The Alchemist's Daughter, by Katherine McMahon

Don't talk to me about phlogiston
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The Independent Culture

Uncovering the lives of the wives, daughters and sisters who contributed to the scientific discoveries of famous men can be a worthy but dry project. So Katherine McMahon has taken a risk with her heroine Emilie, the studious daughter of a Newtonian philosopher who discovers passion with an unsuitable man. Too much talk of palingenesis and phlogiston and she will lose the reader; too much bodice-ripping and she will cheapen the story.

It's to McMahon's credit that she keeps a fine balance between the two. It is 1725 and Emilie Selden (possibly McMahon intends this name to evoke Voltaire's lover and natural philosopher Emilie du Châtelet) has led too sheltered a life in Buckinghamshire, with only her serious-minded father for company, learning how to help with his experiments and projects. She is a lamb to the slaughter when the sensuous, sophisticated city merchant Aislabie comes calling. He seduces her easily, she becomes pregnant and leaves her father and science for married life in London.

This novel is as much about innocence and experience as it is about women's roles during the Enlightenment. Science is a diversion for women of wealth and status but for Emilie it forms her identity, it is who she is, and that question of identity is central to the novel, a remarkably modern question to be asking of an 18th-century woman. As her marriage begins to unravel in the wake of Aislabie's infidelity, Emilie begins to value once more the rationality of her father's teachings, as opposed to the physical awakening that her husband has brought about.

In this latter respect, Emilie is more anti-modern than modern, rejecting passion for the rational: she soon discovers feelings for another natural philosopher, the widowed Reverend Shales, but these are held in check. To add to the anti-modern impression, she is also a woman who believes in alchemy and the possibility of an "immortal soul". The dilemma here, one which all writers of historical fiction face, is how to keep a character relevant to present-day readers without losing a sense of the times. McMahon wants to have her modern/anti-modern cake and eat it too, and so she ingeniously attempts to solve the dilemma by giving Emilie a dual role: "I now had two lives, the one I shared with my husband, a life of violent emotions, passion one minute, despair the next, and my life in the laboratory, the one I shared with my dead father."

So the Emilie we relate to is passionate and modern; the Emilie we admire is rational and less modern. Contradictory perhaps, but it works beautifully, giving us a more complex Emilie than we might have expected while keeping a sense of the miraculousness of the times, an era when men - and women - challenged God. McMahon has given us a first-rate historical romance; it's hard to think it will be bettered this year.

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