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Imperfect Alchemist

A Novel of Mary Sidney Herbert,
Renaissance Pioneer

One of the earliest women authors in Renaissance England to publish under her own name, Mary Sidney Herbert successfully forged a place for herself in a man’s world. IMPERFECT ALCHEMIST imagines a collaboration with Shakespeare, a spurious charge of witchcraft, and a plucky maidservant, Rose – a country girl with a surprising talent. The two women’s stories unfold in alternating chapters as their very different worlds connect and collide. Both Mary and Rose challenge the rules of their time, shattering stereotypes and defying patriarchal codes. The narrative sweep takes readers to castles and cottages, from the teeming streets of London and Paris to the ageless sentinels of Stonehenge.

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Imperfect Alchemist

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“Wow – loved this book! A wonderful book with two really strong lead characters, alternating chapters from their perspective. You follow Mary and Rose's lives from when they are young and into middle age. What was even a nicer touch is that many of the characters were based on real people.”
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“This is a very beautiful book. It manages to be so much more than a record of the life of two extraordinary women, one real, one fictional – it’s a book about writing, about art, and about creation. It’s about carving a path for yourself while still conforming to the role life has dealt you, and it is about carrying on in the face of sometimes terrible loss.”
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“Imperfect Alchemist is an erudite and seductive read that draws you back to the sixteenth century and into the lives of these two strong and intelligent women. I loved reading this book, the perfect blend of fact and fiction with a strong female lead, a fabulous start to a new series.
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This fabulous book has so much that I love in it! If you are all about historical fiction and very cool women, coupled with a dash of witchcraft and alchemy, I am sure you’ll love this book.”
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“This is a beautifully written, compelling and spellbinding story based on a remarkable Tudor life. It’s richly imagined, and 1600s Britain is portrayed realistically and authentically with intricate detail, and informed by extensive research. Highly recommended.
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Brilliant novel! The time period that this novel is set in isn't my usual cup of tea but WOW am I converted! The vivid descriptions of clothing, scenery and the interiors of the setting were fantastic and the characters were just so likeable that I wished the book wasn’t going to end.”
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“This is a wonderfully well informed and imaginative novel about the life and work of Mary Sidney Herbert … and her (imaginary) maid, Rose, as they each struggle to make their way and find their voice. The story is energetic and well told and full of period detail.”
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“I found the descriptions of the various potions and tinctures incredibly interesting, but most of all I loved the characterization of Lady Mary and the wonderful Rose. Their entwining stories set the pace. All through the book I wanted so much for them both to find their happiness. Wonderful!
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Great historical novel! I absolutely love the way this novel portrays Renaissance women's lives. It was so nuanced and refreshing, showing the complexity of class and gender and the human relations that develop within and beyond these categories. I felt like I was there, experiencing these women's lives. I was completely engrossed in the story!"
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A beautifully crafted book that I found impossible to put down. Naomi Miller's debut novel reflects the significance of Mary Sidney's contributions as a writer, a musician, a patron, and a scientist, but above all it captures Sidney's humanity - her losses, her loves, and her hopes and dreams. Sidney's relationship with her servant Rose becomes a deeply moving narrative arc for the story that immerses readers in the textures of women's experiences in 16th and 17th-century England.”
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Wonderful narrative - I loved this novel! Miller splits her story, alternating between Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, and Rose Commin, her fictional maid. The details of their lives and milieu were so meticulously researched and constructed that I felt transported to a different time and place.
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Wonderful! I encourage anyone who loves historical fiction, strong women characters, stories of transformation, and just plain good writing to get this book! This is one of the best books I have had the pleasure to immerse myself in. Thank you Naomi Miller! Please let us know when the next book in the "Shakespeare's Sisters" series will be available!”
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Naomi Miller

Historical Novelist and Award-Winning Author

After thirty years as a scholar of early modern women, I realized that my work wasn’t close to being complete as long as the wider public had no awareness of the remarkable women authors who were published and read in the time of Shakespeare.

IMPERFECT ALCHEMIST is the first in a projected series of novels centered on these women, called Shakespeare’s Sisters – celebrating them not simply for their relation to men (like the wives of Henry VIII) but for their own voices.

This novel is an imaginative re-invention of the extraordinary life of Mary Sidney Herbert, Renaissance pioneer – friend of Queen Elizabeth, visionary scientist, advocate for women writers, and scandalous lover of a much younger man. Fact and fiction blend as the likes of Walter Raleigh, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare rub shoulders with courtiers and commoners, servants and savants, including a young woman artist who sees beyond the real.

Interested in how this novel came to be? See my piece, “Imagining Mary”.

Three renaissance women read and study together

“To have lived a free life in London in the 16th century would have meant, for a woman who was poet and playwright, a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her.”

- Virginia Woolf (1929)

A photograph of novelist Naomi J. Miller

About Naomi

I was born in Los Angeles, California, on a street named “Enchanted Way.” I am descended on my mother’s side from a Japanese shogun of the late 1500s and on my father’s side from Dutch-English settlers who came to the American colonies in the Mayflower era. Being aware of what my ancestors were doing while Mary Sidney Herbert was alive has added resonance to the process of composing this novel. I wrote my first novel at the age of twelve – an 80-page hand-written mystery set in the England of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.

Captivated by Shakespeare and Renaissance England, I produced an undergraduate senior thesis at Princeton on the plays of Christopher Marlowe, and a doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the works of Sir Philip Sidney and his niece Lady Mary Wroth, the first woman to publish a sonnet sequence and a prose romance in Shakespeare’s England. My first book, Changing the Subject, placed Wroth’s writings in relation to other Renaissance women authors such as Sidney’s sister, Mary Sidney Herbert – women whose writings brought women’s lives to light and their voices to life.

I had four children before earning tenure at the University of Arizona, where I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of forty. I have been guided in moving forward by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn in practicing mindfulness as a mother, author, teacher, and person of color.

I live in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I teach at Smith College on Shakespeare and “Shakespeare’s Sisters.” I am the recipient of the Sherrerd Award for Distinguished Teaching, and three of my previous books have received awards from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender.

"Be the Empress of the world, commanding the Empire of your own mind."

- Mary Wroth (1621)

Forthcoming Novels

Secret Storyteller

Mary Sidney Wroth,
Renaissance Rebel

Passionate Pilgrim

Aemilia Lanyer,
Renaissance Sappho

Dark Madonna

Elizabeth Cary,
Renaissance Phoenix

Owl in the Desert

Anne Clifford,
Renaissance Renegade

Queen of Masquerade

Anna of Denmark,
Renaissance Dreamer

Reviews & Interviews

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  • Interviews
  • Reviews

Naomi Miller ’81 Reimagines Life of Literary Trailblazer Mary Sidney

The book: A novel set in 16th-century England, Imperfect Alchemist (Allison & Busby) by Naomi Miller ’81 reimagines the life of Mary Sidney, one of …

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Six Reviews from the Imperfect Alchemist Blog Tour

The Imperfect Alchemist Blog Tour recently wrapped up! Here’s what reviewers had to say: Day One – Madeleine of ramblingmads An incredibly engaging and intelligent book. Naomi …

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Introducing Naomi Miller

Naomi Miller is descended on her mother’s side from a shogun in the Tokugawa period and on her father’s side from Dutch-English settlers who arrived …

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An interview with Naomi Miller, author of Imperfect Alchemist

Interview and Review by Jo of JaffaReadsToo Two women. One bond that will unite them across years and social divides. England, 1575. Mary Sidney, who …

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