Set in Restoration London, Swift's tale of two runaway sisters from Netherbarrow, a small rural village, illustrates the perils of life for impoverished females with no one to look after their interests. The ambitious and beautiful Ella Appleby takes advantage of her employer's sudden demise to steal his valuables, returning home only to snatch younger sister Sadie from an unhappy situation. That Sadie's face is marked by a birth stain makes the girls' disappearance into the streets of London more difficult when they are pursued by the dead man's twin brother, Titus Ibbetson, who is determined to retrieve his brother's goods and see the girls arrested for his murder. That thieves are hanged for such an outrageous deed- regardless of the false accusation of murder- is sufficient to drive the sisters into a fearful existence when they discover printed notices announcing a reward for their capture.
Swift structures her novel around the fraught relationship of two dissimilar sisters in hiding, the vain, grasping Ella seeking a wealthy man to escape her mean origins, Sadie leaving her job as a wigmaker when they realize Ibbetson is near. While Ella finds a position with a shady boss operating within his father's establishment, she imagines he might fall in love with her, though clearly he has other plans in mind for the quick beauty. Meanwhile, Sadie is forced to cower indoors, cut off from human contact, venturing out only in the dark of night. As the net draws tighter and Ibbetson persists in his search, Ella's situation grows both promising and dangerous in equal measure, the girl realizing her lapse in judgment only when both she and Sadie are in mortal danger.
While historically accurate and filled with both honorable men and villains, some editing might have made this novel more compelling, given the real dangers of living in the London slums, abject poverty a major factor in the sisters' ability to hide from the law and avoid those who would do them harm. Swift captures the ugliness of such an existence and the fear that drives Ella and Sadie to the most extreme circumstances, victims as much of poverty as birth. While the wealthy class enjoys great freedom, the protagonists can only be victims or opportunists, their chances in life few without male protection in a world not made for the innocent. Luan Gaines/2012.