Alchemy, Ambition, and Revolution

I had been meaning to read Samantha Cohoe’s A Golden Fury for a long time. When I finally took it up I read it straight through in breathless haste. It is marvelously exciting and beguiling. Afterwards I read some of the reviews on Goodreads, and was amused to see that some readers found the pacing “on the slower side.” It all depends on one’s frame of reference. I suppose I haven’t been keeping up with developments in young adult historical fiction. But if one compares A Golden Fury to the leisurely pace of the classics of historical fiction— Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, for instance— the pace is positively frenetic. I found it thrilling.

Thea Hope, the young alchemist who narrates the novel is a convincing and sympathetic character, and the vicissitudes of her relationships—especially to her mother and father—are movingly and skillfully narrated. But to me the most interesting element of the story was Thea’s struggle between the desire for forbidden, alchemical knowledge, the demonic nature of which is eerily evoked, and the “quiet voice” of conscience warning her against it.

The novel is set at the end of the 18th century, and Thea’s struggle is in many ways the struggle of humanity more generally in the Age of Enlightenment. “As far as works are concerned,” Francis Bacon, the 16th/17th century progenitor of the 18th century philosophes wrote in the Novum Organum, “the mechanic, mathematician, physician, alchemist, and magician are all used to getting involved with nature, but all (as things stand at the moment) with ineffectual effort and scant success.” Bacon recognizes, in other words, that alchemists are engaged in the same project of restoring lost paradise through the domination of nature to which he had devoted himself. He merely thought that they were going about it wrong, being too “infatuated with fables.” The fables with which Thea is infatuated end up rather frighteningly true.

Full disclosure: Samantha Cohoe is a friend of mine, and I am mentioned in the Acknowledgements of The Golden Fury. “My apologies if you find this book is unacceptably pro-revolution” she writes there. I didn’t actually. There are certainly pro-revolutionary characters in the book. The book itself seemed to me implicitly anti-revolutionary. The foundation of the revolution was an ambition for power, untrammeled by natural teleology, or by the social hierarchies of the medieval society of orders, patterned as they were on organic teleology. It is no accident that the 18th century philosophes were ardent admirers of Bacon, or that the counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre wrote a polemical biography of the English writer. The demonic violence of the terror is precisely the sort of result that A Golden Fury suggests follows from the worship of power.

The one thing that did annoy me about the book (to end on a sour note), where the details that struck me as anachronisms. These were the only thing that took me out of the story for a moment, and sent me to Google Books to check Cohoe’s research. Gas street lamps in London in the 1790s? Surely it wasn’t till 1807 that they were first demonstated there?  Oxford dons with wives? Surely it wasn’t till the 1880s that obligatory celibacy for the fellows of Oxford colleges was dropped? That last anachronism, however, only occurs in the private imaginings of Thea—perhaps Thea was merely ignorant of statutes. In fact, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the various anachronisms were put in on purpose by the poetria docta to annoy readers like me.

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