Lancashire author Deborah Swift’s debut novel The Lady’s Slipper caused quite a stir when it was published two years ago... could her second historical adventure live up to the high expectations?
The answer most definitely is yes! The Gilded Lily, a loose prequel to her earlier book set in 17th century rural Westmorland, contains all the same exciting literary qualities that won her an army of fans.
Swift lives at Warton, near Carnforth, and the landscape of north Lancashire and south Lakeland has been a source of inspiration for her classy and compelling novels, but here she decamps to the menace and tarnished glamour of Restoration London.
Her story of two sisters on the run from crime and skulduggery in Westmorland brings the past to life with such a tangible sense of reality that one can almost smell the street middens, see the slippery cobbles and hear the rattle of a passing cart in the raw, raucous London of Charles II.
She creates a three-dimensional cast of characters, develops a plot that is alive with complex themes and imagery, and sets them free in a world of startling historical authenticity.
In 1661, 15-year-old Sadie Appleby lives a sheltered life in Westmorland with her sister and drunkard father. Shy, sensitive and conscious of a port-wine birthmark on her face which has marked her out as bearing ‘the Devil’s pawprint,’ she has been content to keep a low profile.
Her older, bolder and beautiful sister Ella has always been her greatest comfort and protector but one cold winter’s night Sadie is rudely awoken to find her life changed forever.
Ella, who is working as a housemaid for a local family, has found her employer dead and then robbed him of his valuables. Now the girls are on the run. They are heading for London where no one knows them, no one asks questions and they can lose themselves in the teeming crowds.
But the dead man’s twin brother has set out to find them. He’s filling London with posters offering a reward for the capture of the ‘Savage Sisters’ and, unknown to the girls, a dangerous game of cat and mouse is taking place amongst the dark, dank warren of streets in a city suffering a deadly, freezing winter.
Meanwhile, Ella is totally seduced by the glitter and glamour of city life and sets her sights on the flamboyant man-about-town Jay Whitgift, owner of The Gilded Lily, a beauty parlour for the wives of London’s idle rich.
But nothing in the capital is what it seems, least of all Jay Whitgift, and tensions are growing between Ella and Sadie, chiefly due to the birthmark which makes it difficult for Sadie to be seen in public.
And soon there may be nowhere to hide...
Superb dialogue, steeped in contemporary language, adds credibility and atmosphere to this compelling tale which examines the ties that bind together siblings, the consequences of greed and ambition, the fickleness of fate and women’s constant battle to survive in a man’s world.
The Gilded Lily is also a fast-paced adventure peopled with ruthless villains and feisty heroines whose exploits grab the imagination and add suspense and excitement to a historical gem.
Ms Swift’s next novel can’t come a moment too soon...
(Pan, paperback, £7.99)