Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

Whenever one of the Bookfoxes has a novel published, we are naturally all eager to jump straight in, see what it’s all about and have a good natter. However, no matter how much you like the author, there’s no guarantee you’ll like the book, so when three of the Bookfoxes decided to read A Secret Alchemy and come up with a joint review, we knew it would be an interesting process. If one thing can be said definitively of the Bookfoxes it is that we are all very good at disagreeing with each other.

51d4hq2buvbl_sl500_aa240_1So finally, after months of hemming and hawing, here we have the three-way discussion by Moira, Lisa and Jackie of Emma Darwin’s A Secret Alchemy, but first a quick summary of the novel.

A Secret Alchemy is a split-narrative novel told from the perspectives of three narrators: twenty-first century historian Una Pryor, fifteenth century queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and Elizabeth’s brother, Anthony, 2nd Earl Rivers.

They speak from various points in their lives, with Elizabeth recounting her life from adolescence to middle-age, Anthony considering the events of his life whilst on the journey to his ultimate end at Pontefract Castle, and Una talking from the present day where she is dealing with issues of recent bereavement, nostalgia for a long-past girlhood and an inner conflict as to how to write a historical account of Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville.

LISA: The history of Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville was new to me, so when I started reading A Secret Alchemy it was with some trepidation. Initially, I felt a little out of my depth, particularly because of the sprawling family networks and the fair-weather allegiances. I found Anthony and Elizabeth’s story much more gripping in the second half of the novel when I felt on firmer footing with the family dynamics and connections. I believe you’re much more in tune with this period of history, Moira, so were you surprised at the portrayals of Elizabeth and Anthony?

MOIRA: I was a little – to begin with. Elizabeth and Anthony are nearly always painted as villains of the piece by Richard III’s supporters and although I’m not a pro-Ricardian, I’m quite prepared to be convinced either way. We know WHAT happened, pretty much – what we can’t know, and may never know, is WHY – why they did WHAT they did. We can only hypothesize from what little concrete evidence there is. Which is why – of course – taking Elizabeth and Anthony as the twin pivots was really rather inspired … and quite brave, I think.

JACKIE: I liked how the focus wasn’t on the main characters, but on people who are usually relegated to the sidelines. I got a definite sense of a strong family from the book, which made them much more likable.

LISA: I agree about the sense of a strong family and the peripheral characters, Jackie. Moira, there is no question that the premise was inspired and brave. I found the depiction of Elizabeth and Anthony to be ultimately convincing, but I imagine that Richard III’s modern supporters might feel quite differently… Admittedly, there were times when I wondered if Elizabeth was just a little bit too ‘saintly’ but then there is always that tendency to compare historical characters with modern personality traits. Anthony too I found an odd figure to understand at first, as he seems so motivated by religion, and I couldn’t help waiting for his ‘real’ motivations to show through, but his huge love and devotion to God does seem to drive him in this novel. By the time I finished the book I believed in both of them. I must admit here that I was so swept up in the historical plot that towards the end I found myself (temporarily) racing past Una’s sections, just to discover how things would pan out for Anthony and Elizabeth. I was gripped by Una at the start of the novel but as Elizabeth’s tale heated up, Una’s story seemed to cool a little, and overall I preferred the historical strands. But I suppose it is inevitable (and perhaps regrettable from the point of view of the author) that with split-narrative stories readers will compare the narratives and favour one more than others.

JACKIE: I didn’t think Elizabeth was “saintly”, she seemed very realistic to me, she had flaws & even admitted to not loving either of her husbands, but still had strong marriages. It was Una’s story that interested me more, maybe because I already knew how the Ricardian story played out. All the stuff about printing & book making was fascinating & I was in suspense waiting to see what happened to their family’s press. Not to mention her relationship with Mark.

MOIRA: Lisa, I did exactly the same thing you know … to begin with I was actually slightly irritated whenever the Elizabeth/Anthony story intruded into the Una story, because I was initially far more interested in the modern narrative, but by inches, I got sucked into the past and the boot was transferred to the other foot … the Una narrative was the one I everso slightly resented. I, however, obviously being made of sterner stuff than you, did not skip anything. But yes, that must be a major problem with multiple-strand stories. Readers are almost inevitably going to have their preferred strand.

I fell a little in love with Anthony, you know. Once I’d become accustomed to him and his world and his motivations – effectively, I suppose, once I began to ‘see’ the Anthony that Emma had created – I became more immersed in him and his journey than in any of the other character in the book … and I have to say that it’s a book with a whole clutch of vividly drawn characters.

