Mary Sidney may not be as well known as her brother Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet who wrote Astrophel and Stella, but she was a successful and accomplished author in her own right – and one of the first Englishwomen to publish under her own name. In Imperfect Alchemist, Naomi Miller brings Mary’s story to life in fictional form, beginning in 1575 when Mary is summoned to court to attend the Queen. Marriage follows a few years later to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and although it is an arranged marriage rather than one based on love, Henry at least seems to accept his new wife’s intelligence and learning and allows her the freedom to pursue her literary interests, leading to her eventually establishing a literary circle at their home, Wilton House.
Mary’s story, which is written in the third person, alternates with a first person narrative from the perspective of another young woman, Rose Commin. Rose, a fictional character, comes from a very different background, having grown up in the countryside, the daughter of a cloth merchant and a herbalist. After her mother is put on trial for witchcraft, Rose is sent away to the safety of Wilton House, where she becomes maid to Lady Catherine Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who encourages her to develop her talent for drawing, as well as teaching her to read and write. Sadly, Lady Catherine dies shortly after Rose’s arrival, but when Henry Herbert marries again and brings his young wife, Mary Sidney, to Wilton House, a friendship begins to form between Rose and her new mistress.
Before reading Imperfect Alchemist, I knew almost nothing about Mary Sidney. Her brother Philip has appeared in one or two books I’ve read (such as Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge and Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle) but I can’t remember ever reading anything about Mary. As well as shedding some light on her personal life, the novel explores her involvement with alchemy and medicine, her relationships with other historical figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson and Aemilia Lanyer, and her major literary achievements. Not only does Mary prepare and publish an edition of her brother’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, she produces new translations of the Psalms and her version of the Antony and Cleopatra story is thought to inspire Shakespeare’s famous play.
Although Mary is, on the surface, the more interesting character, I think I preferred Rose’s sections of the book – possibly because Rose narrates her chapters herself, making her easier to identify with and to warm to. However, I’ve read a few other historical novels recently that have alternated a real woman’s story with an invented one (usually a lady’s maid), and along with the ‘healer being accused of witchcraft’ theme, which also seems to be an increasingly common trend in historical fiction, I didn’t feel that this book had anything very new or different to offer. As an introduction to the life and work of Mary Sidney Herbert, though, it’s excellent and I was certainly able to learn a lot from it. This is Naomi Miller’s first novel and apparently the first in a projected series of novels about early women authors, so I’ll be interested to see who she writes about next.