Living a secluded life in Selden Manor, Buckinghamshire, Emilie Selden and her father, John Selden, spend their days in their laboratory conducting experiments and testing new theories. It is England in the early
eighteenth century, and with the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton still fresh in the minds of the populace, scientific enquiry of the natural world is becoming increasingly fashionable.
Positive that society's future lies in adherence to the practicalities of the physical sciences, both Emilie and John are keen to unlock the secrets of palingenesis and phlogiston, the composite study of air and fire. Considering themselves alchemists - dabblers in natural philosophies of the material world - and driven by the pursuit of knowledge, they spurn the strictures of conventional religion, which they see as smacking of fallacy and wearisome superstition.
John Selden is eager to pass every speck of knowledge onto his daughter, excited for the day when she will become a great chemist, "making her into him, just as if she were his son." Emilie distills, calcifies and learns the myriad qualities of sulfur, her vision
ever filled with books, fermentation and hypotheses; she is far too fascinated by the dramas of these investigations to pay much attention to the world beyond.
But change inevitably comes in the form of handsome London merchant, Robert Aislabie, who calls initially to discuss with John the combustible nature of shipping materials. The naïve Emilie is swept away by the young man's virility, "the muscular hands of a farmer's son, the sideways glance, the quick of the lip." However, her father sees Aislabie for the fraud and confidence trickster he really is.
Emilie wakes each morning with "throbbing wrists and a beating heart" wanting more and more of him." Convinced that her father sees Aislabie in a false light "distorted by the lens of age and prejudice," Emilie becomes more besotted
as Selden steadily loosing its grip on her. Robert eventually seduces her one afternoon in the bee orchard, and she becomes pregnant
- much to the chagrin of John. Soon there is a marriage settlement, and Emilie leaves her father and science, banished to a life of boredom and marriage in London.
It soon becomes clear that Robert has very little time for Emilie. He is always in a hurry, making love to her then dashing away
to dress and go out. She steadily grows restless with the time she is forced to spend alone. The London society women are like vultures; she shares little in common with them, and when she talks to them of her experiments in natural philosophy, it just makes her more homesick for Selden Manor.
With her father no longer acknowledging her and Robert content to do exactly what he wants
(he has three ambitions: "to have a son, to buy a ship, and to know and be known by everyone") her marriage begins to
disintegrate. Emilie sees her husband as an agent of her destruction "bringing havoc in the wake of his irresistible smile," and she realizes
that she has wedded a man who takes everything and transforms it into his chosen image. Emilie only has freedom and prosperity if Robert chooses to bestow them on her, and even if she dares speak out, he will still have his own way.
In beautifully textured, gorgeously nuanced prose, author Katharine McMahan weaves history, fiction and alchemy into an absorbing tale of one woman's efforts to transcend the restrictions
of society and marriage. Emilie is a woman of science, taught to look for cause and effect and emboldened with the rational life
of the mind, but she is constantly victimized by time and place.
Aislabie cares for nothing, except getting access to the riches of Selden Hall and making sure Emilie provides him with a son. And her father, who teaches her to listen, copy, learn and deduce,
to experiment with the material world and the analytical world of science, fails to teach her how to make important life choices or to understand the complicated nature of feelings.
The Alchemist's Daughter is set in a fascinating period, when the Enlightenment is gaining strength
and both traditional religion and alternative views of looking at the world compete for supremacy, where new ideas are being steadily interlocked by the steel wires of learning and experiment. Emilie is eventually able to triumph, thanks to the kindly Reverend Shales and through the terrible misfortunes of Sarah, her maid.
The fact that she can transcend the strictures of her time and challenge her husband is quite an accomplishment, considering that she risks contempt, ridicule and ostracism for doing so.