In her U.S. debut, veteran British novelist McMahon animates a historical setting with confidence and a 21st-century sensibility.
Emilie Selden is an oddity, a female scientist in 18th-century England, but her story revolves around her education in a more commonplace subject: matters of the heart. Since her French mother died in childbirth, Emilie has lived an enclosed, studious life with her father, alchemist, natural philosopher and Royal Society fellow Sir John Selden. Her true getting of wisdom, however, begins when a wealthy merchant, smooth Robert Aislabie, penetrates cloistered Selden Manor. Swiftly seduced and impregnated by Aislabie, Emilie finds herself expelled from her father’s laboratory and life. She marries Aislabie, moves to London and learns to be a lady with the help of her moody maid Sarah, but she loses her baby and experiences deep homesickness. When her father dies, Selden Manor passes to Aislabie, who has grand plans to replace the old house with a neoclassical mansion complete with park and lake, which will require the demolition of a local village. McMahon busily weaves social commentary on London slums, rural poverty, infant mortality, prostitution and the slave trade into Emilie’s initially introspective narrative, which slowly moves outward from grief to the growing recognition of Aislabie’s exploitative nature and an awakening to emotional engagement. This alchemical transmutation speeds up when Sarah is revealed to be Aislabie’s mistress, pregnant with his child. Emilie throws her out, but after an explosion in the laboratory uncovers Sir John’s diaries, which chart his undying love for his daughter and the truth about her lowly origins, she has a change of heart. She rescues Sarah’s baby, stands up to her husband and acknowledges her love for the local rector, who has offered quiet succor throughout her ordeals.
An intelligent and sensuous romance.