There are several reasons why this book is unusual. The first is the setting in Restoration England. This is one of the few books I can remember reading that is set in that time frame where the antics of King Charles II and his Merry old court are not front and centre in the narrative. Instead we have a young woman with an affinity for plants, a Quaker and small town prejudices and intrigues - the first two of which are quite different as well.
The story opens with Alice Ibbetson creeping out of her home in her silk slippers, past the sleeping form of her husband, and into the fields belonging to her neighbour Richard Wheeler. This is no secret assignation, but rather Alice has a single minded purpose to her night time wanderings. Recently, the extremely rare Lady Slipper Orchid has been found flowering in the field and she is determined to steal the flower to try and breed it, and also to paint it. Alice finds solace in her garden and in the act of painting flowers and plants - something she is very talented at. This solace is something that Alice is desperately in need of as she is in mourning following the death of her younger sister whilst she was in Alice's care as a result of the early demise of both of their parents.
When Richard Wheeler finds that the rare bloom has been stolen, he does have a fair idea of where the blame lies, but it isn't gentlemanly to outright accuse a lady of lying when Alice denies it. He is, however, determined to find the culprit and bring them to justice. Richard was a gentleman of some means and influence before he sold everything and became a Quaker in direct reaction to the things that he saw, and did, during the Civil War.
|Ladyslipper image from Wikipedia|
The final key players in the plot are Ella Appleby, somewhat slatternly maid to Alice, a young girl who has ambitions for a life of luxury, no matter who gets in her way, or what the consequences of her actions are and Margaret Poulter, local wise woman.
When Alice steals the flower, there is no way known that she could have predicted the impact that decision has on her life. She is bought into the centre of a web of deceit that culminates in murder, and leads to her own life being ruined but also preserved and blossoming into a very different life than she expected.
There were lots of things to enjoy about this book. The author was adept in showing how the old divisions in society between those who fought on the Parliamentarian side and those who fought on the Royalists side still impacted on everyday life in the years immediately after Charles II returned to the throne. The details about the flower were interesting, especially when you consider how the author was inspired to write the novel after coming across one of the orchids while on a walk near her home.
Really though, the most interesting aspect of the book for me related to the Quaker aspects including why a man like Richard Wheeler would choose such a path, the persecution that people who chose that faith experienced, the incarcerations, and yet their faith stayed strong. The author chose to base many aspects of the story on the real central hub of Quaker England and it is fascinating stuff.
If there were any criticisms, it really would be on the development of the relationship between Richard and Alice which took an unexpected turn later in the book, and that some of the 'bad' characters were a bit two dimensional, especially Ella. I am, however, not sure that I have not been a bit influenced by the fact that I jumped straight from this book into Swift's next book, which features both Ella and her younger sister Sadie.
Overall this was a really good debut. Having now read her follow up book, Deborah Swift is an author that I will be looking out for in future!
I read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.
1660. King Charles II has returned from exile, but memories of the English Civil War still rankle. There are old scores to settle, and religious differences threaten to overturn a fragile peace.
When Alice Ibbetson discovers a rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper, growing in a wood belonging to Richard Wheeler, she is captivated by its beauty— though Wheeler, a Quaker, is determined to keep the flower where God intended it to grow. Knowing that the orchid is the last of its kind, she steals the flower, little dreaming that her seemingly simple act will set off a chain of events that will lead to murder and exile, and change her life forever…