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Emma Darwin – A Secret Alchemy

July 7, 2009

82. A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin (2008)

Length: 434 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction (and partly General Fiction)

I’m giving away FIVE copies of A Secret Alchemy! Check out the giveaway post for details!

Started: 27 June 2009
Finished: 02 July 2009

Where did it come from? Sent by the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? Three factors contributed to A Secret Alchemy looking interesting: 1) I have Emma Darwin’s first book, The Mathematics of Love on my shelf (albeit unread), so I recognized her as an author in whose work I was already interested. 2) The blurb brought to mind Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which I read many, many years ago, and really liked – but even without that, it sounded like interesting historical fiction about a time that I had read not-that-much about. 3) Graduate students in evolutionary biology are behaviorally conditioned to perk up any time we hear the name “Darwin.” It’s practically Pavlovian; they won’t let you graduate if you don’t. :)

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 22 June 2009.
Verdict? Keeper.

Family fights are
more important when you are
married to the King.

Summary: In A Secret Alchemy, Emma Darwin gives us a new look at the War of the Roses, through the eyes of people who have been frequently cast in the role of villain. The Woodvilles were a powerful family of nobles who became entwined in the political struggles of the day. Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, was a beautiful widow when she caught the eye of King Edward IV, and became the Queen of England and mother of the two Princes in the Tower, whose fate remains one of the most-debated mysteries in British history. Her brother, Anthony, was an influential figure in his own right, guardian and surrogate father to his nephew Edward V, crusader and courtier, and the first author published on the first printing press in England. Elizabeth and Anthony’s stories are interwoven with the modern-day story of Una Pryor, a bibliographer and historian who is studying the Woodvilles, and who, in returning to England to deal with the remains of the family business, must face her own history of grief and loss.

Review: I know I use the word “absorbing” a lot, but it’s one of the highest praises I can give a novel, and in this case, it’s particularly apt. A Secret Alchemy was absolutely absorbing: once I was into the story, I was lost to the real world, completely surrounded by the tale Darwin was spinning. However, in this book’s case, this was a bit of a double-edged sword… while it was remarkably easy to stay absorbed in the story, it was not so easy to get absorbed in the first place. This was not a book I could pick up, read a few pages, put it down, go start dinner, pick it up, read a few pages, put it down, go get the laundry out of the dryer, etc. Instead, it required me to set aside large blocks of reading time in which I could really get immersed – but the good news is that it was good enough that I wanted to find the time to give it the attention it deserved.

Darwin (and yes, she’s a descendant of that Darwin) is a talented wordsmith, effortlessly slipping between first-person voices, crafting believable, rounded characters, vividly drawing scenes both past and present, and doing it all with utterly beautiful language: writing that feels warm and substantial and serious but not ponderous, turns of phrase so evocative they made me shiver. She’s also very good at making historical figures live as individuals, while maintaining a balance with the wider political forces that give them context, and the significance of their places in history.

That was one of my favorite things about this book: history just oozes out of its pages, even in the sections set in modern times, and I loved the sense of history pervading everywhere we go and everything we do. I did have to brush up on my actual history – I’ve read Richard III and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (albeit very long ago), but my actual working knowledge of the War of the Roses is pretty slim, and needed refreshing… thank goodness for Wikipedia! I also really, really appreciated the extensive family trees given at the front of the book, and I referred to it at least once every few pages. I do wish there’d been a map of the important places included as well, for those of us not particularly familiar with British geography… but then I’d probably have been flipping back and forth to the front of the book every paragraph instead of every page.

There were two things about this book that I wish had been different. First, I am a big fan of parallel storylines in the present and the past – it’s one of my favorite story devices. However, in this case, Una’s storyline didn’t overlap enough with the historical fiction for my tastes. There were certainly similar themes running through both stories, but there weren’t any direct connections between the two until practically the last chapter. Both storylines were interesting in their own right, but it got a little frustrating to be constantly looking for links that just never appeared.

Second, and on the theme of “looking for things that never appeared”, I am not crazy about the title. Barring the possibility that “A Secret Alchemy” is a reference or allusion that I’m just not getting (which is entirely likely), I don’t think it’s particularly descriptive of what’s in the book. You could certainly make the case that the story is a series of alchemical metaphors (although, since alchemy is concerned at its heart with change, you can make alchemical metaphors about most stories), but they’re not really made explicit within the text itself… nor does the actual practice of alchemy feature in more than one brief scene.

Overall, though, I can’t knock this book too much for things that weren’t there, when what was there was so absorbing, interesting, well-written, and utterly enjoyable. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended for historical fiction fans, especially those who (like me) enjoy books based around British royalty but who are burnt out on the Tudors.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Emma Darwin’s Website
Emma Darwin’s Blog
A post Emma Darwin wrote for Vulpes Libris about the writing of A Secret Alchemy
– Helpful Wikipedia pages: List of British kings, War of the Roses, the princes in the Tower

