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.