The Gilded Lily tells a frightening tale of two young girls in Restoration London. Young Sadie has been brought from her country home in Cumberland by her more worldly older sister, Ella, to start a new life. Ella has stolen from the house of her dead Master and now she is suspected of his murder. Perhaps they could have gone unnoticed, but Sadie has a distinctive port wine stain on her face and the dead man’s brother is hunting for them.
As Ella becomes entwined in the dangerous world of ambitious Jay Whitgift, she decides Sadie must hide away. I empathised with Sadie’s feeling of entrapment in the city which teemed with unkind, threatening people but I began to realise that Ella’s thoughtless behaviour was rooted in her tragic childhood and her longing for love and prosperity.
The story shows the hard toil of girls making wigs in a perruquier’s workshop, the corrupt world of rich, self-obsessed young men and the lives of ordinary people such as clerks and barber-surgeons in 17th century London. I particularly liked the role of the Thames, which fills Sadie with awe, as she watches a ship set sail on a distant voyage while later Ella sells beauty products from a stall on the frozen river. The details of life, the complexity of the plot and the variety of characters take time to unfold but the pace hots up in the last few chapters where the plight of Ella and Sadie worsens and there seems no escape from the gallows.
For Sadie and Ella, the bond of sisterhood is sorely tried by their difficulties and separation but they cannot deny their need for one another. The Gilded Lily which shines so brightly in Ella’s eyes proves to be fool’s gold concealing ugliness.