Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2005

Alchemy, by Maureen Duffy

reviewed by Jim Herrick

Here are two tales cleverly intertwined, the one as up to date as hip-hop, the other from the Elizabethan past. It is a substantial novel, leisurely at first, but accelerating to an exciting climax. The themes of enquiry, natural science, harmful religion and disappointed love are placed in a satisfying mosaic.

The modern and the Elizabethan are counterpoised in the story of Jade Green, lawyer turned investigator (in the would-be Marlowe mould), and Amyntas Boston, page to the Countess of Pembroke (a real historic person). Jade takes on the case of a dismissed professor, whose downfall is supposed to be due to his distributing obscene literature to his students. (Among the items mentioned is a poem in which a centurion has a gay relationship with Christ – no-one remembers it now.) A key document is the account of the experiences of Amyntas written while she is awaiting trial for witchcraft.

The protagonists in both stories are lesbians who have love for two older women, which does not endure. There is a suggestion of heartless bisexuality in the case of both of the older women. They offer both excitement and the pain of loss. There are some erotic moments, delicately handled.

In both narratives the theme of witchcraft and the perversion of religion are adumbrated. The two accounts are written in entirely different styles – the modern casual style, with convincing everyday expletives, contrasting with the elegant elaborate Elizabethan pastiche, strengthened by a liberal sprinkling of Elizabethan verse.

Maureen Duffy has a strong historical sense, as has been seen in her study England: the making of a myth and the biographies of Aphra Behn and Purcell. In each layer of the story science is important – Amyntas has learned medicine from her father, a physician and alchemist, but she has no truck with astrology or witchcraft. She believes in “natural philosophy to understand diseases and their cure by the light of reason which must come from God as being good”. She and the Countess of Pembroke make potions and salves, based on observation and experience.

In the modern world, technology, especially the computer, presses upon us. There are hints of the repressive dangers of new technology such as CCTV and the ability to hack into computers. (Are we are moving into a time when the state bans smokes, booze and crisps?) It is fitting that the university that Jade is investigating can be explored online and that the religious sect that seems to lie behind the workings of Wessex University has its own website – In order to explore, Jade enrols to do research on cross-dressing in the Elizabethan theatre – what Jade studies, Amyntas acts out, delighting her mistress with her boyishness. It is appropriate and perhaps predictable that the powerful lawyer who seduces Jade takes her to a performance of Der Rosenkavalier.

When the scholar for whom Jade is investigating is caught with his trousers down during an outdoor ceremony of white witchcraft, it seems faintly comical. But when Amyntas is arrested for witchcraft, after the accusations of a man jealous of her influence over the Countess of Pembroke, it is monstrously threatening. The one suffers exposure by the press, the other imprisonment and possible death.

The denouement should not be revealed – but the tension mounts and Jade’s actions are heroic (and not fully acknowledged). She slides back to her legal investigating company Lost Causes, while Amyntas, whose story she had found very involving, is left with an unknown future.

Maureen Duffy is ever an artful storyteller, who creates people who pull us into the events and gives us much to ponder.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2005-06-05 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :