New historical fiction featuring a rare Orchid, Quakers and an insane Lord of the Manor...
Deborah Swift is a new British talent bringing our history to life through her meticulously researched debut novel, The Lady’s Slipper. The premise is a little abstract: a young woman’s misguided obsession with a rare Orchid called, unsurprisingly enough, a Lady’s Slipper, brings about a course of events that will have far reaching consequences. That a flower could cause such a furore as to warrant an entire fictional novel about it is absurd – and yet, you could be forgiven for wondering if there is little more to The Lady’s Slipper given that everyone’s attentions seem focused on the plant... but of course, that is the point. That and the suspicion that Botanists are potty!
Alice Ibbotson is the young lady so incurably obsessed with the Orchid. As a romantic heroine, she is a tad dull; being so lost in grief for her recently deceased sister (aptly named Flora) and wrapped up in all things florae. Her foolhardy attempt to cultivate the rare flower, which, incidentally she rashly stole from her neighbour, Richard Wheeler, is tortuous and only begins to get interesting once Sir Geoffrey Fisk enters the scene. Fisk, by any reckoning, is an irascible scoundrel. Pity it is that such men are usually born into wealth and influence. A miser with a mysterious ailment, he becomes equally enthralled with the Lady’s Slipper when he learns of its potential cure-all properties. Events turn sour when Fisk starts experimenting with various home brews conjured up from pulping and mashing its root.
The undeniable hero of the piece is the rather dashing Richard Wheeler. Broad, tall and featuring lustrous deep, dark eyes and wavy hair – just the sound of him is enough to make most women swoon. Curiously full of self-doubt; this one-time gentleman struggles with his newfound conversion to the Quaker faith, with its quaint speech and self-abasement.
Wheeler needs to come to understand and accept himself, Alice needs to find a reason to start living again and Fisk, well, Fisk just needs his comeuppance. In actuality, the story is less about the flower itself as it is about how blinkered and ruthless you can become if you allow an obsession to take over your life; to the destruction and ruin of everything about you.
Swift has obviously done her homework, with the historical detail and in particular the account of Alice’s time in gaol, being intensely atmospheric. What romance exists is inked over the page in a torrent of eroticism that is at odds with the restrained narration and subtly drawn characters (with the exception of the maid, Ella, who is as subtle as a punch in the face) – and unnecessarily so. I found this irksome as did I find myself growing increasingly irritable at the inconsistently Quaker-speak. The ending felt rather contrived and smacked of the Titanic (the film starring Kate Winslet), which was slightly disappointing as I was expecting something... more. A conundrum then. On the one hand a delicately handled, loving recreation of a bygone era with all its incongruence; on the other, overly brazen sex scenes and a tired ending from overuse by corny American films.
We interview C J Daugherty about Night School
- 10 January 2012