JACKIE: Anthony seemed a little remote to me.  Less emotional, except about his lover. I did feel he was very devoted to his nephew.

LISA: Yes, Anthony’s love for his nephew felt very real, and this makes it even more emotional for the reader, because we know what lies ahead for that boy… Talking of which, what did you think of the way the novel dealt with the death of the princes?

MOIRA: As far as the Princes and their fate is concerned, I thought it was just about right. They’re the part everyone (even those people who know nothing else about Richard III) remember, but in practical terms they were – in many ways – the least important pieces in the jigsaw. Not least important to their mother, of course … but Elizabeth Woodville was a pragmatic woman – a survivor – in an age when just staying alive was a major achievement.

JACKIE: The death of the princes was handled just right, as you say. The mystery was left intact, we still aren’t positive about who ordered it, but we do feel the tragedy.

MOIRA: Lisa, did you eventually manage to unravel who was who among the historical characters? I was very grateful for the handy family trees, even with my prior knowledge …

LISA: Yes, I got there in the end, but I too was grateful for the family trees. The first thing I did on finishing the novel was to go on a Googling spree – I think this is certainly a book that inspires the reader to find out more about the historical period and the various opinions regarding the depicted figures. On the subject of the princes, I think it’s fair to say that the book doesn’t offer a radical new theory on their fate. We have Louis de Bretaylles’ account of what he believes happened to the boys, but we don’t know anything for sure because we’re still in the realm of rumour and hearsay.

JACKIE: What did you guys think of the beginning of the novel?

MOIRA: I thought it was an intriguing – and slightly challenging – beginning. In fact, I went back and read it again just to make sure I’d got the hang of it. Initially, you have no idea of where it’s going, and I was well into the book before I got into the rhythm of the way it was constructed and became comfortable with the ebb and flow, so to speak.

LISA: I had read The Mathematics of Love and enjoyed it very much, so I was used to Emma’s style of slipping between narratives. Una’s memory of her childhood at the Chantry proved the initial draw for me, whereas Elizabeth’s story seemed to start out more gently.

JACKIE: The Mathematics of Love started out, quite literally with a bang, but this one was more subtle, beginning with the letter & then we have to unravel what it all means. It sets a dark, quiet tone for the book – and emphasizes the physical evidence of writing, whether a letter or a book, that underlines so much of the story.

LISA: Yes, and so much of Una’s strand considers the subject of writing. There are questions of how a writer can appropriate the tale of a historical figure to write a biography, and as we infer, the same questions might be asked of historical fiction authors, like Emma. The ponderous passages in which Una struggles to find the right approach for her new project were very interesting to me as a writer – I think these are issues that many authors will confront throughout their careers and I imagine A Secret Alchemy will prove very popular with the writer demographic.

JACKIE: Favorite parts or things you liked best? One of my favorite parts was when Una visits Fergus the sculptor & he’s describing the process of creating a work of art. How the artist is concerned for the practical part, not the aesthetics of what they are making. That was spot on! Most people don’t have a clue. I also thought the feelings of grief in Una & Elizabeth was described really well & the difficulties of moving on afterwards. It didn’t get maudlin, but we felt it strongly.  The idea of making Una a historian investigating the time period of the historical story was clever. I like how the author ties her strands together so well.

MOIRA: The most vivid part for me was the end of Anthony’s storyline. I always knew how it was going to end, but I thought Emma handled it quite beautifully – the stillness, the acceptance, the sadness of a life foreshortened … and the need for another human presence. I also loved the actual end of the novel. I often finish a book feeling … incomplete, somehow – almost cheated. Not this time. Perfect.

LISA: Elizabeth’s part in the disappearance of the princes was gripping. Elizabeth comes across as a mother on the brink of despair, pressured by powerful men. She displays a certain pragmatism, but with other children to care for and fear running high, her actions seem somehow understandable. It’s easy for twenty-first century readers to sit back and judge whether a woman who lived centuries ago made the right decisions regarding her sons, but reading A Secret Alchemy I realised that in Elizabeth’s place and time I might well have made similar choices.

There you have it: three different people with varying views, who approached A Secret Alchemy from very different directions and viewed it in different ways. On one thing, however, we all agreed: that Emma’s spare, elegant written style is never less than a pleasure to read.

It’s a beautifully crafted book that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Headline Review; paperback £7.99, 512pp, 978-0-7553-3067-6 (published 16th April); hardback £17.99, 416pp, 978-0-7553-3065-2 (available now)

For more information about A Secret Alchemy, click here.

