The book cover for Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller

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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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A beautifully crafted book that I found impossible to put down. Mary's relationship with her servant Rose becomes a deeply moving narrative arc that immerses readers in the textures of women's experiences.”
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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!”
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Great historical novel! I absolutely love the way this novel portrays Renaissance women's lives. I was completely engrossed in the story!"
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Imperfect Alchemist is a stunning debut novel. I was thrilled to read a historical novel that put independent women at its center, straddled the class divides, and felt true to life at every important moment. It made me care about the characters' hearts and minds--a rare thing in novels."
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I loved this book! I was totally engrossed all the way through. It is beautifully written and very informative while always being entertaining. Highly recommended for everybody."
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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 was completely different to what I expected but I really liked it. The author showcases strong females who are often either underestimated or patronised in their work. Absolutely great historical fiction."
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“This is a very beautiful book. – it’s a book about writing, about art, and about creation. It’s about carving a path for yourself and about carrying on in the face of sometimes terrible loss.”
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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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I loved this book: It was a comfort to come back to at the end of the day. I love a book where I am transported into another reality and can feed my mind and spirit. This book did all that.”
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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 pieces, “Imagining Mary” and “Imperfect Alchemist: Writing Women’s Voices”.

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

Talks, Interviews, & Reviews

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  • Blog
  • Interviews
  • News
  • Reviews

Watch to Naomi Miller’s talk at Smith College’s Faculty Showcase, “Changing the Canon Through Historical Fiction”

Professor Miller’s course on “Shakespeare’s Sisters” focuses on Renaissance women writers who were long excluded from the literary canon. Her talk shares how the course …

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Reviews from the Imperfect Alchemist Bookstagram Tour

The Imperfect Alchemist Bookstagram Tour recently wrapped up! Here’s what reviewers had to say: whatalicereads A richly detailed, complex historical fiction about women, creativity & …

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Hear Naomi Miller on the Women and Shakespeare Podcast!

In this episode, we discuss Professor Naomi Miller’s novel, Imperfect Alchemist, which revolves around Mary Sidney Herbert and her bond with a maidservant and artist …

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Salon Conversation with Natalie Byfield and Naomi Miller about Employing New Lenses Across Disciplines – Princeton 40th Reunion

Becoming a novelist to write Imperfect Alchemist after 30 years as a scholar offered Naomi Miller a new lens on her lifetime research subject: Renaissance …

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Imperfect Alchemist chosen for WFWA’s Inspirational and Impactful Reads for Women’s History Month

We’re excited to share today that Imperfect Alchemist was selected for Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s (WFWA) curated list of Inspirational and Impactful Reads for Women’s History …

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Shakespeare’s Sisters: A Faculty Journey from Classroom to Novel By Naomi Miller

The Acknowledgements section of my debut novel, Imperfect Alchemist (Allison & Busby 2020), opens with these words: With my students at Smith College, who have …

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