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A Secret Alchemy
A Secret Alchemy
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Emma gives an overview of the book:

The Time (London) – Review by Sarah Vine   THERE IS HISTORICAL fiction - and there is historical fiction. Anyone can dust down a set of fusty old names, chuck in a few mead-fuelled brawls and the odd syphilitic courtesan and be done with it. It takes real skill - and devotion - to bring characters blurred by the passage of time into focus, to breathe real life into them, to make their existence tangible to the 21st-century mind. In A Secret Alchemy, Emma Darwin has managed such sorcery.   There are three main personalities in this book: Elisabeth Woodville, her brother Antony - and a modern-day historian, Una. Around them Darwin weaves a rich cast of characters, set in a fertile historical landscape. Elisabeth (Elysabeth in the book) is the real-life wife of Edward IV, the great-grandmother of Elizabeth I and mother of the prin-ces in the Tower. Born in...
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The Time (London) – Review by Sarah Vine

 

THERE IS HISTORICAL fiction - and there is historical fiction. Anyone can dust down a set of fusty old names, chuck in a few mead-fuelled brawls and the odd syphilitic courtesan and be done with it. It takes real skill - and devotion - to bring characters blurred by the passage of time into focus, to breathe real life into them, to make their existence tangible to the 21st-century mind. In A Secret Alchemy, Emma Darwin has managed such sorcery.

 

There are three main personalities in this book: Elisabeth Woodville, her brother Antony - and a modern-day historian, Una. Around them Darwin weaves a rich cast of characters, set in a fertile historical landscape. Elisabeth (Elysabeth in the book) is the real-life wife of Edward IV, the great-grandmother of Elizabeth I and mother of the prin-ces in the Tower. Born in 1437, her first husband was Sir John Grey, a Lancastrian knight (and great-great-grandfather of the doomed Lady Jane Grey) who fought in the War of the Roses against the house of York.

 

After his death, this famous beauty married the victorious King Edward (despite her Lancastrian connections) and bore him ten children. When he too died, Edward's brother, Richard III, seized the crown - and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

For the historical novelist this period is a gift, not just because of the enduring mysteries surrounding it (did Richard really have the boys put to death?) or its immortal cult-ural legacy (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use”, and so on), but also for its inherent romantic potential. This was a time of dashing knights, ladies fair and true, and passionate - and often deadly - allegiances.

 

Passion is also the key to the success of this book. Not your standard, cinematic carnal passion (although there is enough of that: the scene in which Edward proposes to Elizabeth is worthy of the steamiest Andrew Davies bodice-ripper); rather Darwin's evident and genuine passion for her subject: history. There are several great love affairs to be found in these pages - but perhaps the greatest is the author's own with the past: the gossamer-thin threads of memory, real and imagined - and the shimmering web that they weave.

 

Such fascination is channelled through the character of Una. As the tragic events in her own life lead her to the ghosts of these long-dead noblemen and women, so she leads the reader through the maze of the past. Slowly, meticulously and with an occasion-ally exhausting attention to detail, Darwin builds an intensely atmospheric narrative.

 

Her characters emerge from the rough marble of time into beautifully rounded, polished figures. It takes a while for the reader to get to know them; but when you do, the depth of the acquaintance is such that you feel their fates all the more acutely. There are many twists and turns in this tale, some of them real, some of them not; together they add up to a spellbinding whole.

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The road lifts to a bridge over the Foss itself where Whitecarr Beck joins it, and as we clatter across a heron turns its head to gauge this new threat, then shakes its wings out and with a few, quick steps rises into the air.

The body has its own memory. My left hand shortens the reins before my mind knows it, and my right arm aches with remembering the shift and grip of my goshawk’s weight. She was big, even for a goshawk, and her name was Juno. When she bated on her block in the mews her wings were the best part of four feet from primary to primary, and my care for her, that summer, was such that any day I could have told her weight down to the nearest ounce and grain. ‘Goshawks are delicate,’ Wat the austringer would say. ‘They’ll not take much lightening, but if you over-feed her by so much as a fieldmouse, Master Antony, she’ll rake away and never come back.’ My belly would quake at the thought of losing her. Even now I remember the steely blue-grey gloss of her back as if I could touch it, the soft, white, speckled chest-feathers that she would let me rub when her mood was good, her long, strong legs that took possession of my fist like a conqueror.

‘She sees every feather of that heron,’ Wat said. ‘Even your young eyes, master, they’re nothing to hers. Now, gently off with her hood. Let her see it first. You’ll feel when she wants to fly.’ I unhooded her and unknotted her leash and she shifted her talons, loosing her wings at the shoulder as if she readied her sword in its scabbard. She turned her black-capped head, her gaze fixing on each part of her new surroundings in turn, like a bowman on guard duty.

My father sat still on his horse in the water meadow’s morning light and Wat nodded to me as the heron’s flight steadied, high above and before us. I did my best to throw Juno into the air. My arm was puny against the weight and power of her surge and my hand clenched tighter before I realised and opened it and let the jesses go.

Up she rose, not in pursuit but surveying the ground; the sun was behind us as we watched. Then after what seemed little more than a breath, she fixed on the heron and went after it.

I was a boy then, twelve years old and home for the harvest. Home, perhaps, for good. Only the night before my father had declared it more fitting that I be brought up in my own inheritance than in that of another.

But of him I dare not think.

The eye of my mind can still see how the birds flew, raptor and prey, Juno streaming after the heron, the heron’s steady wing-beats suddenly quickening at some sign or sound of danger that we humans could not read, thrusting through the air. But Juno had more speed and soon was close enough to rise up high above her prey, and pause for a moment of suspended time, before stooping like some sleek and talonned cannon ball. Down and down she stooped, and the heron tried to twist and double back, its head weaving, its great wings clumsy in such unaccustomed need. Then Juno reached forward, and with a surge of power seized the heron’s neck and bore it, struggling, to the ground among the reeds. All we could see was a puff of feathers floating downwards against the sky.

By the time we cantered up, Juno had killed the heron and was beginning to plume it. Wat walked forward and took her off, at which she bated angrily before she would jump to my fist and be hooded. Wat gave the heron to one of the men, who with a flick of his fingers tied its feet and slung it on his belt.

‘She must think she deserves it,’ I said.

‘She does, son,’ said my father. ‘But if she eats it, where’s our dinner? And she’ll not be hungry for more, and will not hunt for us. Or she will eat her feed as well, and sicken.’

‘Sire, do you think I would feed her back at the mews, if I knew she’d had so much in the field? Wat has taught me better than that.’

‘No, I know you would not. But she’s wild, don’t forget. She’s not a dog, or a man. You cannot teach her loyalty. She has none, and she’s no use for yours. You are not her liege lord, nor she your servant to command. She will not help you now in the hope or certainty of favours or protection later. All she knows is that today she was hungry, and we helped her to her food. Tomorrow? Who knows?’

He was silent, looking over his land – so carefully manured and tilled and coppiced and drained as it was, by his order and with his overseeing – as if it, too, might be lost to him on the morrow.

Then he shortened his reins. ‘Come, son. Perhaps we can put up a hare and give the dogs some sport.

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Emma

I was born and brought up in London, with interludes in Manhattan and Brussels. My debut novel The Mathematics of Love was published in 2006. The Times described it as: “that...

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