International entrants welcome. Good luck!