The Historical Fictions Research Network is holding its second conference this weekend in Greenwich, home of the Meridian and steeped in English history. I will be there, celebrating the launch of the first issue of the Network’s scholarly journal, the Journal of Historical Fictions, which I edit, and giving a talk on the relationship between counter-factual fiction and science fiction. So this is a good time to wheel out another Really Like This Book podcast script, on a highly satisfying historical novel about alchemy and witchcraft, set in the seventeenth century, by Una L Silberrad. It’s called Keren of Lowbole, from 1913, and as far as I know only a handful of people now living have ever read it. These are either the handful of Silberrad scholars (me and my German colleagues), or Una Silberrad’s great-nephews and nieces who revere their Aunt Una with affection. Una L Silberrad is such a good novelist, yet totally forgotten, so I’ve been working on her for years.
You can find her novels in print-on-demand editions, and sometimes the genuine second-hand article, and in older public libraries that haven’t yet thrown their less borrowed books into the bin to make room for more computers. Her first novel was published in 1899, and her last in 1944. She was prolific, producing forty novels and short story collections in just over forty years, of the type that would be asked for in libraries between the war as ‘a nice book’. But they’re rare: she was never a top of the range best-seller, and in the Second World War, the bombing raid on London in 1940 that destroyed Paternoster Row and the heart of the book trade also burned all her publisher’s stock. Because of that her books are simply very hard to get hold of. I managed to republish one, The Affairs of John Bolsover, in a scholarly edition because it’s a great unknown example of the Edwardian feminist future novel. I’ve also shepherded her best novel, The Good Comrade, into publication with the independent publisher Victorian Secrets. But Keren of Lowbole is unlikely to be republished in paper form any time soon: its best hope is to be published in an e-version when Silberrad comes out of copyright, and that won’t be until 2026.
Una Silberrad wrote romance with adventurous happenings. Her novels usually involve someone escaping or running away from danger or another kind of trouble, and there are always tremendous independent heroines. Silberrad was an early feminist writing very conventional fiction with a twist. Her female characters are repressed scientists, or illegitimate aristocratic book-keepers, or antiques experts, or mining financiers, or detectives: they are never just nice girls who just want to get married and have a better life. They do, of course, want the better life, and their romances are realistic, believable and highly satisfying. Silberrad was more interested in writing about women with minds of their own, and brains to help them on their way in life. She wrote about women and science, or women and business. She set her novels in two periods: the present day and the late seventeenth century. Her late seventeenth-century novels have the additional unusual dimension of being populated by Quakers and Dissenters, because she was interested in throwing theology into her plots, to reinforce the importance of religious law and morality as part of everyday life.
In Keren of Lowbole, there is a wandering Dissenter called Tobiah. He’s a lively character, very willing to have an argument about Scripture that might last for days, and has a strong sense of responsibility towards anyone who appears to be behaving in ungodly ways. In effect he’s a freelance spiritual policeman, and is a moral signpost for good and righteousness. In the seventeenth century it’s no bad thing to have a person like that on your side, especially if he isn’t afraid of anything, which Tobiah is not. Una Silberrad’s nephew John said that apparently Aunt Una referred to Keren of Lowbole as the First Book of Tobiah: a pun on the names of Biblical books, because several of her short story collections and at least one other novel, have Tobiah stalking throughout the pages, laying down the spiritual law and getting people out of trouble.
But he is a relatively minor character in this novel, which is about a girl called Keren Ashe, who lives with her father, Dr Ashe the alchemist, in the Forest, south of Colchester in Essex. He is a descendant of Dr Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s alchemist, and Keren’s mother was a gypsy from Bohemia, so Keren has a strange and distinguished bloodline. She works as her father’s lab assistant, and seems perfectly content to do this for the rest of her life, until well-meaning Tobiah mentions to Betsy Shipp in Colchester one day that there is a 17-year old girl growing up wild in the Forest, with no older woman to instruct her on household duties or to see that she does not stray into temptation. Betsy is Dr Ashe’s distant cousin, so she takes Keren to live with her in the town, which seems to be a good plan for all. Dr Ashe disappears shortly afterwards on a secret journey.
