Research for the WIP involves such narrow, specific subjects that it’s a rare treat when there’s a lecture or something else for the public about any of them. When I learned Books of Secrets: Reading and Writing Alchemy was only 3 hours away I knew I had to go. If this weren’t reason enough, a related lecture by author Deborah Harkness tipped the scales. So last Tuesday I day-tripped to the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia.
The CHFM is a little gem, not as well publicized as Philadelphia’s better-known science museums like the Mutter or Franklin Institute, but it should be. Their focus is the history of chemistry, and besides two floors of exhibit space they have an extensive library with many rare books. It supplied most of the books in the show and many of the paintings of alchemical labs. Afterwards I discovered several episodes about alchemy in CHF’s Distillations podcast archives.
“Books of Secrets” is small but excellent, and the books are displayed so it’s possible to get close and read the (often painfully tiny) text. All volumes appear heavily used; in an informal chat in the exhibit hall Dr. Harkness clarified that these books saw constant use both in and out of the lab.
Alchemical laboratory equipment is situated alongside the books and paintings. I don’t understand their use any better but now I know what they look like in three dimensions!
Dr. Harkness’ lecture was impressive. I enjoy her All Saints Trilogy for its well-developed story, so full of things I like – magic, vampires, history, romance, occult weirdness! – but I discovered her research before her fiction. Managing an Experimental Household inspired me to make Jane Dee a POV character, and The Jewel House provided much-needed context about the Elizabethan scientific community. She spoke about the intersection between the writing and reading of alchemical texts and laboratory experimentation.
Alchemical books were rare, often expensive, and full of “trade secrets”. Practitioners copied and shared their texts, and, to my vague horror, also wrote all over them. The idea of defacing a book made my inner 5th grader flinch until Dr. Harkness pointed out that they functioned as lab notebooks, full of observations, emphasis, and additions.
This makes even more sense when I learned that alchemists thought of writing as a way to change reality. By Judaeo-Christian reckoning God wrote the world into existence (“In the beginning there was the word”). Alchemical experimentation was a way to read this “book of nature” and by extension understand God himself. Based on this assumption writing could be a divine act and even a means for the alchemist to transform the physical world.
A book signing followed the lecture, and Dr. Harkness was wonderfully approachable and often funny (alchemists as reliable as politicians – sounds about right)! Not only did she sign my copy of The Jewel House, but answered some of my questions about the manuscripts and recommended further reading.
After that came the long drive home. A busy day, but well worth it!