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Alchemist's Daughter

Alchemist's Daughter

3.7 23
by Katharine McMahon

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There are long-held secrets at the manor house in Buckinghamshire, England, where Emilie Selden has been raised in near isolation by her father. A student of Isaac Newton, John Selden believes he can turn his daughter into a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. Secluded in their ancient house, with only two servants for company, he fills Emilie with knowledge


There are long-held secrets at the manor house in Buckinghamshire, England, where Emilie Selden has been raised in near isolation by her father. A student of Isaac Newton, John Selden believes he can turn his daughter into a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. Secluded in their ancient house, with only two servants for company, he fills Emilie with knowledge and records her progress obsessively.

In the spring of 1725, father and daughter begin their most daring alchemical experiment to date—they will attempt to breathe life into dead matter. But their work is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers: one a researcher, the other a dazzling young merchant. During the course of a sultry August, while her father is away, Emilie experiences the passion of first love. Listening to her heart rather than her head, she makes a choice.

Banished to London and plunged headlong into a society that is both glamorous and ruthless, Emilie discovers that for all her extraordinary education she has no insight into the workings of the human heart. When she tries to return to the world of books and study, she instead unravels a shocking secret that sets her on her true journey to enlightenment.

The Alchemist’s Daughter is a gripping, evocative tale. Set against the backdrop of eighteenth-century London society, it is an unforgettable story of one woman’s journey through a world of mystery, passion, and obsession.

Selden Manor was the crucible in which my father, the Gills, and I lived together. I peer into it now with the respectful caution with which I was taught to approach any volatile experiment. I am searching for a day to illustrate our life before 1725, the year when everything changed. And unlike the blacksmith’s daughter, I am an expert in observation. I know what I am looking for—bubbles of gas, a rise in temperature, an alteration in texture—small indications of chemical change that mean something significant is happening. —from The Alchemist’s Daughter

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Diana Gabaldon
Emilie's idyllic -- though mysteriously motherless -- existence at Selden's Manor seems as fresh and green as the place itself, her exposure to the debased worlds of London a submersion in filth and confusion. She could easily be no more than the construct her father tries to make her, but McMahon is a better alchemist than that; Emilie may be a classic fairy-tale heroine on the surface, but this Sleeping Beauty has depth and an increasingly self-aware intelligence.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
A child of the English Age of Reason learns lessons of the heart in McMahon's fifth historical, her first published in the U.S. Like Philippa Gregory, she mixes historical accuracy with a heroine modern at heart if not in outward appearance. It's 1727, and 19-year-old Emilie Selden, cloistered since birth at Buckinghamshire's Selden Manor, is docile under the iron rule of her domineering father, John, a scientist by reputation and an alchemist by calling. Under his stern tutelage, Emilie, who narrates, studies nature using the same methods used by their hero, Sir Isaac Newton. While on the verge of formulating her own theory of air and fire, Emilie meets two men: Thomas Shales, a clergyman and natural philosopher who alienates John Selden as much through his regard for Emilie as through his disregard for alchemy, and Robert Aislabie, a London adventurer who calls at Selden Manor to gain the father's secrets and ends up taking the daughter's heart. Father and daughter soon learn that love and loss cannot be kept in the confines of the laboratory. McMahon highlights social turmoil through Emilie's maid, Sarah, and intellectual conflict at the Royal Society, including a memorable evocation of Newton's funeral. Emilie's voice is clear, and McMahon doesn't shy away from the Enlightenment's darker sides, giving this popular historical a satisfying gravity. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Because incredibly intelligent Emilie Selden performs scientific experiments under her possessive father's tutelage and assists him in his attempts at alchemy in their laboratory, she knows nothing of the world outside the gates of their Buckinghamshire estate. But when Robert Aislabie, a charming dandy from London, arrives, na ve Emilie is swept off her feet and becomes pregnant. After a quick wedding, she moves to London with her new husband; soon after, her father dies of a broken heart, and the Aislabies return to Selden Manor, where Robert has extravagant plans for renovating the house and grounds. While Emilie fiercely clings to everything familiar, she makes some shocking discoveries about her husband, her family, and herself. Set in 18th-century England, McMahon's (A Way Through the Woods) novel reveals both intellect and emotion. Emilie herself is an experiment, and the results are often unexpected. This character-driven novel is absorbing and the scientific aspects a treat to contemporary readers. Recommended for all libraries with historical fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/05.]-Anna M. Nelson, Collier Cty. P.L., Naples, FL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In her U.S. debut, veteran British novelist McMahon animates a historical setting with confidence and a 21st-century sensibility. Emilie Selden is an oddity, a female scientist in 18th-century England, but her story revolves around her education in a more commonplace subject: matters of the heart. Since her French mother died in childbirth, Emilie has lived an enclosed, studious life with her father, alchemist, natural philosopher and Royal Society fellow Sir John Selden. Her true getting of wisdom, however, begins when a wealthy merchant, smooth Robert Aislabie, penetrates cloistered Selden Manor. Swiftly seduced and impregnated by Aislabie, Emilie finds herself expelled from her father's laboratory and life. She marries Aislabie, moves to London and learns to be a lady with the help of her moody maid Sarah, but she loses her baby and experiences deep homesickness. When her father dies, Selden Manor passes to Aislabie, who has grand plans to replace the old house with a neoclassical mansion complete with park and lake, which will require the demolition of a local village. McMahon busily weaves social commentary on London slums, rural poverty, infant mortality, prostitution and the slave trade into Emilie's initially introspective narrative, which slowly moves outward from grief to the growing recognition of Aislabie's exploitative nature and an awakening to emotional engagement. This alchemical transmutation speeds up when Sarah is revealed to be Aislabie's mistress, pregnant with his child. Emilie throws her out, but after an explosion in the laboratory uncovers Sir John's diaries, which chart his undying love for his daughter and the truth about her lowly origins, she has a change ofheart. She rescues Sarah's baby, stands up to her husband and acknowledges her love for the local rector, who has offered quiet succor throughout her ordeals. An intelligent and sensuous romance.

