A Blue Room Book Review – The Secret Alchemy – Emma Darwin


I remember the book. I cannot remember the title, nor the author – but I remember the book. I recall the dominant colour on the cover was red, and it featured a medieval king – maybe it was a Henry. It could have been a William, an Edward or even a Richard. I doubt if it would have been my namesake, Stephen – a short, embarrassing reign. If I said that what I found in between the front and back covers fascinating, firing my love for the post-1066/pre-Tudor period of British history, I would have been telling a porky. I remember nothing of what was in the publication, I just remember it was turgid, dense and I had nary a clue of what was going so convoluted were the machinations of the major players. Their constantly shifting allegiances completely lost me – it was all a confused muddle in my mind. No doubt I would have been reading the torturous tome for a university course. I suspect any examination question on the era would have been dodged to go to Henry VIII or the Stuarts where I possessed a firmer grasp. But I was nothing if not a conscientious student. I did read the thing, but to no avail. To this day the Wars of the Roses have been a mystery, that is, until this book. Thank you Emma for helping me out. A fictional account has made the period clearer in my mind, but still far from crystal.

I was mightily impressed with Ms Darwin’s other semi-historical saga, ‘The Mathematics of Love’, a novel part set in the immediate post-Napoleonic Wars period – my Goodreads review of it is below:-
‘A Secret Alchemy’ is also very worthy, although not as much to my taste as its predecessor. It did, though, markedly enhance my knowledge of the conflict via the voices of Elizabeth Woodville and her brother Anthony, major participants in the confusing events. Richard III is still the bad guy, but with some redeeming features in line with modern non-Shakespearian notions on the notorious hunchback. It is instructive that gays still had a rough time of it back then too. Just in case we didn’t get it from the storyline, Ms Darwin helpfully includes family trees and a precis of the factual events. The latter was placed at the end which is when I discovered it. It would have been of greater assistance to this reader had it been placed at the beginning.

Parallel to the Middle Ages goings on is a contemporary story involving bibliographer/historian Una. She has just returned to the UK from Oz to settle her affairs after the death of her hubby. Here she encounters the subject of pre-nuptial unrequited love. Eventually the twosome embark on a journey retracing the sites that featured in the book’s other narrative. As it turns out all rather neatly, she is researching the written output of Elysabeth (sic) and Antony (sic). Of course there are linkages between the two story threads – otherwise what would be the point – in what the book’s blurb describes as a ‘daring’ fashion. For me it was all a tad forced. The ‘finding’ of the significant letter, around which so much hinges, was particularly contrived. The paralleling is far more successful in ‘Mathematics of Love’.

Ms Darwin also invokes a sort of pigin Olde English-speake for the tales of Elizabeth and Anthony and for me this was one of the rewards of the book. At times a glossary would have been useful as occasionally meaning wasn’t always conveyed by context.

Based on her oeuvre, albeit a brief one at the moment, Ms Darwin is a novelist capable of the most exacting research with an over-riding facility for turning fact into readable fic/faction Her website is reporting that she is working on a third effort, but given this publication came out in 2008, it is a long time coming. Despite a few reservations with this title, I suspect the wait will be worth it, given that the grounds around her choice of subject will have been thoroughly mined.

I am glad my days of onerous reading tasks, both academic and pedagogic, are behind me. Never again will I have to plough through mind-numbing tracts, but rather I can enjoy ‘translators’ of Emma Darwin’s ilk – writers who possess the chops to turn dry, tedious history into palatable, plausible prose.


Emma Darwin’s website = http://www.emmadarwin.com/

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