Opening in 1661 soon after the events of The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily begins as Ella and Sadie Appleby seek to escape from the small village of Netherbarrow, Westmorland,
falsely accused of murder and thievery by Titus Ibbertson. Unable to comprehend the news that someone has suffocated his brother Thomas, Titus is certain that Ella planned the whole robbery with her sister. Ella and Sadie steal away to London, hoping that the anonymity of the city will protect them.
London proves to be a ravaged, pox-ridden and chaotic place. Selling most of their stolen goods at Stella’s insistence, the girls make enough money to rent a small chamber where “the yeasty residues and bakery waste annoyingly attract the pigs.” Sadie’s disquiet continues to mount,
while Ella worries about the port-wine birthmark that stains her sister’s face,
believing that somehow it is going to taint her as well. Soon enough they have found jobs working for a pinch-faced wigmaker who runs her business with
the grim air of one determined to prove she can do it better than her dead husband.
Ella is in a difficult position. She is pretty and seductive but unable to avoid the feeling
of loneliness. In Friargate, she makes the acquaintance of handsome, debonair Josiah “Jay” Whitgift, a shady pawnbroker who schemes to improve his situation whenever possible.
Self-serving Jay’s curiosity settles on Ella, and he sets her up in his new salon called The Gilded Lily, where among alabaster powders and belladonna pomanders, Ella assists the exclusive ladies of London and no longer has to worry about her flight from Westmorland and Blackraven Alley’s freezing room, where Sadie
waits all day for her to return.
Marked by her stain, “that raw patch on her face like a map stretched over her eye,” Sadie places her hood over her face, aching to creep into the shadows and stews of London looking for “a woodhouse on a ship.” Only kindly landlord Dennis, who tells her in his lively voice about heroes and robberies
and booty and plunder, can assuage Sadie's visions of the muck of London and the notion that if Ibbertson catches them, Ella and she will most likely be fodder for the scaffold.
As Ibbertson’s net tightens, Sadie desperately watches Ella’s transformation from serving maid into the yellow-haired salesgirl of The Gilded Lily.
Haunted by the wind that whistles its hollow song though the chimneys and spires of London
with their plates of ice that stretch out “like ragged shelves,” Sadie watches the sullen Thames cutting through the landscape
as the faint mist rises and palls over the mudflats. Sadie's world has been drained of color and warmth, “like washed out, faded curtains left too long in the rain.”
From the very first pages, Swift’s meticulous research is evident as she surrounds her valiant and roguish characters with period authenticity. While the novel is a bit long and the multiple points of view are sometimes as convoluted and murky as London’s back alleyways, Swift writes an atmospheric mystery with a tantalizing dash of devilry that emerges through the self-imposed walls of Sade’s isolation and Ella’s flawed, naive ambition.