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A Secret Alchemy: A Novel Paperback – June 2, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this historical novel, Darwin (The Mathematics of Love) looks at the 15th century War of the Roses through the Woodville siblings, Anthony and Elizabeth (wife to Sir John Gray and later Edward IV). Trading off narrative duties, their stories alternate with that of a (fictional) present-day historian, Una Pryor, who is studying the two while visiting the U.K. to clear up some family business. Reuniting with the family estate's handyman, her unrequited love Mark Fisher, Una follows the path Anthony took trying to restore his nephew Ned, the rightful king of England. Historical sections, filled with allusion and mythology, make breathtaking drama for those in the know, but anyone without a background in the War of the Roses will be lost (and Darwin's quicksand pacing doesn't help). Court intrigue dominates the action, but Darwin's at her most powerful exploring Anthony's faith or Elizabeth's understanding of women, love and marriage in her time. Though the modern-day framing story isn't compelling enough to hold its own, a satisfying end ties the threads together nicely. (June)
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“Powerful and utterly convincing.” (Daily Mail (London) on A SECRET ALCHEMY)

“There are many twists and turns in this tale, some of them real, some of them not; together they add up to a spellbinding whole.” (London Times on A SECRET ALCHEMY)

“Emma Darwin follows up on the great success of her debut novel The Mathematics of Love with this engaging work of historical fiction…This is a work of great atmosphere and a story well told. (The Sunday Mail (Australia) on A SECRET ALCHEMY)

“A Secret Alchemy was ... absorbing, interesting, well-written, and utterly enjoyable.” (

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Original edition (June 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061714720
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061714726
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,256,619 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Emma Darwin was brought up in London, with interludes in Manhattan and Brussels. Her childhood travelling often inspires the background of her fiction, as do other interests such as photography, horse riding and, of course, history. Emma's first novel, The Mathematics of Love, was nominated for, among others, the Commonwealth Writers and Goss First Novel awards, and so far has been translated into eight languages. It intertwines the stories of a veteran of Waterloo in 1819, and a disaffected teenager in 1976. "Hauntingly beautiful" - Washington Post Book World. "A book that works on every conceivable level" - The Times (London). Her new novel, A Secret Alchemy, re-imagines the world of the Princes in the Tower through the eyes and voices of their mother and uncle. "Breathtaking drama" - Publishers Weekly. "Sorcery... Spellbinding" - The Times (London). Emma is the great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Wedgwood, but has no plans (at the moment) to write about them.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Rothwell VINE VOICE on July 21, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Unfortunately, this novel was not to my taste.
I knew before reading this novel that the narrative was from three different prospectives--Elizabeth Wydeville, Anthony Wydeville, and modern-day historian Una Proyr--and I was looking forward to reading it. I enjoy novels with a narrative structure that expertly manages to weave the past and the present.
In my opinion, this novel did not succeed in this. I found the modern-day narrative to be far too distant from that of Elizabeth and Anthony. I found the connections between the two to be far too loosely attached, and thus found myself hurrying through the modern narrative to return back to the words of Elizabeth.
Only towards the end of the novel, when Una Proyr actually began to visit the places of Elizabeth and Anthony's story, did I feel the story begin to take shape. And yet unfortunately, by that point, I felt that it was too late.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Misfit VINE VOICE on July 10, 2009
Format: Paperback
Una Pryor returns to England to settle her affairs, as well as the fate of her family's old home and printing business The Chantry, the cousins are torn whether to sell or to preserve it and it's long history. Interspersed with Una's story is that of Anthony and Elizabeth Woodville as they reflect back on their lives and the events that lead to what is now known as the Wars of The Roses and the disappearance of Elizabeth's two sons - the Princes in the Tower.

Darwin does a nice job of crafting the voices of both Elizabeth and Anthony as well as weaving Una's struggles with her grief over the death of her husband and a surprise meeting with a man from her past. It was quite refreshing to see the Woodvilles (especially Elizabeth) portrayed in a more realistic manner and not the black hearted villains you typically find them in novels on this period from today's latest and *cough* greatest authors. I have to say the two reviewers who posted just before me have done such a darn good job of putting this book into words that I really don't have much more to add. While I didn't find it the fastest paced book, I did enjoy it a great deal nonetheless. Four stars.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Susan Higginbotham on July 8, 2009
Format: Paperback
A Secret Alchemy is narrated by two historical characters, Elizabeth Woodville and her brother Anthony, and by one fictitious one, Una Pryor, a historian who's returned to England from her home in Australia to sell her English property. During her stay in England, the recently widowed Una, who's working on a book about Anthony Woodville and his reading, visits the cousins with whom she was raised and encounters the man whom she loved as an adolescent.

Anthony's story begins with the last journey of his life: he is bound for Pontefract Castle, where he knows that the future Richard III has scheduled his execution. Elizabeth tells her story from the quiet confines of Bermondsey Abbey, to which she has retired from the court of Henry VII. Neither tells his or her life story from beginning to end; instead, they each focus on a few selected episodes, such as Elizabeth's courtship by Edward IV and Anthony's exile abroad. As a result, the cast of characters is relatively small: we meet Edward IV, Edward V, a few Woodvilles, Anthony's lover, and Elizabeth's long-time attendant and confidante. There's a cameo appearance by Thomas Malory and a couple of very brief ones by the future Richard III.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Anthony's and Elizabeth's stories, and had tears in my eyes after reading both (which doesn't happen very often, especially when I know the ending). Anthony's tale, especially the love story Darwin gives him (which I found very plausible) and his terrible grief when he realizes that his charge Edward V is at the mercy of Richard III, is very moving. Elizabeth, who's so often reduced to a caricature by historical novelists, is beautifully drawn here. She's strong-minded and courageous, yet vulnerable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Harriet Klausner #1 HALL OF FAME on June 10, 2009
Format: Paperback
Following the death of her husband, modern day historian Una Pryor is in England visiting her family and taking care of business. To escape her grief, she researches the lives of the fifteenth century Woodville siblings, Anthony and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was married to Sir John Gray, but when he died the young widow pursued and married Edward IV; they have ten children, but when the king dies none of them take the throne as his Brother Richard acts swiftly. An earl, Anthony tries to save his nephew Ned from his fraternal uncle and get him crowned as the rightful king. Meanwhile Una turns to estate's handyman, Mark Fisher whom she has loved forever for solace.

A SECRET ALCHEMY is an interesting fiction that rotates Una's present life with fictional historian's deep look at the court dominated lives of Anthony and Elizabeth. The action is mostly off page, but ultra fans of fifteenth century royal intrigue will enjoy this fine entry somewhat overwhelmed with the details of how the Woodville siblings struggled to survive the internal battles for the throne.; which he and her sons (the Princes in the Tower) did not.

Harriet Klausner
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Jo Sandrock on October 21, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This was a great disappointment after `The Mathematics of Love'. Of course, one of the drawbacks for me was that here in South Africa we know little or nothing about English history beyond what Shakespeare has told us.
Is slipping from a story in the past to one in the present going to be Emma Darwin's formula? Let's hope not - it worked well the first time, but in this case a soppy contemporary story with an inevitable ending jarred with the doings of royals of yesteryear.
Nevertheless, I'll read the next one, if only out of respect for her ancestor Charles.
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