The Alchemist’s Daughter, by Katherine McMahon, Read by Justine Eyre and John Lee, Books on Tape, Inc., 2006
It’s a rare thing when you come across a book that is simultaneously so bad you wish to throttle nearly every character, while showing flashes of such great intellect that you despair every grasping how the author could have gone so wrong elsewhere. Having just come off reading Frankenstein, the premise of Katherine McMahon’s The Alchemist’s Daughter, as described on the packaging, suggested something along similar lines.
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.
Which is a decent description of a novel I’d have been very much interested in reading. It’s not precisely Shelley’s book, but it runs along the same tracks. And it’s not that this summation is inaccurate precisely; rather, it focuses on one very small aspect of the story and suggests that there is much more to it than the book provides.
Everything starts out decently enough. The time is the early seventeen hundreds, the narrator Emilie Selden is the only daughter of widower alchemist John Selden. She is also his lengthy experiment in how a woman can learn as much as a man of the sciences. A correspondent of Newton’s, Selden works to discover the secret of fire, tracking his studies on flogistan and other early theories of what made fire burn.
Having kept Emilie isolated at their old, crumbling estate, Selden is none too pleased when he is forced to provide the county with a new clergyman in Thomas Shales, nor when he is visited by the ravishing merchant Robert Aislabie. Emilie, whose name brings to mind Rousseau’s similarly named treatise on how the “natural man” can best live and keep himself naturally pure in the debased thing that is society, wastes no time in panting lustfully after both men, showing all her father’s precautions were for naught. You’d be a fool, however, not to realize instantly that Aislabie will win the contest; nor would you demonstrate any great wit if you also realized that he was by far the worse choice.
McMahon’s book touches briefly on Rousseau’s beliefs as if in answer, and there are some fine scenes of Emilie’s awkward “naturalness” among the polish and glamour of society’s grande dames. Yet in McMahon’s view, we are all merely horndogs who don garbs of respectful society to hide our fevered loins.
When the author shows us Emilie’s learning and her skills as alchemist, when we watch how she slowly pieces together that fire is not caused by some fiery essence but by rapid oxidation a fuel material, the book manages to make the life of the mind thrill with the chase. Showing Shales, who as a clergyman is also a natural philosopher (read amateur scientist) but who is put off by the borderline heresies of alchemy, as he winds his way torturously through his understanding and Emilie’s insights, McMahon similarly breathes a spark into research and scholarship.
McMahon’s book is even on sure footing when we delve into Selden’s emotions regarding his daughter, her sudden burst into sexual curiosity, and the old man’s broken heart when she chooses terribly unwisely in these regards. The intimate bond between father and daughter is well explored with both parties seeing past each other in their mutual hurts, while at the same time McMahon allows both her characters here to be a little in the right.
But in Emilie’s love life and sex life, McMahon throws aside all the good things in her writing for bodice ripping cheapness, hackneyed contrivances of plotting, and a kind of sexual masochism and abuse portrayed as sensual excess. I’m not puritan enough to believe that there aren’t plenty of women who like a good rough shagging, but scenes such as the one below tend to leave an unsettled queasiness in their wake:
Suddenly he pounced, grabbing first my ankle, then my knee and yanking me down until I was as helpless as an upturned babe. He climbed my body inch by inch, clutching fistfuls of feathers, and though I writhed and kicked, he had me by the waist, pulled plumage from my bodice, and slapped me back and forth across the thighs with the flat of his hand until I was whimpering with shock and the cellar echoed with the report of skin on skin. I fought him with a deadly desire to wound and be satisfied. I tore at his clothes and thumped him with my heels and fists, grabbed his short hair and twisted, tried to bite him, but he only laughed and clamped down harder, ground my head against the stone floor, and bit my breast until I howled with pain. Then he drove himself inside me, my legs opened wider, wider, my body arched, and I pounded my wrists in an ecstasy of sensation. I was a divided Emilie and one half looked on at this sensuous thrashing creature, and hated her.
But, you see, this rape-like sex was sooooo good.
And it’s like that every time she and Aislabie have sex, simply one ravishing rape after another.
All of which is more or less a quibble in the greater whole of the book, which is in part about how Emilie becomes quantifiably retarded in the presence of Aislabie, whom she marries and who abuses her in more ways than as described above. At every opportunity when Emilie is given the chance to make an intelligent decision or to grasp at what is going on just under her nose, she misses it, she chooses wrongly, and obliviously she sails on.
Now, I know in part we’re supposed to see this as manifest flaws in Selden’s systematic isolation of his daughter, but it’s infuriating to come to the conclusion nearly fifty pages before the narrator that the reason the rakish Aislabie insists Emilie keep her insolent young maid Sarah is because he’s fucking her too. And it’s bothersome when Emilie grinds our way through three hundred pages before realizing all along that Shales, who shares her interest in fire research and who is kind and decent, was the far better match. And it’s frustrating in the extreme when the best character of the novel dies so early into it, leaving us with his twit of a daughter and her one blunder after another.
The amazingly stupid Emilie simply drags down the novel with her idiocy time and again. When she learns that her husband plans massive renovations to the estates he inherited from Selden, part of which involves tearing down an entire village located nearby, Emilie visits the village and can’t understand why the townsfolk are so mad and take it out on her. I know she rarely went out among people, but Selden Manor had servants and neither Emilie nor her father considered themselves eminently above them. Surely she can put one and one together.
But no, in fact, she can’t. Emilie so routinely fails in putting one and one together that all the lovely scenes of intricate alchemical rituals, the evocative Royal Society funeral for Isaac Newton, and the lush details of eighteenth century life in London and Buckinghamshire come to nothing. The power of the narrator’s overwhelming ignorance suffocates what is good in the novel leaving the reader eager to strike someone. By the final chapters anyone will do. Even poor old Jean-Jacques Rousseau will do in a pinch even if we have to dig him up.
Actress, author, narrator Justine Eyre does a lovely job with this dimwitted character, though even her beautiful rendering won’t make you any less tired of phrases such as “I was in no state to resist,” which Emilie says with (unshocking) frequency. The deeply sonorous John Lee is brought in for a few small bits of Selden’s letters and journal entries at the end, a curious and unnecessary device. The change of timbre suddenly reminds us we’re not spending the day with the world’s most idiotic bore but listening to two narrators gamely trying to interest us in a underwritten gothic romance with flashing sparks of brilliance all too rarely illuminating things.