The Lady’s Slipper: A Review

The Lady's SlipperThe Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Lady’s Slipper is a historical novel, set in the Restoration period (1660-1688) of English history, and revolves around the theft of an extremely rare flower—the title name—by Alice Ibbetson, a painter and amateur botanist. She steals it from its owner, a Quaker named Richard Wheeler, who immediately suspects her of the theft, but the flower is also coveted by Alice’s patron, a nobleman named Gregory Fisk who suffers from a skin ailment and wants the flower for its medicinal properties. Alice hides the flower from Wheeler but it is noticed by a local herbalist named Margaret Poulter, who is killed accidentally by Fisk but whose death is pinned on Alice. Animosities between Fisk and Wheeler lead to Wheeler’s imprisonment with Alice, but they are broken out by Fisk’s son Stephen, who comes to embrace Richard’s religion after spying on Quaker meetings for his father. Alice and Richard buy passage to America to escape but find themselves on Gregory Fisk’s ship. Fisk attacks Alice but Richard manages to fight him off and wounds him. Fisk dies aboard ship, and Alice and Richard make their life in New Hampshire.

The book’s main strength lies in the basic premise of the book, and the colorful background of its characters: Alice’s botany and painting pursuits, Fisk’s interest in chemistry and medicine, Wheeler’s religion, Margaret’s “witchcraft.” The intertwining of Wheeler and Fisk by their civil war experience, and religious differences, was also well done. Characters such as Margaret and Dorothy Hall give the books color and variety. The book is consistently entertaining and colorful, if not always satisfyingly so. The book has several flaws, the most noticeable of which is the lack of direct connection between the inciting incident—the theft of the flower—and the rest of the events that lead to the denouement of the story. The events which lead to Alice’s condemnation and scheduled execution seem rather coincidental, as does her and Richard finding their way onto Fisk’s ship at the end of the book. At one point, Swift’s narration of Alice’s thoughts has her saying to herself that all the events that led her to her imprisonment were inevitable, but reading the novel they felt more like a series of coincidences. Nor despite the juicy conflicts with which the book begins does the story feel like it escalates very much after the first few chapters, which is probably why, for all the color she gives her main characters, few of them seem to have much of an arc. It’s not clear what has changed in Alice from start to finish, most of all, but even in the two most interesting characters—Stephen and Richard—the inner tensions that make them interesting in the first place dissolve as the story unfolds. For Stephen, the tension between his loyalty to his father and his friendship with Richard are undermined by the fact that Gregory is portrayed so unsympathetically; in the case of Wheeler, the tension between his religion and his desires (for nice clothes, for Alice) is dissolved by the seeming ease with which beds Alice, and goes back to soldiering. The whole change seems rather mechanical, and undermines the thing which made Wheeler compelling, his unique but challenging religion.

With regard to the historical aspects of the novel were mixed, I give the book mixed reviews. Her depiction of the civil war and its causes was totally off the mark—at one point Richard says he fought on the side of Parliament because he thought the people should govern their own affairs, while Gregory Fisk remained attached to the “old system” but this is horribly anachronistic, and no academic historian would take such an portrayal of the war seriously. On the hand, her depiction of Quaker meetings and beliefs were sympathetic, and fairly accurate, as was her sometimes moving depictions of their sufferings. But she doesn’t seem nearly as interested in depicting the nuances of those characters who are Anglicans in the book, whose religion she doesn’t seem to care for very much. She seems to prefer religious belief and practice that is closer to modern concerns, apparently. This would be in keeping with what appears to be one of the themes of the novel, which has to do with respect for the natural world; the character of Margaret exemplifies this most clearly, and at one point I though Swift might make more of this theme, but doesn’t seem to exploit it as much as she could have. This may or may not have been a bad thing; personally, I don’t have much sympathy with what seem like a neo-pagan philosophy at times in the book, but it could have been utilized to give the novel a more effective theme had tied more closely in with the events of the work, rather than merely being interjected by the narrator a few times, as was the case.

In the end, however, this was a highly readable, entertaining effort by a first time novelist, even if it didn’t reach the heights of great literature. But I think it had the potential to do so, even if it didn’t reach it, and who knows? Perhaps Swift may reach those heights sometime in the not too distant future. There are certainly worse things to say about a novel than that it was entertaining, and for my money, nothing worse could be said about The Lady’s Slipper.

View all my reviews

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~ by Alypius on July 10, 2014.

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