As readers we first met Ella Appleby in the pages of The Lady's Slipper. In that story Ella was portrayed as a somewhat conniving young lady who would let nothing and no-one step in the way of what she wants. And what Ella wants more than anything is to be a fine lady, sleeping in expensive linen, dressed in gorgeous clothes.
Initially, Ella is convinced that the best way to achieve that goal is to become mistress to Thomas Ibbetson, but that plan goes awry when Thomas falls seriously ill and dies. Ella knows that she has to leave the small village that she has always lived in and quickly but she can't possibly leave her sister, Sadie, behind. The two girls take everything of value in the house and flee to the relative anonymity of London but the dead man's twin brother is hot on their trail and it isn't long before there are wanted posters scattered throughout London.
When they get to London the two girls quickly find work in a perruquier (which is our obscure word of the week at work thanks to reading it in this book), also known as a wig maker. Sadie fits into the group of girls, being quiet, patient and talented with her hands when it comes to needlework. Ella is not such a good fit. She tends to be a bit mouthy, too impatient to perform the precise work required to make a good quality wig for the gentry and too desperate to get out to be something better.
After a couple of close brushes with their pursuers, Ella's luck changes when she literally catches the eye of Jay Whitgift, man about town. After failing at her task to make him a wig that fits, Jay offers Ella a chance at the kind of life she always wanted. She is to become the face of The Gilded Lily, a female alternative to the coffee houses that the men of Restoration flock to. Her job will be to convince the quality ladies of the ton to purchase creams and potions to enhance their beauty. Before long, The Gilded Lily is the place to be seen and Ella is the talk of the town.
What Ella doesn't initially know is that the Lily is a front for a much more lucrative, and dangerous, business. Jay's father was originally a pawnshop owner and he has trained his son with the intention that he will take over the thriving business. Whilst that business is now technically illegal, the demand for such services is high. Where Mr Whitgift senior is honest to a fault, Jay is, well, Jay is not. For just like Ella, Jay wants something more from life, and he is prepared to do anything to get it. He is a magpie, collecting all manner of expensive trinkets from the people he does business with usually acquiring them through backhanded means. As Ella gets more involved with Jay's world, she sets her sights high, but this world is not only one of glamour, it is also dangerous, especially for two young girls. This is even more true given that they are wanted by the law and that there are several parties who are trying to track them down, all vying for the generous reward that will be paid on their capture.
The biggest issue for the two girls is that Sadie has a port-wine birthmark on one side of her face which makes her pretty much instantly recognisable and so Ella decides that she must remain hidden at all costs, especially seeing as Sadie refuses to wear the paint that Ella brings home from The Gilded Lily. As a modern reader, it is a bit sickening to know what the effect of using such lead based cosmetics would have had, but at the time it was the height of fashion to use such cosmetics, and Ella wants nothing more than to be fashionable.
Fortunately Sadie has been able to make several friends who are concerned enough about her for if she had to rely only on the increasingly selfish Ella she would have been left to languish in a lonely room without enough food and heating in one of the coldest winter's in history. The author uses the Thames river freezing over to great effect during the novel, particularly in setting at least some of the action during the frost fares that took place.
Where the author excels is in making the reader care for the two girls. I was drawn, as I suspect the reader is meant to be, to the fate of the unfortunate Sadie who has escaped from one hell-hole to what turns out to be anything but a better life. It is difficult to say that I liked Ella, but she was certainly an engaging character to read about, especially as the plot speeds up towards the resolution.
As I got closer to the end of the book, I did find myself thinking that there were 50 pages left and I still had no idea how the author was going to get the two girls safely to the end. I am not entirely convinced about the method of that resolution, but I am not sure where else the story could have gone.
It should be noted that The Gilded Lily picks up towards the end of the story that is told in The Lady's Slipper (Deborah Swift's debut novel). It is being marketed as a companion novel. Whilst the novel does standalone fairly well, it is undoubtedly enhanced by knowing exactly what it is that the two girls are running from, and why, as well as some of the implications of their actions.
I have enjoyed both books over the last couple of days. I do think that you can see a degree of confidence that the author has gained in her writing from one book to the next. Once again, it was a pleasure to read a book that concentrated more on the life away from the court of Charles II, although there were a couple of mentions of high ranking members of society in the pages, although not in the most flattering ways.
I thoroughly enjoyed this tale that explored the darker side of Restoration London. I am really looking forward to seeing whose story Deborah Swift tells next.
Thanks to the publisher and Historical Ficton Virtual Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review.
This book was read as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.
In her short life, Sadie Appleby has never left rural Westmorland. But one night she is rudely awoken by her older and bolder sister, Ella. She has robbed her recently deceased employer and is on the run. Together the girls flee their hoe and head for London, hoping to lose themselves in the teeming city. But the dead man's relatives are in pursuit, and soon a game of cat and mouse ensues amongst the freezing warren that is London in winter.
Ella is soon seduced by the glitter and glamour of city life and sets her sights on the flamboyant man-about-town, Jay Whitgift. But nothing in the capital is what it seems, least of all Jay Whitgift. Soon a rift has formed between Ella and Sadie and the stisters are threatened by a menace mroe sinister than even the law.
Set in brilliantly realized Restoration London, The Gilded Lily is a novel about beauty and desire, about the stories we tell ourselves, and about how sisterhood can be both a burden and a saving grace.