Here’s a book that seems to be NOT widely known (I couldn’t find a copy in any of the three public libraries I use) but a true treat to read! Awarded four stars on Goodreads. Maybe even 4.5!
IMPERFECT ALCHEMIST is Naomi Miller’s debut novel — well-researched bio-fiction focused on a fascinating woman I knew little about — Mary Sidney Herbert (1561-1621), Countess of Pembroke. Mary was an intellectual, prominent Tudor era writer, and founder of the Countess’s Circle — a literary salon that attracted some of the greatest minds of the day (Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and others). Miller also incorporates actor and playwright William Shakespeare in the novel, in a particularly delightful way.
To balance Mary, Miller has created the character of Rose Commin, a servant and gifted artist. Their differing perspectives, presented in alternating chapters, complement each other nicely.
Mary lives in the world of words, Rose in the world of images. Mary’s life, not surprisingly, showcases the privilege of British aristocrats, Rose’s the world of the working class. Together they work to become practicing alchemists, herbalists, and healers. So that, despite their class difference, theirs becomes a true partnership.
The book incorporates a variety of interesting themes from this period: court life under Queen Elizabeth I and King James I of England, limitations imposed on women, arranged marriages, abusive relationships, and the thin line between innocent dabbling in herbs and alchemy and dangerous and superstitious accusations of witchcraft.
It’s a well-written novel with a distinctive voice which, I believe, would appeal even more to those with an interest in herbal cures, primitive healing, astrology, and alchemy. I am NOT one of those people and so, for me, the detailed descriptions related to these areas became a bit tedious. I was much more interested in the story of Mary Sidney’s life.
According to the Author’s Note, Miller, a Professor of English and Women and Gender Studies at Smith College, is planning to write a series of historical novels based on her college course “Shakespeare’s Sisters” about other prominent women at this time.
I’ll be eager to read them all.
More about the author, Naomi Miller.