One From the Archive: ‘The Apothecary’s Daughter’ by Charlotte Betts ***

First published in February 2012.

Charlotte Betts’ debut novel opens in 1665, a tumultuous time in which women were seen as ‘incapable’ of most things merely due to their gender. The Apothecary’s Daughter is set against the backdrop of the plague and the Great Fire of London in a period steeped in religious prejudices, greed, death and desolation. Enormous gulfs can be found throughout this seventeenth-century society, particularly with regard to the widening fissures between classes.

The Apothecary’s Daughter tells the story of 26-year-old Susannah Leyton, who works with her father Cornelius in an apothecary shop in Fleet Street, London. Having grown up in the shop, Susannah knows all of her father’s cures and is able to successfully help his patients cure their ailments. Susannah herself is relied upon to do a lot around the house. The family employ a maid but she still seems to help with a lot of the cooking, cleaning and running of errands. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she is able to read and knows several different languages. Her mother died in childbirth when Susannah was just fifteen years old and her only brother, Tom, lives in Virginia.

It soon becomes clear that Cornelius Leyton wishes to marry again. He chooses a young widower, Arabella Poynter, who has three children of her own. They soon install themselves into the small house above the shop. This decision leaves Susannah in turmoil, believing that her life will change drastically and distraught at the thought that her mother might be replaced.

Plantation owner Henry Savage, recently returned from Barbados, soon catapults into Susannah’s life and proposes to her. She declines at first, but soon finds herself part of an unhappy marriage. There are rather a lot of characters within the novel, but they are relatively easy to keep track of. There are constant clashes between them, the majority of ruptures caused by Susannah.

Betts’ characters all have their own flaws – Cornelius is cowardly, Susannah is headstrong and sometimes rude, and Arabella is unfair and opinionated. Whilst this does make the characters seem more realistic, it feels as though too much is made of Susannah’s flaws. She is incredibly sensitive, stubborn and obstinate throughout the novel. Almost everything that is said to her, whether kind or unkind, seems to cause her upset, and she is constantly furious with those around her. The reader does feel some sympathy with regard to her situation, but our patience with regard to her character does wear a little thin at times.

Throughout The Apothecary’s Daughter, Susannah desperately tries to overcome the fact that she is a woman living in such a patriarchal society. Once she leaves home, she is unable to continue her work in the male dominated apothecary trade, and is consequently forced into employment as a ‘companion’ for the elderly eccentric Agnes Fygge. Susannah definitely grows up as the novel progresses. Betts charts her growing loneliness and heartache at the losses which begin to come increasingly close to home.

The Apothecary’s Daughter is split up into relatively short sections, each pertaining to a certain month between 1665 and 1671. Unfortunately, some of the dialogue does seem a little stilted in places. Although the vocabulary which Betts has used does fit well with the time period, very few of the characters seem to have distinctive voices. Several sections of the dialogue do not follow natural conversational patterns. Questions are often asked but not answered and sometimes answers to questions are ignored as the following dialogue veers off on a completely different tangent.

A third person narrative perspective has been used in The Apothecary’s Daughter, which focuses almost solely upon Susannah and her relationships with those around her. Whilst the narrative style of the novel helps to move the story along at a relatively good pace, it is lacking in a little depth. The reader would empathise far more with Susannah if the story were told in her voice.

Betts sets the scene incredibly well and really captures the atmosphere of seventeenth-century London. The story is historically accurate. Her writing style is reminiscent of both Elizabeth Chadwick and Philippa Gregory. The story and setting she has used are rather like Mary Hooper’s works. The novel does not contain anything overly remarkable in terms of its plot, but it is a good read nonetheless.

The Apothecary’s Daughter won the RNA New Writers Award 2011 and the YouWriteOn Book of the Year 2010. Its sequel, The Painter’s Daughter, will be released later this year.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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