The Alchemist's Daughter: A Novel

The Alchemist's Daughter: A Novel

by Katharine McMahon


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During the English Age of Reason, a woman cloistered since birth learns that knowledge is no substitute for experience.

Raised by her father in near isolation in the English countryside, Emilie Selden is trained as a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. In the spring of 1725, father and daughter embark upon their most daring alchemical experiment to date—attempting to breathe life into dead matter. But when Emilie—against her father’s wishes—experiences the passion of first love, she is banished to London, where she soon discovers she knows nothing about human nature—or her own family’s complicated past. So begins her shocking journey to enlightenment.

Also available as a Random House Large Print edition and as an eBook

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307335852
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 10/24/2006
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 616,317
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Katharine McMahon is the author of four novels published in the United Kingdom. She lives in Hertfordshire, England.

Read an Excerpt

The Alchemist's Daughter

By Katharine McMahon

Random House

Katharine McMahon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0307238512

Chapter One

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.

Excerpted from The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. How do you feel about the way the novel and its characters deal with the issue of slavery? How does the situation of each character color his or her opinion of the slave trade? How do those opinions help define their characters? How would you describe Emilie ’s opinion of the slave trade? Does her point of view change during the course of the book?

2. At the time of their meeting and then marriage, how do you think Aislabie truly feels about Emilie? Is he in love? Does he have other motivations for wanting to marry her? How and why do these feelings change during the course of the book?

3. Why are the Gills so loyal to Selden, despite evidence that they have disagreed with their master and were, at the end of his life, blamed for Emilie ’s fall from grace?

4. Would you describe Emilie as a sentimental person? Considering the purely intellectual education she has received at her father’s hands, how do you make sense of the sentimental attachment she has toward her mother’s possessions?

5. Despite her intelligence, Emilie tends to miss or ignore many signs that point to Aislabie ’s true nature: his involvement in the slave trade; flaunting expensive new ornaments while claiming poverty; undermining his wife ’s wishes about the remodeling of Selden; refusing to consider the concerns of Selden’s tenants. Why do you think it takes infidelity on such a blatant scale for her to see him for what he is? Are there other signs she may have missed?

6. Do you think Emilie will be a better landlord than her father was? Why or why not?

7. Did Emilie fail her father’s parenting “experiment,” as she supposes when she reads his notebooks? What outcome do you think would have satisfied him? Were his hopes realistic? Were they fair?

8. After the discovery of her mother’s true identity, Emilie begins to regard men’s attentions to herself in a new way. What do you make of this change?

9. Do you think that Sarah and Emilie could ever have been friends? Is there any action Emilie could have taken early in her marriage to gain Sarah’s affection? What do you think their relationship might have been like if Emilie had invited Sarah to stay at Selden with her child?

10. Discuss the laboratory explosion. What do you think Emilie expected to happen? What did she hope to accomplish?

11. What do you think Aurelie ’s childhood will be like?

12. How do the discovery of Sarah’s pregnancy and the aftermath of that discovery affect the power dynamic in the Aislabies’ marriage?

13. What sort of relationship do you envision between Emilie and Shales after the novel’s end?

About the Book
Since the day her mother died in childbirth, Emilie Selden was raised by her father in a state of privilege and isolation at Selden Manor. From her mother, she has only the scant biographical details confided by her housekeeper, Mrs. Gill, and a tattered pink ribbon; from her father, she inherits a legacy of learning and a reverence for the study of alchemy. As a young woman, Emilie excels as a scientist under her father’s tutelage, but her academic focus and sheltered upbringing leave her illprepared when a morally questionable but dashing suitor comes to call—a man whose flaws seem evident to all but Emilie. To her father’s dismay, and despite the warnings of the prudish Reverend Shales, Emilie ’s discovery of a romantic and sensual side of life leads prompty to a fall from grace, then to an increasingly uncomfortable marriage to the selfish but amorous Aislabie. It takes a series of surprising discoveries to show Emilie that nothing is as she had assumed, and it forces her to reconstruct her self-image within a new reality—and change her behavior accordingly. The book’s themes of romance and disillusionment are set against the dichotomies of reason and emotion, discipline and fervor, intellect and compassion. It is a study of the power of the mind, the failings of intellect, and the power and responsibility of the truth.

