Field Trip! Deborah Harkness at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

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.

Book of Secrets sign

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.

soot stained book of secrets
Soot stains from hours over a burning furnace?

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!

alchemical lab equipment
Still don’t know what those triangular cups are for, or why they’re triangular
Unexpectedly, this furnace was only the size of a can of house paint.

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.

book with heavy marginal notes
This alchemist carefully boxed off the original text…and filled up the margins with notes.

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.

Deborah Harkness signing book


After that came the long drive home. A busy day, but well worth it!

you’ll never walk alone (even when you need to): servants in Elizabethan households

I don’t think I’d have lasted 24 hours in the Dee household without tearing my hair out.

Paging through his personal and spiritual diaries I catch glimpses of people who, while colorful, I’d never want to meet: Dee’s cranky alchemical apprentice; two maids who accidentally set fire to their room twice in one year; the manservant he fired for getting drunk and cursing out the rest of the staff. That’s just a sampling and while there’s no full list it seems Dee had at least nine servants and probably more during my 1583-9 time frame.

The Dees weren’t unusual. Almost everyone of middling rank or higher had live-in staff. If you didn’t have servants you’d likely be one because up to a quarter of the population was in service. And even if everyone was nice as pie there was never, ever a break from their company. Servants worked in all parts of the house and some slept on their masters’ bedchamber floors (dedicated servants’ dormitories were rare). Houses were often designed with linked rooms so even if your maid or man had a private bedchamber they probably passed through yours to get there. Decorative elements like wooden screens and bed curtains compensated for this lack of privacy, but only just.

Great Bed of Ware
The Great Bed of Ware from the V&A website. A representative Elizabethan bedstead in all but size.

More on the Great Bed of Ware with photos and videos of assembly.

In short it was damn near impossible to be truly alone*, a fact that makes my inner introvert blanch while my writer’s mind reels at the potential mayhem.

Pro: lovely opportunities to endanger my characters! Dee and Kelley were into so many questionable things that any sudden walk-ins could easily create panic and rumors of Dee’s “conjuring” that Jane would struggle to explain away. Hours of amusement!

Con: a massive narrative hurdle. I’ve got to get the servants out of the house for their infamous “crossmatching” incident, which the Dees and Kelleys swore to keep secret on pain of death. Dee’s spiritual diary offers no details beyond a terse “pactu factu” (pact fulfilled) so I have free rein, but how do I empty the house believably? Send everyone to a market fair (if there was one)? Hide in an unused wing (ditto)? Bribe everybody (though they’re poor)?

I’m almost done with the first draft (!) and am still unraveling this snarly plot knot.

*Even more so if you take children and visitors into account.

Selected Sources:

Cooper, Nicholas. Houses of the Gentry 1480-1680. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Dee, John (author), Stephen Skinner (editor), and Meric Casaubon (Preface). Dr John Dee’s Spiritual Diaries (1583-1608): Being a reset and corrected edition of a True & Faithful Relation of what Passed for many Yeers between Dr John Dee…and Some Spirits.
 Woodbury MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2012.

Orlin, Lena Cowen. Elizabethan Households: An Anthology. Washington DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996.