The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift is one of two books (the other is The Gilded Lily, but read this one first) that basically deal with a similar set of characters during the same period in British history, 1660 and the Restoration. Instead of being set in London or focussing on the royal family, aristocrats, and their various scandals (as so many wonderful novels set in this period are wont to do), this novel tells the story of Alice Ibbetson, a talented painter and the grieving wife of Thomas Ibbetson. Mourning the death of her younger sister a year earlier, Alice is finding it difficult to embrace life and even tolerate the demands of her rather dullard husband. Finding solace in her painting, she has become obsessed with not simply flowers, but capturing the beauty of various plants for posterity. When a neighbour, the rather strange but also fascinating Quaker, Richard Wheeler, shows Alice the location of a rare and very beautiful orchid called The Lady’s Slipper, which also happened to be her sister’s favourite flower, Alice knows she can’t merely paint it, but must preserve it for the future.
When the flower disappears and a pair of lady’s slippers go missing as well and then a local healer, Margaret Poulter is found murdered, suspicion is rife and there are those with their own motives keen to lay blame for both the flower’s disappearance and the death at Alice’s door. When Alice’s maid, the selfish and rather lazy, Ella, who’s been having an affair with Thomas, presents evidence linking Alice to the crimes, not even the truth and justice of Quakers can save her.
Using the beauty of nature as a theme to explore the ugliness of which human nature is capable, the title is a clever nod to two very different variations of “lady’s slippers” both of which set off a chian of catastrophic events. As the plot twists and turns and characters are tested and mostly found wanting, this book explores loyalty, faith, greed and loss as well as what lengths people will go to protect their power – even before each other.
Dark at times, what I particularly liked about it is that no character is clearly “evil” or “good”. It’s a strength of Swift’s writing that all the characters, even the heroine, Alice, are not above questionable behaviour that has the reader recoiling at times, even if we understand their motives.
Swift also recreates the period beautifully – from clothes, to social ranks, food, faith and politics.
A terrific read for lovers of historical fiction and a fine book.