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Chapter One

True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true
First Precept of the Emerald Tablet

In one of my earliest memories, I walk behind my father to the furnace shed. He wears a long black coat that gathers up fallen leaves, and his staff makes a little crunch when he stabs it into the path. My apron is so thick that my knees bang against it, and the autumn air is smoky on my face. Suddenly I trip over the hem of his coat. My nose hits ancient wool. He stops dead. My heart pounds, but I recover my balance, and we walk on.

When we reach the shed, I take a gasp of fresh air before being swallowed up. Gill is inside, shoveling coal into the arch of the furnace mouth, which roars orange.

My father's finger emerges from his sleeve and points to a metal screen Gill made for me. There is a little stool behind it, and at just the right height a couple of peepholes covered with mesh are cut into the metal. I must not move from this stool in case something spills or explodes. We are boiling up vatfuls of urine to make a thick syrup that eventually will become phosphorus. After a while the stench of sulfur and ammonia is so strong that it almost knocks me off my stool. I can't breathe properly and my throat is hot, but I hold firm and don't let my back slump. Gill is like a black shadow moving back and forth; a twist of his upper body, a jerk of the shovel, a stooping out of sight, another turn, the racket of falling coal, and then the flames roar fiercer until I think the furnace will blow apart and the shed, Selden, the woods, the world will all fly away in pieces.

But my father isn't worried, so I feel safe, too. He stands at his high desk by the door and puts his left hand to his forehead as he writes. The only bit of his face I can see under his wig is his beaky nose. This black and orange world is crammed with a million things that he knows and I don't. I want to be like him. I will be soon, if I can only pay attention and learn fast enough.

Chapter 2

I have no memories of my mother because she is a skeleton under the earth all the time I am a child. When I was born, she died; and though I appreciate the symmetry of this, I'm not satisfied. It's hard finding out more about her because I'm not allowed to ask my father, and Mrs. Gill, who looks after me, is a woman of few words.

