The Alchemist's Daughter, by Katharine McMahon

Romance from the age of reason
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The Independent Culture

Some stories are so true that they can be repeated endlessly; and genres of fiction exist to provide those stories with their home. One of the reasons why, for instance, heroines neglect the solid earnest suitor for the flashy and untrustworthy one is that women may be warned time and again to meditate on casket riddles about the choice of suitors. The point, though, is to make the characters individual enough that we take their story to our hearts.

Like many writers of historical romance, Katharine McMahon is working with the elements of which fairy tales are made. Her heroine Emilie Selden is a princess kept isolated by her magician father. It is the early 18th-century dawn of the age of reason - but only the dawn of the age.

Father and daughter work together on alchemical projects as well as on a sceptical investigation of the new idea of "phlogiston" (though science in a fashion, at least as loopy as alchemy). She is also half aware of being his other scientific project: the raising up of a woman savant, as well as the remnant of the dead mother he never talks about.

Then there are her suitors: a widowed clergyman who offends her father by regarding alchemy as outmoded nonsense, and a London businessman who seduces her with talk of the world outside. Of course, she chooses the elegant Aislabie, who is after her father's estate and the mortgage money that will buy him a slave ship. She also fails to see her duty to the lady's maid who falls pregnant with her husband's child. This is the story of a woman who knows all of knowledge (as of 1728), but nothing of her own heart, and has to learn better.

What makes The Alchemist's Daughter more than a routine entertainment is McMahon's vivid sense of both the natural world, and of the smells and illumined darkness of the Seldens' workroom. We believe in Emilie, and come to love her for all her follies, because she is so passionate in her experience of the world around her.

The man she calls her father has taught her a lot, much of it entirely wrong, but above all he has taught her to observe and to pay attention. From the dung heaps of the London rookeries to the tawdry smartness of genteel card parties to the sombre reality of Isaac Newton's funeral, Emilie is a reliable and fascinating narrator even when she falls into error. This is a book which reminds us that often what we call "cliches" are only the bad handling of matters with much vehement life in them yet.

Roz Kaveney's 'From Alien to The Matrix' is published by B Tauris

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