Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Comfortable Tudor Murder

Mary Lawrence, The Alchemist's Daughter

When pretty young Jolyn Chapman dies suddenly in her best friend Bianca Goddard’s laboratory, their Southwark neighborhood is scandalized. The coroner pronounces a poisoning verdict, and the constable makes to arrest Bianca. In an environment of rudimentary science and justice for the highest bidder, only Bianca has skills enough to prove her innocence and finger the guilty. Just another day in dying Henry VIII’s overcrowded, impoverished London.

To understand just how familiar Mary Lawrence’s debut novel feels, Google the title. lists at least six books entitled The Alchemist’s Daughter just since 2000. That signals what you’re getting in reading this novel: a perfectly pleasant rehash of historical fiction tropes that articulate an interesting story, without particularly breaking new ground. Lawrence’s intended audience will probably enjoy the product, but emerge essentially unchanged by the experience.

Bianca’s alchemist father and herbalist mother bequeathed her different ideas, which she combines in her Medicinals and Physickes. Southwark’s varied, but mostly poor, denizens consult Bianca for everything from ordinary medicines, to semi-lawful abortions, to rat poison. This makes her prime suspect in Jolyn’s poisoning. Loyal customers band together, though, temporarily preventing her arrest. This buys her time to investigate what corrupt, half-drunk Constable Patch won’t touch.

Poor Jolyn’s life took some remarkable turns in her final weeks. Rescued from abjection by a mysterious benefactor, she quickly learned the ways of London’s middle class, and acquired a well-connected suitor. Her great personal beauty also earned the admiration by a morally slipshod merchant and a boyishly naive servant with deep secrets. But she remained tight-lipped about certain details, like her suitor’s name, even after he gave her ostentatious gifts.

Mary Lawrence
Bianca’s prodding uncovers good reason for such secrecy: everyone wanted something from Jolyn. Without meaning it, Jolyn had seized something that could restore flagging fortunes, repair damaged honor, and bring quick connections in the early days of newborn Imperial commerce. Now they think Bianca has what Jolyn died for, and they’re willing to kill for it. And how does this connect with a plague ship moored just outside London’s jurisdiction?

Where conventional historical novelists like Philippa Gregory would focus storytelling on kings and aristocracy, Lawrence keeps King Henry at arm’s length. Her democratizing impulses permit a story of Londoners so completely impoverished that they comb rubbish out of tidal mud to buy their bread. This requires some imagination—we don’t know much about Tudor England’s urban peasantry—but better reflects today’s audience beliefs.

Lawrence combines a fully realized, immersive environment with a certain casual approach to historicity. Like similar historical novelists, she demonstrates selective anachronisms—the powerfully independent woman, leisurely dedication to period English, occasional displays of modern attitudes—to make her 500-year-old setting comprehensible for modern readers. She aims to help readers travel in time, even if that sometimes means sacrificing accuracy. She’s created an imaginative TARDIS, not a history textbook.

Some of Lawrence’s choices seem really forced. Particularly, ramrodding in Bianca’s romance with John, the silversmith’s apprentice, feels completely unnecessary, except that Lawrence’s audience expects a romance subplot. Bianca, the consummate professional, ignores John in pursuing her goals; he responds with foot-stomping tantrums. I kept wishing John would walk away altogether. Perhaps Bianca’s disinterest should’ve warned Lawrence that this subplot didn’t solve her story’s beating heart.

However. Lawrence writes for an audience accustomed to certain cues. It wouldn’t be unfair to note her target audience is substantially female; throughout history, women have both created and consumed the bulk of fiction. We’d also note how prior authors have conditioned Lawrence’s audience to expect red herrings, sudden revelations, the three-act structure, and romance. Lawrence provides everything her audience expects, in mostly the expected order, like reading a blueprint.

Therefore, how audiences receive Lawrence’s novel depends on their relationship with expectations. Some readers enjoy reading new takes on familiar boilerplates, while others prefer surprises and innovation. Lawrence certainly writes well, having researched middle Tudor English and created a version of period language comprehensible to modern readers. Lawrence doesn’t lack for ambition. She just takes that energy into story tropes so familiar, readers could build a pillow fort of them.

Despite my appreciation for her democratic inclinations, Lawrence doesn’t write for readers like me. I’ve reached a level of familiarity with enough diverse literary styles that the old tropes have become boring. I await the astonishment where authors invert our expectations and challenge us to grow. If you’re like me, you’ll grow bored waiting. Lawrence writes well for her audience, admittedly, but never expands or challenges that audience’s comfort.

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