Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller. My thanks to Lesley at Allison & Busby for inviting me to take part in the tour and for my digital review copy via NetGalley.
About the Book
Two women. One bond that will unite them across years and social divides.
England, 1575. Mary Sidney, who will go on to claim a spot at the heart of Elizabethan court life and culture, is a fourteen-year-old navigating grief and her first awareness of love and desire. Her sharp mind is less interested in the dynastic alliances and marriages that concern her father, but will she be able to forge a place for herself and her writing in the years to come?
Rose Commin, a young country girl with a surprising talent for drawing, is desperate to shrug off the slurs of witchcraft which have tarnished life at home. The opportunity to work at Wilton House, the Earl of Pembroke’s Wiltshire residence, is her chance.
Defying the conventions of their time, these two women, mistress and maid, will find themselves facing the triumphs, revelations and struggles that lie ahead together.
Format: Hardback (352 pages) Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 19th November 2020 Genre: Historical fiction
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Subtitled ‘A Novel of Mary Sidney Herbert, Renaissance Pioneer’, in Imperfect Alchemist the author creates a potpourri from elements that will be familiar to readers of historical fiction set in the Tudor period. There’s the risk of accusations of witchcraft against women with midwifery skills or knowledge of herbal remedies, the intrigue and power struggles of the Elizabethan Court, and the social constraints that present women with little option other than marriage, motherhood or a life in service. Throw in the study of alchemy, a little romance as well as famous historical figures such as Walter Raleigh and John Dee, and you have all the ingredients for an engrossing story. Although the book’s structure is clearly designed to replicate the stages of the alchemical process, allusions to alchemy can be found throughout the book.
Mary Sidney emerges as a vibrant character but one, despite her status in life, not immune from an arranged marriage, the tragedy of bereavement and the risks associated with childbirth. What seem like opportunities are often followed by setbacks or unintended consequences. The equal of her brother Phillip when it comes to literary creativity, I particularly liked Mary’s passion for words. “Honing a phrase to embody a thought was her pleasure. Metaphors were her passion, her liberation from the literal constraints that framed her existence.”
Mary’s determination to give female characters a more prominent role in works of literature sees her influencing the poetry of her brother, Philip (“her dearest soul and partner of the mind”) and even, the author contends, the work of arguably the most notable playwright of the period. The Circle, the literary salon Mary establishes, attended by the likes of Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson, she compares to an alchemical experiment in which materials are “blended and distilled until the union of like and unlike might yield perfect knowledge“.
The inclusion of a first person narrator, Rose Commin, gives the reader another perspective on Mary and provides the opportunity for secondary storylines as well as a touching if unconventional friendship between women from vastly different backgrounds. Mary’s encouragement of Rose’s artistic talent also allows the author to explore another kind of transformational process. As Rose observes, “The more I worked with colour the more readily I could understand the layering and mixing of shades in terms of my lady’s alchemy, where painstaking combinations of dissimilar ingredients could produce a harmonious end result”.
In Imperfect Alchemist, Naomi Miller transforms historical fact into the engrossing story of a remarkable woman who was clearly ahead of her time. Like her leading character, the author has “steeped existing material in the tincture of her own imagination” to create a story rich in historical detail. If the book has made you interested in reading more about Mary Sidney Herbert as a character, do check out the author’s recommendations.
In three words: Immersive, authentic, fascinating
About the Author
Naomi Miller is a professor of English and the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, Massachusetts, where she specializes in Shakespeare and his literary “sisters” – women writers of the Renaissance. Imperfect Alchemist is her first novel.