Review: A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

A Secret Alchemy is narrated by two historical characters, Elizabeth Woodville and her brother Anthony, and by one fictitious one, Una Pryor, a historian who’s returned to England from her home in Australia to sell her English property. During her stay in England, the recently widowed Una, who’s working on a book about Anthony Woodville and his reading, visits the cousins with whom she was raised and encounters the man whom she loved as an adolescent.

Anthony’s story begins with the last journey of his life: he is bound for Pontefract Castle, where he knows that the future Richard III has scheduled his execution. Elizabeth tells her story from the quiet confines of Bermondsey Abbey, to which she has retired from the court of Henry VII. Neither tells his or her life story from beginning to end; instead, they each focus on a few selected episodes, such as Elizabeth’s courtship by Edward IV and Anthony’s exile abroad. As a result, the cast of characters is relatively small: we meet Edward IV, Edward V, a few Woodvilles, Anthony’s lover, and Elizabeth’s long-time attendant and confidante. There’s a cameo appearance by Thomas Malory and a couple of very brief ones by the future Richard III.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Anthony’s and Elizabeth’s stories, and had tears in my eyes after reading both (which doesn’t happen very often, especially when I know the ending). Anthony’s tale, especially the love story Darwin gives him (which I found very plausible) and his terrible grief when he realizes that his charge Edward V is at the mercy of Richard III, is very moving. Elizabeth, who’s so often reduced to a caricature by historical novelists, is beautifully drawn here. She’s strong-minded and courageous, yet vulnerable. There’s even a touch of humor here and there, as when Elizabeth’s earthy sister Margaret comments on the queen’s morning sickness.

The contemporary story, Una’s, was well done also. I didn’t find it as compelling as the medieval ones, but Darwin did a nice job of working the historical strands and the contemporary strand into an integrated whole.

Darwin has researched her novel with care, and she provides an afterword putting the tales of Anthony and Elizabeth in their historical context.

I heartily recommend this novel.

10 thoughts on “Review: A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin”

  1. Michele at Reader's Respite

    This is one novel I will be reading for certain. Thanks for the review…I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on title alone. I had no idea who the characters were!

  2. Oooo I’m so glad you enjoyed it – it’s next on my reading list, just as soon as I’ve finished writing my synopsis! 🙂

  3. Lynn Irwin Stewart

    According to Amazon, this book is available for pre-order — it definitely looks like something I’ll want to read.

  4. This sounds like an interesting novel – I know very little about Anthony. I’m intrigued about Anthony and his lover.

  5. Your review is prompting me to look for this during my next trip to the bookstore. Thanks for the introduction.

  6. This sounds rather good, even though I don’t generally get on with time-slip novels. Do I take it that Anthony’s love interest is not Margaret of York (as in Daughter of York)? I admit to being less than convinced by that theory.

  7. Susan Higginbotham

    Hi, all! Carla, I’m not keen on time-slip either, and I actually could have done without the contemporary story–I’d much rather have had the extra space devoted to Anthony and Elizabeth. But it did all meld together nicely.

    The love interest isn’t Margaret (it seems a bit of a spoiler to go into more detail). I didn’t find the Anthony-Margaret romance in Daughter of York convincing either–I think it would have been a better novel without it. It was almost as if the publisher was demanding a romance, whereas to me it would have been more interesting to see how Margaret managed without romance in her life.

  8. “to me it would have been more interesting to see how Margaret managed without romance in her life.”
    Ha – yes, exactly. Maybe she got more out of running the country; nowadays she’d be a high-flying business executive or something.

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