However, on my sixth birthday, May 30, 1712, I ask Mrs. Gill the usual questions about what my mother was like and she suddenly sighs deeply, puts down the great pot she is carrying--it is the week for brewing up the elder flowers--and takes me on a long journey through the house past the Queen's Room, through a series of little doors, and up a flight of narrow stairs until we come to a low room with a high lattice window and a sloping floor. She says, "That's where you were born."

The only furniture is a rough-looking chest and a high bed shrouded in linen, which I look at with wonder. The bed is surely too small and clean for such an untidy event as a birth. "Why?" I say.

"Because everyone has to be born somewhere."

"Why this room and not a bigger one?"

"Because it's quiet and ideal." She leans over the chest in that Mrs. Gill way of not bending her back or knees but just lowering her upper body. I go closer as she brings up the lid, and I see that the inside is lined with white paper but is otherwise nearly empty. It smells like nothing else on earth, a dusty sweetness of folded-away things. And out comes a cream-colored shawl like a spider's web, a tiny bonnet, a baby's tucked nightgown, and a coil of pink ribbon with a pin in one end to keep it rolled up. "These were your things that I made you," she says, patting the clothes, "and this was your mother's." She hands me the ribbon, which I rub and sniff. "You can have that if you like. And now those elder flowers will be boiled half dry, so down we go."

Later she tells me the story of my parents' marriage. My mother, Emilie De Lery, was from a family of Huguenot silk weavers who had been driven out of France in 1685 and settled in a district of London called Spitalfields. Competition in the silk market was fierce, but my grandfather De Lery decided that fashionable London wanted color, so he went to the Royal Society to see if he could find someone who knew about dyes.

When Grand-pere De Lery knocked at the Royal Society's door, my father, Sir John Selden, was giving a paper about the green mineral malachite. Grand-pere De Lery listened rapturously, collared my father afterward, and insisted he dine en famille in Spitalfields. There John Selden met the daughter, Emilie, twenty-two years old to his forty-nine, and his old bachelor heart was won by her dark eyes and shy smile. Within six months a new shade, De Lery green, had swamped the silk market; within a year my father had abandoned his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and carried Emilie off to his home, Selden Manor, in Buckinghamshire.

Of course all that happiness didn't last long. My mother died nine months later on a May morning crowded with blossom and birdsong. She, Emilie the elder, was buried under a stone in the churchyard of St. Mary and St. Edelburga, while I, Emilie the younger, was wrapped in the cobwebby shawl and committed to the care of Mrs. Gill, housekeeper.

