Dear Ms. Swift:
I find myself drawn to Restoration-era novels even though I haven’t found one I really love yet. I blame my years-ago late-night viewing of Forever Amber. The blurb for The Gilded Lily stated that it is “set in a London of atmospheric coffee houses, gilded mansions, and shady pawnshops hidden from rich men’s view”, and that description was evocative enough to make me want to read the book.
The story opens in the English village of Netherbarrow in 1660. Ella Appleby’s employer has died suddenly, and Ella takes the opportunity to steal his valuables and light out for London. She drags along her younger sister Sadie, a decision she comes to regret.
Ella is pretty and desirous of a better life. She wants to be more than a housemaid who warms the bed of her employer on the side. Sadie is shy and afraid of the world; the port-wine stain that covers part of her face has been a source of torment since she was born. She would be just as happy to stay in Netherbarrow, in spite of the father who beats her and the villagers who mistreat her.
But the girls are soon in London; Ella believes she can avoid the consequences of her thievery there. Unluckily for her, her employer’s twin brother, Titus Ibbetson, discovers his dead brother and the robbery when the girls have barely a few miles’ headstart. He tracks them to London, convinced that they murdered his brother Thomas in addition to stealing the silver.
It’s not as easy as Ella imagined to get lost in London. Sadie’s birthmark makes her very memorable, and Titus Ibbetson gets a bead on the sisters fairly quickly. They are forced to flee their lodgings and Sadie has to give up the job she’s gotten at a wigmaker’s – a job that Ella was already fired from. Now the situation is really dire: the law is after them, neither has a job, and their store of stolen goods is dwindling.
Ella has a plan, though – she had caught the eye of a customer at the wigmaker’s before she was fired. Jay Whitgift is interested in Ella, but not for the reasons she imagines. With his father, Jay runs ones of the largest pawnbroking operations in London. He’s not satisfied with the status quo, though, and has plans to gain money (and treasures; Jay has a strange attachment to the items he acquires, keeping a room full of snuffboxes and compacts and doodads). He wants to take advantage of the burgeoning interest of London ladies in beauty treatments by opening a salon of sorts that is to be the female equivalent of the coffeehouse. Jay thinks Ella, in spite of her lack of polish, is the perfect clerk for his shop, which he plans to call The Gilded Lily. Ella does not have the pinched, gray look of the London-born and -bred; she has a fresh country look that he thinks will appeal to his customers and draw them into buying his products. Meanwhile, he also wants to train Ella to eavesdrop and acquire information from the unsuspecting patrons, for his own nefarious reasons.
I was a bit surprised that The Gilded Lily didn’t use the setting more effectively. I don’t think that Charles II was referenced more than a couple of times, if that. Perhaps it was supposed to be implicitly understood that London was coming out from under the sober influence of Cromwell’s reign, but I would have liked to have heard more about the changes in society, even if Ella and Sadie might not have been as aware as a born Londoner of those changes. I wondered also if any of the depredations of the English Civil War had reached Netherbarrow when the girls were younger. If so, they weren’t mentioned. It’s not that there was no sense of the setting in the writing – London’s underbelly comes alive as dirty, corrupt and dangerous. But it could’ve been set in any number of time periods in London, since the poverty and want probably didn’t change much over the course of centuries. Aside from a couple of mentions of the theater, there’s not much that mark the story as being set in 1660 rather than say, 1760.
The Gilded Lily also suffered from a dearth of sympathetic characters. Ella and Sadie, the two main protagonists, are given some depth and shading that explains why they are the way they are, but somehow I still found them hard to warm up to. Ella is a hard case, damaged by witnessing her mother’s death at an early age. She is Sadie’s protector, but she also resents and mistreats her sister. It’s only when it’s made humiliatingly clear to Ella that Jay Whitby is just using her that the scales fall from her eyes and she realizes how her dreams of wealth and comfort have lead her astray and away from the one person who cares about her, Sadie. The timing was too convenient for this to be seen as a true epiphany.
Sadie is ostensibly more likable, at least in a conventional sense – she’s modest and (mostly) honest and virtuous and all that good heroine stuff. But she also struck me as frustratingly passive and at times just stupid, with a mule-like stubborness I found aggravating. I could kind of see why Ella would get irritated with her; she doesn’t do much to help improve their situation. She’s not at all a charismatic character, to be sure.
Most of the other characters are villainous to some lesser or greater degree, though even some of the villains are given more depth than you might expect. Whitby is a creepy villain precisely because it’s hard to get a grasp for much of the book on exactly how villainous he is; on the the one hand he seems to have some fondness for his aged father, in spite of their conflicts about the best way to run the business. But at other times he muses almost casually about how he’s considered having the old man knocked off so he can run Whitby’s his way. He gets more and more flat-out evil as the book goes on, though, and I was a bit disappointed in that, wondering if I’d imagined the glimpses of humanity I’d seen in him.
About the only characters I found genuinely likable were Corey, a co-worker of the sisters’ who helps Sadie when she runs into trouble and Dennis, the landlady’s son who works at Whitby’s and who takes a rather inexplicable shine to Sadie.
For me, The Gilded Lily wasn’t a bad book; it was just kind of blah. “Blah” is a description that feels like it calls out for a “C” grade, but because the writing (and mostly, the plotting) were competent, and the book mainly fell down on characterization, C+ feels like a fair grade to me.