Customer Reviews

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Alchemist's Daughter 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 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.
LisaMaria_C on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked this story, it was a fast read, but somehow it missed being something special. It's the story of Emilie Seldon, who was raised during the time of Isaac Newton in the spirit of scientific inquiry, and, despite her sex, to be a natural philosopher--a scientist. But her father forgot to include the social--and hormonal--in his calculations. Motherless, home-schooled, without other family or friends beyond the housekeeper and never allowed beyond the bounds of the estate, Emilie is so isolated she's all too vulnerable to a seductive visitor, Roger Aislabie. Despite this being told first person, Aislabie comes across from the beginning as trouble to the reader--and to everyone else, except the too-sheltered, naive teen Emilie. McMahon obviously did her homework on the period, and she's good at getting the esoteric concepts of those early scientific inquiries across and the story is told in a clean style. There's also a mystery at the heart of this book about Emilie's parentage I found quite moving. However, I feel that's more because her situation hit home for personal reasons--and because of my own personal experience, I think part of the problem is that in the revelation scene is too detached--nor do I ever buy how it leads to her change of heart over Sarah. I also think part of why I wasn't more taken with Emilie is that she's too passive. I don't blame her too much for that, or find her stupid like some reviewers--not given her upbringing and the lack of power women had in the period. But it makes it hard to care. I kept waiting for Emilie's scientific mind and training to kick in somehow for her to find a way out of her problems, but the science and the alchemy is really mere trappings in this novel. I also felt dissatisfied with the lack of resolution at the end. Not a novel I wanted to hurl against the wall once finished--but not one I'd want to put on my bookshelf either.
Sheiladalton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 18th century England, 19-year-old Emilie Selder is trained by her father in the alchemist's art.This moving story draws you right in. It's a "bodice ripper with a brain" that documents the personal growth of the heroine while it involves us with details of her rebellion against her rigid, scientist father, and subsequent marriage to the wrong man. I found it atmospheric and gripping; a real page turner.
Luli81 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's strange the way some stories don't get to you. This one had everything I should love in a novel: an evocative setting, a smart heroine, an exploration of a father-daughter relationship, a touch of mystery, and of course, some romance. But there's something that didn't click. Maybe the lack of elegance in the prose, maybe the intented-to-be well researched long descriptions of scientific experiments; but I found I didn't care a bit about Emily's fate or about the outcome of the story. The characters were unidimensional and not well crafted, the father, an obsessed man, the daughter, too naïve to be believable, the husband a cheater, the reverend a too much well hearted man, who, by the way, appears and disappears from the story when the author thinks suitable and the maid, a poor sinner. Besides, I found the story regarding Emily's mother too far fetched and with too many coincidences. And unlike some reviews below, I think there are no loose ends. The book has a forced happy ending, maybe a predictable and not well worked one tough, but it has a conclusion that leaves no doubt. All in all I wouldn't be recommending this book, don't lose your time when there are great books to be read as Du Maurier's or the Brontë's.
afderrick on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good book. I enjoyed reading it. The interesting thing was I would almost classify it as chick-lit maybe and had I of known the entire story I would've probably never read it. I found myself really wanting to know the outcome of Emilie's story though. Sometimes a little annoying with her inability to understand the world around her, but perhaps that was just simply because of the way she was brought up. I enjoyed the read.
mbergman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set mostly in an early 18th-century manor outside London, a fairly elderly father trains his daughter in alchemy & in the scientific method of the period (Newton is his hero) but not in the art of living, which leads to disappointment & alienation when she comes of age. It occasionally verges on becoming an old-fashioned historical romance (which probably explains its best-sellerdom) but is always engaging & mostly rewarding.
sunqueen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This gothic novel takes place in the 1700's at a time when women have a limited choice of roles in society, and the most important accomplishment is to get married and produce children. This young women who has been brought up in virtual seclusion is exposed to more education then most of the population of the era, but is completely unprepared for dealing with men and love and a society that she doesn't fit in with.
kathy_db on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The girl followed the Alchemist from the time she was a child, her only wish was to please him and make him proud. She studied, she learned, she could speak and read several languages. She knew the Latin names of all the plants, trees and animals on the estate. She knew the properties of water and fire. She was Emilie Selden, the Alchemist¿s daughter. He wrote of her each night in the Emilie Notebooks. She was his most interesting experiment, his crowning achievement and he loved her dearly. Her mother was a mystery to her. Her only inheritance from her mother, a bit of ribbon and the stark, isolated room in one of the unused portions of the manor. The region of England they lived in was very isolated and she was so naïve. Falling in love too easily, giving herself too freely, she found herself with child by a man she loved. His power over her was sensual and easily bought. Her father turned her away, banishing Emilie, her husband and her future child from Selden. She traveled to London where she strived to be the great lady her husband wished her to be. She loved him, trusted him, and was betrayed. The story is of her journey from childhood to woman she was to become. This is not the sort of book I usually read. To be honest, I saw it more as a high level romance novel. Though I enjoyed it, it didn¿t grab me and hold my attention like I thought it would. The blurb on the back cover talked of how she and her father were attempting to breathe live into dead matter. That was the story line that caught my attention. It was a great disappointment to me that so little of the book was actually about the experiment unless you see it in the symbolic sense.
Cariola on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Katharine McMahon spins an intriguing tale of a young woman, sheltered and trained by her father in the natural sciences, who embarks on an education in the art of being human. When she falls for a handsome young visitor, she is sure that the attraction is alchemical, but she soon learns how little she knows of human nature and the world outside of her country home. While the novel does have overtones of historical romance, it seems to me more about Emilie's search for identity and knowledge--life knowledge, not knowledge gained from books and the laboratory. The novel is well written and engaging, and McMahon includes fascinating details of life in the early 18th century.
sarradee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
After her mother¿s death in childbirth, Emilie Selden has been raised by her father in a state of sheltered isolation at Selden Manor. Her father has taught her much about science and alchemy but little of human nature; leaving her ill-prepared when a handsome, young admirer comes to call while her father is away on his annual visit to London. Imagine his surprise when he returns to find his daughter in disgrace. Fortunately for Emilie, her seducer Aislabie has agreed to marry her. Her father suspecting Aislabie¿s motives refuses to accept the marriage and disowns Emilie when she persists. The newly married couple move to London, where Emilie discovers that married life isn¿t what she expected, and neither is her husband. She returns to Selden Manor only to suffer yet another disappointment.This is not a happy book, the themes of dashed romance and disillusionment dance throughout the pages. Emilie has to learn to be strong in the face of setback after setback. It takes all the strength of character and discipline that her father has taught her to come to grips with her present and future. This is a classic story of innocence and betrayal in the tradition of Tracy Chevalier.
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.