My father never went back to Cambridge but devoted himself to his own research and my education. Mrs. Gill said he was so sad when my mother died that he burned all her things. The pink ribbon was saved because Mrs. Gill thought I should have something as a keepsake.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Katharine McMahon is the author of four novels published in the United Kingdom. She has taught in secondary schools, performed in local theater, and worked as a Royal Literary Fund fellow teaching writing skills at the Universities of Hertfordshire and Warwick. She lives in Hertfordshire, England.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Alchemist's Daughter 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you love historical fiction, this book is for you. I do not understand previous reviewer's negative statements about this book. The descriptions of scenery and characters are BEAUTIFULLY written, and I couldn't put the book down!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was one of my favorite books of the year, and I love historical novels of this time period. I enjoyed reading a historical novel that used the period as a backdrop, rather than beating me over the head with sterotypes. I agree, Emelie was a strong character, going through a period in her life that many readers will associate with. A wonderful read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was highly disappointing and predictable. The heroine of the novel is detestable and clueless. There are literally no redeeming qualities to this book. I would have stopped reading halfway through but I have to finish a book once I start it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GtzLstNRding More than 1 year ago
A scientists performs and experiement that has effects that he never took into account. In this book, his daughter, while well educated lacks the ability to communicate and interact with people at least in observation. The writing style occurrs in the 1700's and some accounts in the book are shown as brutal that time in history was as well. Its quite and enlighting book demonstrating simple basic human emotions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
OHBeth More than 1 year ago
The Alchemist's Daughter gets off to a fairly slow start, but about 20 pages into the book, it becomes un-put-downable. Against a background of weird science and a creepy house it depicts a young woman's search for her dead mother's identity, and yearning for her alchemist father's love and affection. An unexpected visitor to the estate changes her life and takes her out into the wider world. Alas, while she loves him passionately, there is enough about him to suspect that he's not who he says he is. The heroine is not to be denied her quest, so in spite of him, she searches tirelessly for the answers she needs. This search is both her downfall and, finally, her salvation.
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katknit More than 1 year ago
More a coming of age story than a bodice ripper or genre romance, The Alchemist's Daughter tells of the early experiences of a sheltered young woman with a remarkable education. Emily is an expert in the science of alchemy, the study of the forces of nature, but knows next to nothing about living her life or human nature. This novel follows her as she leaves her father's home for the first time as the starry eyed wife of an unscrupulous fortune hunter, about to learn the hard way about love, morality, and trust. Author McMahon plays out Emily's story against a vivid background of London society and backwater village. By the end of the novel, Emily's metamorphosis is underway. Could a sequel be in the offing?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The first thing I want to point out is how intelligent the book is, as a Chemistry major I found the alchemy to be fascinating without sounding like one of my usual lectures. Also, the writing was flawless, fluid, beautiful, and completely perfect for the point of view. The historical detail was rich and fantastic, but it wasn't too overwhelming. This is a perfect example of historical fiction, and it was very interesting, and it was NOT a slow read whatsoever. I read this on a stormy day where all my lectures ended up being canceled in the library, and I could not have spent my time any better. This isn't a soapy, unintelligent read for affection starved older women. If you enjoy a great read, with a strong and multidimensional, defiant, main character (with human folly like the rest of us) and great historical fiction, then this book is definitely for you!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MyAntonia88 More than 1 year ago
This is a great book. Love how the author is so descriptive of the settings. The main character is a detailed observer and the author is able to rightly capture this characteristic. The book seems to get a bit lenghtly toward the end but all the building of anticipation at the beginning makes finishing the book worth every word.

I am not much for chemistry, or alchemy for that matter, but I did not mind all the 'science talk' throughout the book. It gives the reader a greater appreciation for the depth of the characters.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The story has promise and could have really been a great read. But the author seems to drag things along. After the opening 50 pages, I found myself scanning text and jumping 40 pages ahead beause things were moving too slowly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book for anybody who likes historcal fiction. I did not think I would like this book as much as I did, but the story and its characters enchanted me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At first I thought the Alchemist's Daughter would be very bland, very boring. As I read this book I was proved wrong. Even though the book is set in eighteenth century London, England, it is very vivid and accurate. Emelie is one of the strongest heroines I've read about in a long time. This a poweful novel with strong characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am disappoined to say I didn't enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The thorough explanations of alchemical experiments thwarted me, if I wanted to hear about chemicals and hoity toity experimenting I would have cracked open my Chemistry textbook. I also had a problem with the sexual scenes, they weren't descriptive at all. For an author who has thrown in sex scene after sex scene, she could have just spanned them out and made them excruciatingly sensual. Not just a breif meeting between lovers. This is an adult book, not a teenage romance! Though, I love the author's writing and her plotlines are just perfection, I believe she could have elaborated on the story further more. There were also times when I thought the characters where manic depressive, they were constantly changing from a well developed character to somebody you barely recognize, I wasn't sure if this was intentional or a minor faux pas. Aside from those tidbits, I believe this was a wonderful and page turning read. Even if it doesn't all end up the way you want it to... The author provides exceptionally gripping hooks and turns that is sure to entice any reader. ughah. xxx Vampyr
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is my first time reading a book by this author and I was not impressed at all. The characters are very weakly developed, the plot is circuitous, and the ending leaves much to be desired. To her credit, the book began interestingly enough but then began its very fast descent to incomprehensibility and ridiculousness. I would have gave it a 1, but the cover art was a saving grace...so there you have it!