Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon

Dark secrets haunt the manor house at Selden in Buckinghamshire, where Emilie Selden, motherless, fiercely intelligent and more beautiful than she realises, has been raised in near isolation by her father.

John Selden, student of Isaac Newton, is conducting a bold and secret experiment. He aims to turn Emilie into a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. Secluded in his ancient manor house, with only their two servants for company, he fills her with knowledge while recording every step she takes.

In the spring of 1725, when Emilie is eighteen, father and daughter begin their most daring alchemical adventure of all - an attempt to breathe life into dead matter. But their work is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers, one a researcher into the life of plants, the other a dazzling young merchant. During the course of a sultry August, whilst her father is away, Emilie is caught up in the passion of first love and, listening for the first time to her heart rather than her head, she makes her choice.

Her father's spell broken, she is banished to London and plunged headlong into a ruthless and mercenary society. Emilie, the alchemist's daughter, discovers that for all her extraordinary eduction she has no insight into the workings of the human heart - and so begins her new and shocking journey to enlightenment.

I remember picking up this book a number of times when it first came out, but it was only when I noticed that this author had a new book out that I finally picked it up from the library to read. On the strength of this one, I have now borrowed the new one as well!

At it's core this is the story of a very sheltered young lady finding herself exposed to the world outside the laboratory and home that she has been bought up in by her father. Her father, and Emilie, are natural scientists, trying to prove things like what fire needs to burn. They are also alchemists, trying to produce something from nothing. One of his long term projects has been the raising of Emilie where he was trying to raise a child who could take over from him, with all the knowledge that he has already embedded into her mind from childhood. It is a somewhat sterile environment, except for those people in Emilie's life who take the time to show her a little affection.

For Emilie, the introduction of two men into their lives is completely life changing. The two men are as different as chalk and cheese. The first is Rev Thomas Shales, who also has an interest in the natural sciences, and the second is Mr Aislabie, who professes an interest in science in order to meet Emilie's father. With so little exposure to the ways of the world, Emilie is swept off of her feet and finds herself in trouble, and ultimately estranged from her father. Now living in London, Emilie finds herself not so much valued for her intelligence but rather as an object of curiosity to those members of society that she comes into contact with.

With her father's death, the true nature of Emilie's importance to her now husband becomes apparent. As he tries to create a stunning new and stylish home from Selden, it is clear to Emilie that to create something out of very little has a high cost, and that she is the one who must fight to protect the homes and families of the people who have served her family for generations as well as what little she has left of her past.

It is only towards the end of the book that the reader becomes aware just how successful her father was at his experiment, if you can call Emilie that, but Emilie needs to learn her own life lessons in order to find fulfilment and happiness.

There were times when there was a danger that the book could become bogged down in the science, but those moments were fortunately few and far between. Emilie is an interesting character, if somewhat naive. I am going to refrain from talking too much about the main male characters because to do so might lead to inferred spoilers, but I was glad in the end with the choices that Emilie made, even if the lessons she had to learn along the way were very painful.


  1. Sooo glad I found this blog! I love historical fiction and I loved reading this review. I bought a copy of this book a few months ago, but haven't gotten to it yet. I will be moving it further up in my TBR pile now - it sounds great!

  2. I hope you find some other reviews here that inspire you to pick up some books too!

  3. I have this book on Mount TBR, as well. It sounds wonderful. I've always been fascinated by the world of alchemy.