Deborah Swift's debut novel, published by the Macmillan New Writers Scheme aimed to publish new authors, is set in Westmoreland in 1660. King Charles II has returned to his throne, but strong religious differences threaten the fragile peace and the growing Quaker movement especially is viewed with hatred and suspicion.
Alice Ibbetson, a young wife mourning the loss of a beloved younger sister, is passionate about painting wild flowers. When Richard Wheeler, a local Quaker who was once a member of Cromwell’s New Model Army shows her a rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper, growing in his wood, Alice is so obsessed with preserving and cultivating the flower she tries to convince Wheeler to give it to her.
When the Quaker insists the flower must grow where God intended, Alice creeps out of her house one night and steals it.
Wheeler comes looking, and Alice senses he knows what she has done, but he has no proof. However others are interested in the flower - the local cunning woman, Margaret Poulter wants to use its medicinal powers, and the unpredictable Geoffrey Fisk, Alice's patron, sees it as a way to cure his debilitating skin complaint and revive his fortunes.
Alice quickly learns that her action has set in motion a chain of events that have little to do with posterity and more about greed, corruption and betrayal. Alice’s actions make her vulnerable to those who would happily use her for their own ends, so her well-intended crime becomes her downfall, and poor Alice goes through torment due to her guilty secret.
The fact Alice confided her ‘crime’ to the odious Geoffrey Fisk seemed a strange choice bearing in mind the man’s character and his behaviour when he sees the flower. Her intentions are pure, well sort of, she did steal it after all, but his are entirely self-interest.
It left me wondering why a simple girl like Alice would associate with such an awful man, let alone put herself in his power. Even Alice’s maid, Ella, has nothing but contempt for both her employers and uses knowledge of her mistress’ deceit against her.
At first, I imagined Richard Wheeler to be the villain of the piece, with his uncompromising attitude, but he proves to be the hero of the story. Tall, broad and with penetrating dark eyes and hair, his character proves the most honourable and brave amongst a society where the rich and influencial are still allowed to run roughshod over the less fortunate.
As I became immersed in Ms Swift's prose, the story became less about a flower, and more about how obsession can ruin lives and make people lose perspective. The persecuton of Quakers is brought out vividly, and there is some surprising eroticism in the latter chapters which I didn’t expect and which, for me, brought nothing to this already atmospheric story.
Deborah Swift’s writing style, combined with her knowledge of mid 17th Century life is masterful in her portrayal of a crueller and less tolerant time, where suspicion is enough to condemn the innocent and women were regarded as the cradle of all evils. Alice’s spell in gaol was particularly chilling and I was glad to finish that chapter.
If you enjoy reading about life and attitudes of the 17th century, Ms Swift's sequel, using some of the characters in her first book is something to look forward to.