11 comments on “A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

  1. RosyB
    March 28, 2009

    I was really looking forward to this review/discussion. It always seems to be the case that books with multiple strands/plots will divide readers into favourite parts/strands/characters. But that’s how it should be. And it’s interesting how you all picked out different elements as your favourite aspects. I’ve been meaning to get this for a while. As luck would have it I’ve just been given a big book token for my birthday! So you’ve decided me. I’m getting this and one of the David Calcutts. Decision made.

  2. Sam
    March 28, 2009

    Love the three-way review, get the feeling it’s a book you could have talked about for a lot longer…

    Sam

  3. Moira
    March 28, 2009

    Yes Sam, you’re right. We could have talked about it a LOT more … but we saw how long it was getting, and thought we’d better wind it up … 🙂

  4. Hilary
    March 28, 2009

    What a great way of looking at a book from many different angles! I loved this review, and it certainly made me want to read the novel, all the more than I already did.

    It sounds as though Emma is stepping bravely into a rough sea by focusing on the Woodvilles. I hope that it is a smooth passage. I am a Ricardian agnostic, more than happy to be convinced by the evidence that he is a great and mis-judged king, equally un-rocked in my world if the evidence points the other way. I am so looking forward to approaching this age from the standpoint of these characters.

    More multi-way reviews, please!

  5. Rosy T
    March 30, 2009

    Just caught up with this. Great use of the three-way review format – made for a fascinating read!

  6. Emma
    March 30, 2009

    Thanks so much for such an interesting discussion – it’s always fascinating to know how your books look to others, and it doesn’t happen very often, so something like this is extra-specially appreciated. And yes, it’s an occupational hazard of writing parallel narratives, that people usually have a favourite strand. But it’s fascinating to hear of that preference changing through the book.

    As far as the Ricardian question goes, I did survive the talk I gave to the Richard III Society unscathed, but I’m putting my flak jacket on again for when the paperback comes out. But the point really is that I was writing from Elizabeth and Anthony’s point of view, and though I’ve imagined out from the facts, nothing in the record of what they did (as opposed to what their enemies said about why they did it) contradicts how I’ve written them. If I’d been writing from Buckingham’s point of view, for instance, E & A would have appeared in a very different light…

  7. Pingback: Emma Darwin – A Secret Alchemy « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

  8. Yoke San
    September 28, 2009

    I just bought this book. In fact, I not really follow this book as i’m not familiar to England History. However, your guys did a wonderful review of this book that could help me to finish this book.:)

    I’m trying to wider my interest to all sort of English books except horror story.

    Thanks for your sharing, like multiple -way review as if i was watching a reviewing book program that could help to advances my understands.

    Cheers,Yoke San

  9. Karen
    November 12, 2009

    I just finished Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen, and kept remembering that I had read a book about Anthony Woodville, but couldn’t remember the name. So, in googling to find that out, I found this site. For the life of me, I did not remember that this “book on Anthony Woodville” was actually part of the other book. It seemed totally separate for me, in my memory, as does/did the story of Una. Ah, yes, now I remember it was it was, but the first memory had them totally as separate books. Odd, that.

  10. libs
    December 10, 2009

    Well, I finally decided to read this book, but having read about two thirds I’m afraid that it’s going back to the library.

    Yes, it is interesting. It’s very well written. I can see the links between the two strands though I find the constant interruptions very annoying. But the real reason that I don’t want to read any more is that it bends the truth to assassinate the character of a real person.

    I didn’t know much about Richard III until a couple of years ago when I began researching him. Up until then I had always assumed he was the villain that many people believe. When I read more about him I found that the truth was much more complex.

    I can appreciate that a narrative that is written from Anthony Woodville’s point of view isn’t going to be complimentary about him, but the part about the meeting at Northampton is inaccurate. If anyone played a ‘dirty trick’ then it was Anthony Woodville who tried to employ delaying tactics to get Edward V to London without Richard of Gloucester. The physical descriptions of Richard grate as well as they are so removed from the accounts of him that I have read. Emma describes him as black eyed and still, whereas people who met him describe him as full of restless energy and his eyes were pale blue.

    It’s interesting that on the evening that Richard took control of the young king he sent a dish from his table to Anthony Woodville with the message ‘Fear not. All will be well’. I don’t think he was planning to have him executed at that point. And even when Anthony Woodville made his last will when he was at Sheriff Hutton he named Richard as his executor.

    I think the relationship between these two men was complex. I think they actually had much in common and respected one another. And to me to portray one as ‘good’ and one as ‘evil’ doesn’t seem to work.

    If I’d known less about Richard III I think I would have enjoyed the book more. I began to read it with an open mind, interested to discover how the various issues were handled, but in the end I came away disappointed.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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