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 will go on to claim a spot at the heart of Elizabethan court life and culture, is a fourteen-year-old navigating grief and her first awareness of love and desire. Her sharp mind is less interested in the dynastic alliances and marriages that concern her father, but will she be able to forge a place for herself and her writing in the years to come?
Rose Commin, a young country girl with a surprising talent for drawing, is desperate to shrug off the slurs of witchcraft which have tarnished life at home.The opportunity to work at Wilton House, the Earl of Pembroke’s Wiltshire residence, is her chance.
Defying the conventions of their time, these two women, mistress and maid,will find themselves facing the triumphs, revelations and struggles that lie ahead together.
Hi Naomi, tell us a little about yourself and how you got started as an author.
In a diary entry when I was eight years old, I wrote a message to my “older” self, asserting that writing stories is the most important act of creation possible. I wrote my first novel at the age of twelve – an 80-page handwritten historical fiction mystery set in the England of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. So as an adult, it was a natural step to turn from writing scholarship about early modern women authors to writing fiction, in order to share their stories with readers outside academe.
Where did you get the first flash of inspiration for Imperfect Alchemist?
Many popular novels about Renaissance women picture them in relation to powerful men – such as the steady stream of novels about the wives of Henry VIII. This perpetuates a phenomenon that I have named the “Noah’s ark approach,” which positions women in dependent relation to famous men. I envisioned a historical fiction series that would bring the attention of a wider public to the extraordinary array of women’s voices that were heard in their own period – both acclaimed and reviled – but then silenced over time and excluded from the canon of accepted classics. Imperfect Alchemist is the first in my projected series, Shakespeare’s Sisters – six interrelated historical novels that imagine the stories of early modern women authors from their own perspectives.
Mary Sidney is such an interesting character. Tell us about her and why you decided to write a story around her.
Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke – friend of Queen Elizabeth, visionary scientist, advocate for women writers and scandalous lover of a much younger man – was one of the earliest women authors in Renaissance England to publish under her own name. A member of one of England’s leading families, she carved out space for herself as a daring and often controversial figure in a royal court riven by jealousies and intrigues.
Her pioneering literary and scientific experiments challenged many of Renaissance England’s established conventions – one of the things that most strongly drew me to her. As an influential literary patron as well as author, she convened a literary salon of writers whose membership included Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Ben Jonson and other authors interested in testing the limits of literary forms. Her own play about Antony and Cleopatra is believed to have influenced Shakespeare. Responding to the Countess’s role as mentor to a cohort of women writers, I have imagined these women into her circle, their interaction with the male authors inspiring visions of new possibilities.
When combining historical fact with fiction it must be quite a challenge to get the balance right. How do you manage to do this without compromising on authenticity?
I employed the scholarly techniques that have served me throughout my career for a new purpose – not to contextualize a literary study, but to create a world in which my fictionalized protagonists could live and breathe, labour and love. To create the form and texture of the time, I read historical studies documenting early modern clothes and food, source texts containing early modern recipes and medical remedies, letters and diary entries. Most important, I returned to the words and works of Mary Sidney Herbert herself.
One of my guiding principles has been to avoid contradicting historical facts, but I have sometimes adjusted the timing of actual events by a couple of months or years, in order to serve the story and the narrative flow. My aim has been to tell a story that places my characters in a world that encompasses both known facts and imagined possibilities, illuminating the historical record without being limited by it.
My other primary character is an invented one – Rose Commin, her lady’s maid, a country girl who brings an entirely different outlook to their intersecting lives. My construction of Rose is based on accounts of servants and country folk of the period. Fear of witchcraft was common, and that strand in the story incorporates historical examples of the treatment of women accused of sorcery.
Most of the characters in the book are fictional renditions of real historical figures whose roles combine elements of their actual lives with my own inventions.
Imperfect Alchemist is set in Tudor England. In researching the background to the story did anything leave a lasting impression on you?
