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.