Colchester in the later 1600s is a fun place to live. Keren makes friends with her girl cousins, she is praised for her impeccable housewifery (only a man could think that a girl growing up running her father’s house would need extra lessons), she goes to weddings, and she can shop. She’s already fallen in love, and fallen out of it again when she realises that the man is simply unworthy, and also that he loves a married lady. She put a stop to this unworthy man’s designs on the beautiful but long-suffering Lady Belton, who has been kind to Keren, by switching the love potion that her father would have supplied for a harmless bottle of coloured water. She has an easy friendship with Zachary Ward, a highly skilled glass-blower and lab technician whom her father values, but she doesn’t realise that Zachary is the prodigal son of Wythes Hall, with a wicked stepmother determined to do him out of his legal rights to the estate. Keren has a suspicion about her father’s long absences, and wonders where he has sent the last glass phial of the mysterious Ultio, which is usually kept out of danger and harm’s way on a high shelf. Dr Ashe had been very concerned when the other Ultio bottles fell off the shelf in an explosion. He wouldn’t let Keren or Zachary touch any of the glass except with tongs, and made them burn everything that had come into contact with it. Keren doesn’t know the terrible death of her mother in far-off Flanders, nor does she realise how long her father has waited to take his revenge. When Sir James Belton returns in a bad temper from his mission to Flanders, he reports that his opportunity to gain glory by taking the town for King Charles by force was thwarted by an unexpected outbreak of the plague, just after he got there. It’s probably much safer for Keren if she stays in Colchester, but in Colchester there are religious rivalries breeding trouble too.
Tobiah seems to be the head preacher for all the Dissenting sects, those troublesome Protestants who broke with the Church of England and insist on splitting theological hairs in defining their own religious beliefs, until there are almost more sects than believers. When Tobiah is out of town, Samuel Calderbeck sneaks back in, an ignorant man with a mania about demonic possession and witchcraft. When Betsy goes to London to see her married daughter and the new grandchild, her fussy husband installs his sister, Rachel Shipp, in the house to keep an eye on the maids. Rachel is a Calderbeck enthusiast, and very strong on the girls attending all possible religious services. At one, Keren forgets to kneel down for prayers, because her mind is elsewhere, so after a stern interrogation by Calderbeck and Rachel, it is suspected that she must be possessed. This is not a good time for Keren to be under suspicion of witchcraft, because her sneaky cousin Kate already has a downer on her. Keren can see easily through Kate’s hypochondrical ways, and Kate is very good at being devout when it will do her good. Keren has also been making lapis lazuli, a straightforward alchemical experiment that she has never managed to work accurately before, so when this too is discovered (it was a present for her nice cousin Betty) she is sent straight to her room and locked in, awaiting judgement in the morning.
Naturally, she gets out. What happens to her, and to Zachery’s claim on his father’s estate, and to Tobiah when he is miscalled a drunken vagabond, and to Dr Ashe’s secret journey, and the discovery of the missing will, will all be yours to discover when you read the book. I do hope you can find a copy.
Keren of Lowbole is a fine example of a historical novel untainted by modern preoccupations, language or style. I don’t think Silberrad uses any words that would not have been used in the seventeenth century, no do her characters do things that are out of period: that’s something that many modern historical novelists would do well to learn from. The narration is calm and restrained, the plot is meticulously structured, and the main characters are instantly memorable, and are consistent to the end. Keren is not an anachronistic feminist but she is a gypsy in her independence and cleverness with objects and natural creatures. It’s a timeless novel that could have been written at any time in the past hundred years, and deserves to be much better known.
2 thoughts on “Alchemy or witchcraft? Una L Silberrad’s Keren of Lowbole”
Copies of Keren of Lowbole are available on Amazon! It doesn’t say if it’s print on demand, but I suspect it is.
Most likely print on demand. Look for publisher information. Or filter out pod from your search.