My fictional Mary Sidney Herbert has been mediated through my knowledge of her real-life circumstances and her writings. She was also a scientist, practicing alchemy in her private laboratory to prepare chemical and herbal remedies. Although the Countess was a well-regarded alchemist, no manuscript records of her own alchemical recipes or experiments survive. I have drawn on historical accounts documenting the detailed practices of other female alchemists of the period present an authentic, if conjectural, account of her scientific work.
Two things impressed me about the women alchemists of the time – one, their meticulously detailed records of their experiments, and the other, their overriding interest in finding cures for ailments rather than in the more chimerical search for turning dross into gold that was so characteristic of the better-known male alchemists.
Is it difficult to find a balance between research and writing? Can you ever have too much historical detail in historical fiction?
As I embarked on the first draft of the novel, I had to guard against my tendency, as a scholar, to plunge down historical or literary “rabbit-holes,” enticed by fascinating details that would interrupt the writing process and might obscure rather than illuminate the story. Not to mention that some of what thrills me as a scholar/teacher – such as Mary Sidney Herbert’s ingenuity in employing 126 distinct stanzaic forms in her creative paraphrases of 107 Psalms, which influenced the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert – might not grip the general reader or serve the story.
Whilst you are writing you must live with your characters. Do they ever dictate how the story progresses or do you stick with a writing plan from the beginning and never deviate?
My characters’ voices and choices have determined the progression of the story, sometimes in unexpected ways. For instance, although I knew biographical details about Mary Sidney Herbert, her inner reactions to life events and historical circumstances came from the character herself. And in the case of an invented character such as Rose Commin – I had no idea she was an artist until her sketches spilled out of her bag of possessions when she met her new mistress, and I saw them for the first time. Rose’s artistry turns out to be an essential driver of the story, from start to finish, and it was a pleasure to discover “what happens next.” I hope that my discoveries as a writer function as discoveries for the reader as well.
And finally for fun… If you could invite three people from history to your dinner table, who would you choose and why?
That’s easy! I’d invite Mary Sidney Herbert, Mary Wroth, and Aemilia Lanyer, the protagonists of the first three novels in my projected series, and the historical figures that I’d most like to meet and hear from in person – far more than Shakespeare, for instance. I envision dinner table conversation about how to balance being a mother and a writer, how to write “as a woman” in a literary tradition defined by men, how to raise sons as well as daughters who appreciate women’s voices and contributions to the world.
Review: What did I think about Imperfect Alchemist?
I must admit to knowing very little about Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, although I have come across her in other novels where her interest in the study of alchemy has been explored in just a little detail. It’s been really interesting, therefore, to have an entire novel which combines Mary’s fascinating life based on factual evidence running alongside that of a totally fictional character, namely that of her maidservant, Rose Commin. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the life of these two very different women, one born to privilege and a life of ease whilst the other was born into poverty and hardship and yet both rose beyond the patriarchal society which stifled their natural talents.
Imperfect Alchemist explores in detail the tangled world of Elizabethan England, from the capriciousness of a powerful female ruler, to the often malign influence and interference of male alchemists who searched for answers to the difficult conundrums of the day. However, intelligent female alchemists were rare indeed, and Mary Sidney Herbert is not only credited for her work in this field but she was also a notable author, excelling at both prose and poetry.
The author brings this rather formidable female to life in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. I enjoyed the alternate chapters which detail what was happening with both Mary, and then Rose, and I watched, with interest, as their relationship gradually built to one of trust and mutual respect. Not only does the story flesh out these characters in some detail but it also gives a commentary about life in Tudor England and the restrictions that women faced not just from male prejudice but also from the perils of daily life when grief and loss often walked hand in hand.
Beautifully written and extensively researched, Imperfect Alchemist is a commendable debut novel, which brings the life of Mary Sidney Herbert into sharp focus giving her, at last, a voice to be heard.