Restoration London is the setting for Swift’s tale of two sisters on the run from the law, hoping to lose themselves in the bustle of the city via their illegal bounty. After Thomas Ibbetson suddenly dies, ambitious country maid Ella Appleby pilfers his valuables, returning home only to snatch young sister Sadie away. Their secretive journey to London precipitates a determined pursuit by Ibbetson’s twin brother, Titus, who would see the thieves hanged. Ella imagines escape to be within their grasp but for the fact of a birth stain on Sadie’s face, marking her noticeable among the others in the teeming London streets.
The pilfered goods don’t take them far, either, forcing the sisters to find a position at a wigmaker’s that Ella considers below her expectations. Lulled by the tedium of work, scrounging food to consume in their chilly room, the girls feel nearly safe until they notice a proliferation of wanted posters on every street corner. Ibbetson has tracked them to the area, intent on avenging his brother, even accusing Ella of his brother’s untimely death. A girl of little character, Ella has in fact done a disservice to her employer but is not that venal. With the incentive of a reward, Sadie is unable to keep her job, forced to hide indoors but for desperate excursions in the dark of night. Everyone is a potential informant, no one trustworthy save Ella.
The majority of Swift’s novel centers on the sisters’ struggle to avoid notice until Ibbetson tires of the chase and returns to the country with his complaining wife, though he shows no signs of flagging interest. A contrast in personalities—Ella the scheming beauty willing to better her circumstances regardless the cost, Sadie the frugal, hard-working voice of reason, marked as different yet large of heart and devoted to the inconstant Ella—their future is in doubt. Their lodgings are mean, the squalor of their environment exacerbated by the stress of their predicament, the only hope Ella’s employment by the son of an established merchant.
That Jay Whitgift is a sly crook who takes advantage of his father’s trust means little to Ella, who senses a compatible soul. But while Ella dreams of romance, Whitgift has other things in mind: making Ella the face of his new enterprise to attract local gentry to his shop, to learn about their private comings and goings. The comfortable life Ella envies is indeed the fruit of wealth and standing, but Jay has the heart of a criminal, ever conscious of opportunities to defraud, steal and profit from the mistakes of others. He correctly identifies Ella’s moral blind spot, using the knowledge to his advantage, hiring her as the manager of The Gilded Lily, purveyor of merchandise to enhance female pulchritude.
As the disparate elements of the plot converge and Ibbetson draws closer to his quarry, Jay tires of Ella’s demands as he is anxious to profit from his latest scheme. Sadie is nearly exposed by a conniving former coworker. The façade of class cracks, exposing the ugly underbelly of crime in a series of dramatic confrontations, wealthy men caught in their debauchery, a father made painfully aware of his son’s ruinous flaws, the sisters about to realize the folly of misplaced belief in the security of anonymity. Some rigorous editing would have been helpful. Sadie’s ordeal and Ella’s indulgence take up many chapters, as well as Jay’s ongoing plans to blackmail and defraud. As expected, the good triumph, the evil meet their just rewards and the downtrodden enjoy a brief respite from the drubbing they usually endure. Historically interesting, the tale is too mired in the deeds of inconsequential misses, one primping in a mirror, the other figuratively wringing her hands at their impossible dilemma.