The Alchemist's Daughter : Book 1
Plague always threatens Tudor London, but when a merchant ship arrives in port and is quickly quarantined, rumors and outbreaks of pestilence rapidly spread. Bianca, the daughter of an infamous alchemist, earns her living making medicines. When her friend seeks help for abdominal cramps and dies, Bianca is accused of murder. As she struggles to prove her innocence, she uncovers a connection between her friend's wealthy suitor and the quarantined ship. Bianca must stay one step ahead of the constable as she pieces together the evidence that will ultimately acquit her of murder, and prevent London from succumbing to the plague.
The Bianca Goddard Mysteries take place in London during the 1540s in the final years of Henry VIII's reign. His legacy as king can be characterized as extraordinary not only in the religious changes that shaped future England, but also in the political intrigues that defined his tenure.
In 1543, Henry was 52 years old, obese, and in failing health. At the time of Book 1, The Alchemist's Daughter, he is courting Katherine Parr, his sixth and final wife. That summer, Henry made plans for an invasion of France scheduled for the following year. His preoccupation with France distracted him from the growing dissent in Scotland which would culminate in their revocation of the treaty of Greenwich in December. Henry would further stretch his resources in a retaliatory campaign against Scotland the following spring and summer of 1544.
"The Alchemist's Daughter brings the darkness and danger of Tudor London vividly to life."
--Sandra Worth, Pale Rose of England
"Lawrence proves herself to be an excellent storyteller with this grim tale of murder, mayhem, and medicine."
--Bushnell on Books
"I absolutely loved The Alchemist's Daughter--the characters, the authentic feel of the period, and of course the richly drawn story." --Dorothy Cannell, Murder at Mullings
"A real page-turner of a mystery...this is really a good one."
--San Francisco Book Review
Jolyn Carmichael had one hour to live.
She clasped her new cloak at the neck as she trudged down the lanes of Southwark toward her friend's room of alchemy. The morning still held winter's chill, though they'd had several days of warmth and even sun the past couple of weeks. But spring seemed a long way off, as did Bianca's quarters. The air was laden with a consumptive damp. A pain gripped her side, and she stopped to let it pass before walking on.
The waves of nausea had grown in number over the past two weeks. At times they were so severe she couldn't stand straight. She had tried to determine the cause. Was it that time of month or the candied figs she ate? It could have been the sherried chestnuts--she wasn't accustomed to the rich food he'd heaped on her. She wiped the end of her nose with a gloved finger and paused to admire her doeskin gloves, another gift.
Jolyn smiled at her good fortune. Just over a month ago, she'd left the mudflats to live at Barke House. Her previous life raking mud was a hard one. She had never slept in the same place twice, nor had she known what it was like to eat more than one meal a day.
To what did she owe this good fortune? It began with a find. A ring poking up from the muck near Winchester House. Its gold caught the morning light and Jolyn's eye. She could have sold it, but she liked its weight in her hand and the etching on its surface intrigued her. The next day and then every day after, she found something of value to sell at market that could assure her a decent meal. The ring had brought her luck. If necessary, she could sell it, but she was not keen to part with her find.
While selling scavenged jewelry near the bear-baiting venue, Jolyn met Mrs. Beldam of Barke House. The old matron fingered the odd pieces, biting them and holding them up to squint at their stones. Finally, she bought a small brooch with a garnet center. As she handed Jolyn the money, her gaze fell to the signet ring hanging around the young woman's neck.
"How lovely," she said, her gray eyes growing round. She reached to the piece of jewelry. "Where did you get this?"
"I found it," said Jolyn.
"How much woulds ye take for it?" asked Beldam, turning it over.
"Oh, I will never sell it. It has brought me luck--something money cannot buy."
Mrs. Beldam drew back. "Indeed." Her eyes flicked up at Jolyn's, then returned to the ring. "No amount of money?"
"No amount of money."
Mrs. Beldam dragged her eyes from the necklace and tipped her chin. "Do ye live near?"
"Ye is a scavenger, then?"
"Can't be easy, that life," said Mrs. Beldam. "Ye have a place to lay yer head at night?"
Sleeping in doorways and under bridges might be disgraceful to those who only knew soft pallets and pillows, but Jolyn was not embarrassed to admit her circumstance. To Jolyn, not much separated most from a similar fate. "I make do," she said.
Mrs. Beldam studied her. She patted her purse distractedly as she thought. Eventually she stirred from her contemplation. "Ye knows, I run a home fer young womens. Barke House," she said. "I takes in girls who needs a help in life. I could use me an errand girl. Ye might keep to yer muckraking if ye so like it. But ye'd have a place to stays."
Jolyn perked to hear this. Here was a woman offering a step p in life. she would be cautious though: wary that she could be taken advantage of and end worse off.
So, Jolyn visited the home for women and left satisfied that Mrs. Beldam did have a charitable heart. Jolyn moved in. She never regretted her decision and in fact, her life got even better because of it. She cheerfully fetched goods from market and delivered sealed letters to London addresses. Even though her hands grew raw from washing laundry and scrubbing floors, she was content. Compared to muckraking, this was a life of easy meals and shelter from the cold.
It didn't matter that Barke House was once a stew with a reputation as questionable as the king's taste in wives. All Jolyn cared about was that Mrs. Beldam had saved her from scraping out a meager existence in the mudflats. And for that kindness, she was eternally grateful.
Once the layers of river clay were scrubbed from her skin and hair, Jolyn emerged something of a swan. The coat of grime had preserved her skin and left it pale, so that her blue eyes appeared a startling contrast. Beneath her crespin was a head of daffodil-colored hair.
At Barke House she caught the notice of a rich merchant. A man who doted on her. Mrs. Beldam tried to discourage her from seeing him, but Jolyn believed that soon she'd step into an even better life.
Another wave of nausea gripped Jolyn, and this time she couldn't control an urge to lose her stomach's contents behind a hedge off Bankside. No one stopped to ask if she needed help. She wiped her mouth discreetly on the inside of her cloak and hurried on. This current dyspepsia was probably caused by her new lifestyle, to which she was still unaccustomed. Like so many other obstacles in her life, Jolyn figured this, too, was only temporary and once she had gotten a remedy from Bianca, she'd be as good as new.
What she didn't know, was soon she'd be as good as dead.
Discussion Questions for The Alchemist's Daughter
We never meet Bianca’s parents in Book 1, but their influence shapes her thinking as a young woman. How have their values influenced Bianca’s decisions and attitudes?
The Alchemist’s Daughter takes place in the final years of King Henry VIII’s reign. What are some of the social implications of Henry’s petulant policies?
Did you learn anything about living in Tudor London that you did not know before? What would you have liked about living back then?
The book opens and closes with a mythic character, the Rat Man. Throughout the story he offers an alternative perspective on the story’s events. How effective was Lawrence’s use of this narrative device? Why do you think she used him? Would the story suffer without him?
The author uses syntax and period words to immerse the reader in a feel for the times. Did you find it difficult to follow? Aside from syntax and period words what other methods did the author use to ‘immerse’ the reader in the period?
There are several play on words and insinuated meanings, as well as actual references to the state of Maine where the author lives. Can you find examples in the text?
The Alchemist’s Daughter is classified as a historical mystery. Do you think this book is correctly categorized?
How have attitudes changed toward children born with physical disabilities then and now?
Two characters in The Alchemist’s Daughter are loosely based on what two characters in Shakespeare’s plays?
How would you describe Bianca Goddard?