Set between 1660 and 1695, Swift’s ambitious novel takes place just as Charles
II has been returned to the throne. While Catholics are the predominant religious force, many in government are concerned about the rise of the Quakers, commonly known as the “Society of Friends”
- a group who have broken away from established practices of the state church because of their divergent beliefs.
Against this tumultuous landscape, Alice Ibbetson wanders in the woods by her summerhouse, looking for the rare lady’s slipper orchid. As the pale globe of the flower “shines like Venus in the night sky,” Alice is anxious to steal the orchid in order to cultivate it for Sir Geoffrey Fisk. Fisk makes his living
by trading in foreign and unusual specimens, and only he knows Alice's excitement at the discovery of the rare orchid.
Alice spies a dark figure melting into the shadows; she must be careful of eccentric Richard Wheeler, a newly-minted Quaker. Harboring an unbending, iron-clad sense of duty, Wheeler is considered dangerous. Once one of the Cromwell’s men, Wheeler is a well-known anti-royalist.
Over the months, Sir Geoffrey has become convinced that Wheeler is gathering a force to over throw the King.
Sir Geoffrey’s past associations with Wheeler are strewn with gore, and Alice likewise finds herself caught in the net of bloody murder, the delicate flower causing her more strife than she had bargained for.
A "dark stone of grief” weighs heavily in Alice's stomach from recent death of her sister, Flora,
and her unlikely friendship with old, bedraggled Margaret Poulter will ultimately
be her undoing.
Rumored to be witch, Margaret is an expert in the darker herbal powers of healing. At first Margaret tries to charm Alice with an offer of assistance, quickly becoming irritated when Alice refuses to show her the rare slipper orchid. As Alice’s thoughts and moods shift and disperse like clouds, her actions in protecting the orchid from various stakeholders sets in motion a series of tragic events.
The wild accusations of murder against Alice are mostly fuelled by the sly manipulations of her conceited maid, Ella.
She steals her mistress’s yellow embroidered slipper shoes then convinces
herself she deserves a rightful place as the new mistress of the house, giving
us an intimate view of Ella’s lascivious obsessions with Thomas, Alice's diffident husband. Alice must ultimately face the blind cruelty of the local villagers as she unexpectedly finds herself fighting for survival, condemned for a crime she did not commit.
In Swift's rich and detailed saga, the drama is thrust forward by the selfish machinations of Ella, Sir Geoffrey and Thomas.
Danger swirls around Geoffrey’s son Stephen, enlisted by his father to befriend Wheeler and uncover evidence of foul play against the King. Emphasizing the cruelty and intolerance of the time, Swift’s novel posits a slippery slope of lying, deceit and brutality, the pain of the past balanced against the delicacy of the slipper orchid and Alice's desperate courage in the face of death.