Other Reviews: Vulpes Libris, Farm Lane Books
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: What I have known, I shall not set down.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 26: “Uncle Gareth himself in the doorway to the workshop, with the current apprentices to one side of it – very little younger than him, but somehow so clearly not sons of the house – and Aunt Elaine slightly separate, with an apron and a trugful of carrots.” – A trug is a shallow basket for carrying flowers, vegetables, etc., made from strips of wood.
  • p. 41: ““Goshawks are delicate,” Wat the austringer would say.” – a person who trains and flies short-winged hawks, as the goshawk.
  • p. 47: “He bent, still holding his bike, picked up my golliwog and smoothed his hair where Bertie had chewed it.” – A doll fashioned in grotesque caricature of a Black male (after Golliwog, a character in books by Florence Upton).
  • p. 65: ““Written in haste at Calais Saturday the next after Saint John ad portam latinam.”” – ??? Googling turns this phrase up consistently after John’s name, but I have no idea on the translation or significance.
  • p. 76: “In the light of the inn’s cressets, I saw my father standing, unarmed and in his nightgown, surrounded by men bearing Warwick’s badge.” – a metal cup or basket often mounted on a pole or suspended from above, containing oil, pitch, a rope steeped in rosin, etc., burned as a light or beacon.
  • p. 82: “There are rows of cars and parking meters, electric-lit advertisements and municipal hanging baskets, and a fine Edwardian encaustic plaque on a bank that was once the Castle Inn, commemorating the death of the Duke of Somerset.” – painted with wax colors fixed with heat, or with any process in which colors are burned in.
  • p. 87: “I have to write about Anthony and Elizabeth looking out from my mind, of course, establishing facts from colophons and marginalia.” – a publisher’s or printer’s distinctive emblem, used as an identifying device on its books and other works; or an inscription at the end of a book or manuscript, used esp. in the 15th and 16th centuries, giving the title or subject of the work, its author, the name of the printer or publisher, and the date and place of publication.
  • p. 110: “Then I dragged my palliasse to the least draughty corner of the tent and lay down also, warm enough but no nearer sleep than I would have been on the village green on Midsummer Day.” – a mattress of straw; pallet.
  • p. 154: “I thought a kind of accidie had crept over him, so that he would not trouble himself to do more work than was needed, though that he did do, as ever.” – sloth; torpor.
  • p. 192: “It was a heavy, gray day with sleet blowing in from the polders, and as always we were waiting for a reply from the Duke of Burgundy that we might lay more plans to win back the throne.” – a tract of low land, esp. in the Netherlands, reclaimed from the sea or other body of water and protected by dikes.
  • p. 196: “I walk through the neat, old alleys and steps, which are centuries-worn but corporate-clean, the prosperous bustle of the City behind me apparently wiping out the last, louche remains of Fleet Street” – dubious; shady; disreputable.
  • p. 227: “The day went on: there were miry messengers to hear, dispatches to scrawl, troops to number, and wavering aldermen to cozen.” – covered or bespattered with mire.
  • p. 240: “So they tell their tales over and over: an arming sword that once took Harfleur next did duty in a mercer’s hand; a goldsmith’s life saved by the saint’s kerchief tucked in his brigandine; this arm wounded by a poleax and that sallet split in two; sooty hand-gunners; pipes and drums a-shrieking; valiant baggage-boys; rebels crushed when the Aldgate portcullis was dropped; rebels trapped in the gateway like fish in a barrel; rebels hunted down though it took to Mile End to do it.” – a light medieval helmet, usually with a vision slit or a movable visor.

PSST! Don’t forget about my giveaway post, where you can enter to win your own copy of A Secret Alchemy.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2009 5:25 am

    I think everyone is burnt out on the Tudors these days! They’re all switching over to the Wars of the Roses. Which is simultaneously good and bad for me. This one features my dissertation subject, so I’ve had it on hold at the library for a long time. I hope it comes in soon!

  2. July 7, 2009 8:41 am

    I’ve never read anything about the War of the Roses, so this sounds good to me.

  3. July 7, 2009 10:34 am

    Meghan – I’ll be really interested to see what you think of it, since you know so much more about the subject than I do. Hopefully you’ll still enjoy it, even though it is what you do all day. :)

    bermudaonion – This would be a good place to start, as would The Daughter of Time, which is a historical mystery with a modern detective/historian trying to determine whether Richard III was really the villain Shakespeare painted him to be, and what was the real fate of the Princes in the Tower.

  4. July 7, 2009 3:27 pm

    Everyone knows Elizabeth Woodville’s mother Jacquetta used witchcraft.

    The Daughter of Time was great! And Richard III is too, even if it is a tool of the Tudors. Looks like I’ll have to pick up A Secret Alchemy….(Can you tell where I land on the war of the Roses? lol)

  5. July 7, 2009 3:32 pm

    Carrie – Heh, the witchcraft allegations are actually brought up, albeit glancingly. I think Darwin’s portrayal of Richard III is somewhere in between Tey and Shakespeare – understandable, given that the Woodvilles are her protagonists.

  6. July 7, 2009 6:12 pm

    I’m the same as you….read, and still have, “The Daughter of Time”– and a long time ago, too. Loved it.

    My last blog post discusses the author Alison Weir,
    who also wrote the non-fiction “The Princes in the Tower”. This would provide a good historical background on the Lancasters and Yorks …. and her own conclusion on whether Richard III did it or not.

    I’m going to have to head over to your give-away post :-).

  7. July 9, 2009 2:06 pm

    Valerie – The Princes in the Tower sounds like it would be an excellent complement to this book!

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