In The Lady's Slipper, the wild folkloric beauty of Westmorland in northern England is on full display. With The Gilded Lily, readers are taken from the countryside to the less affluent districts of a grimly evoked London in 1661, a place where, as one of the protagonists observes, “the poor were always hungry, for nothing grew here.” Corruption is rife, and truth is forced to hide beneath layers of artifice.
Ella Appleby may be the instigator of the novel’s action, but she's not really the heroine; that honor belongs to her younger, gentler sister, Sadie. After Ella discovers her married employer/lover, Thomas Ibbetson, has died unexpectedly, she takes off, but not without clearing his house of all its valuables, and convincing Sadie to help her.
The young women flee Westmorland and strike out for London, where they hope to blend into its masses of people and make a fresh start. Mr Ibbetson's identical twin, Titus, has caught their scent, though, and will stop at nothing to capture the "savage sisters" that robbed and (he believes) murdered his brother.
Having proven herself talentless at wig-making, beautiful, ambitious Ella attracts the notice of Jay Whitgift, a dashing pawnbroker's son who she hopes to entice into marrying her. He installs her as a salesgirl in his new salon, the Gilded Lily, which provides salves and ointments to London's most elegant ladies. Both Whitgift and his business have a dark and shifty side, though, and Ella finds herself caught up in both the surface glamour and his underhanded schemes.
Sadie attracts attention, too, of the unwanted kind... thanks to the large port-wine birthmark on her face. She is an admirable character, especially in the face of her sister's greed and cruelty. Ella has good reason to be bitter at rich folk, so while she may be difficult to like, her character isn’t completely unsympathetic. The desperate situation brings out realistic extremes in both sisters -- Ella's bossiness and Sadie's powerlessness -- and as their relationship turns bitter, Titus Ibbetson moves in to trap them, and danger erupts from an even more sinister venue.
There are a lot of viewpoints to follow, not just that of Sadie and Ella but also Ibbetson, one of Sadie's friends, Whitgift, and his elderly father, among others. This ensures a wide-ranging perspective on the events unfolding around them. The text has a good balance of dialog and description, which makes for a faster read than you'd expect for a chunkster-length novel. The characters’ language has an authentic period feel, and as Ella and Sadie come to discover what matters most, the plot speeds ahead toward a very satisfying conclusion.
The Gilded Lily will be published by St. Martin's Griffin on November 27th at $15.00 (trade pb, 471pp). This review is part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. For more information on Deborah Swift and her novels, see her website at www.deborahswift.co.uk.