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.
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.
So 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.