Set in 18th century London, the book follows a string of murders by women
If you’re looking for a mystical escape this spring, look no further than The Lost Apothecary, a new bestseller by Sarah Penner.
The novel tells the story of a secret apothecary shop in 18th century London — where a mysterious woman sells potions to women to use against the abusive men in their lives.
We talked to Penner about her research, her love of historical oddities and documents and the feminist themes in her novel. She also gave some tips on what teas and essential oils to keep in your own home!
KCM: This is such a fun concept of a novel. How did you come up with this idea?
Sarah Penner: When the idea for The Lost Apothecary first came to me, I envisioned a woman — an apothecary — working from a hidden shop in a dark London alleyway. But I knew I wanted there to be something sinister about her, and this quickly led me down the path of poison. I clung to this initial vision throughout the writing of the book. The word “apothecary” is evocative, drawing forth visions of a candlelit storefront with sash windows, its walls lined with mortar bowls, pestles, and countless glass bottles. There is something beguiling, even enchanting, about what might lie within those bottles: potions that bewitch us, cure us, kill us. I aimed to develop this enchantment within the story, to really make the reader feel like he or she had stepped into the old apothecary shop.
Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, sifting through old manuscripts and druggist diaries; I reviewed digitized pharmacopeias, and I studied extensively some well-known poisoning cases in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was surprised by the number of plants and herbs that are highly toxic, and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.
My strongest inspiration comes from anything historical in nature, particularly places: I feel a very strong pull when I visit old homes or structures, or when I see them in pictures. Country estates, castles, old taverns, historic cottages, you name it. I wonder about the people who lived there, the drama within the walls, the old brick hidden behind modern-day drywall. I always imagine the secrets about the place.
What do you think the novel indicates about feminism and the concept of women helping women over the ages?
It’s no secret that women have been excluded from much of history: amid accounts of wars and political movements, it’s rare to find the names of women in history textbooks. Unless a woman was of renowned bloodline, chances are she was overlooked — or outright excluded — from history books.
The apothecary in my story understands this, and she pities the lowborn women she meets every day. Thus, she has a very important rule: the name of every woman who steps into her shop must be recorded in the apothecary’s register. She says, “For many of these women, this may be the only place their names are recorded. The only place they will be remembered. There are few places for a woman to leave an indelible mark…But this register preserves them — their names, their memories, their worth.”
Today, society gives more attention to the players driving forward change — women included. But I think it’s still important for us to ask the question: who are we excluding from history books, and why? Have we given credit to the women at the forefront of change, as well as the ones working magic behind the scenes?
Astrology, herbs, and other sorts of new-age concepts are regaining popularity among Gen Z. How does the book take on these forms?
A popular sub genre in fiction is “magical realism,” and The Lost Apothecary falls within this category. Magical realism blurs the lines between life and fantasy, and characters find themselves in situations that might be realistic, or they might be the influence of something outside of this world, like magic. In some ways, this leaves the reader free to decide for herself. After all, we’ve all been in situations where we feel like something strange may be at play in our lives; a spot-on horoscope reading, a serendipitous meeting of two people, the odd shadow across the room that we can’t explain. These things happen every day in real life, and authors get to play with this irony and amplify it in fiction. I hope when people turn the last page of The Lost Apothecary, they think: “wait, was that the result of magic? or was that real and part of the natural world?” Certain aspects of the story were strategically left open in this way.
In general, what do you hope readers gain from picking up The Lost Apothecary?
The Lost Apothecary is very much a story about women controlling their own destinies. There are dark aspects to the story — like the burden of secrets and the destructive pursuit of vengeance — but it is also a story of hope and the way women can protect, honor, and free one another, even when separated by the barrier of time. I hope that when turning the final page, readers will feel connected to this sense of loyalty and better appreciate how we can honor the women in our own lives.
Of course, I also hope the book is a form of escapism. It’s a historical mystery, and I hope that anyone who loves sleuthing or uncovering old documents will find themselves lost in the pages!
Mini Herb Lesson:
I researched countless herbal remedies and concoctions while writing The Lost Apothecary, and I have a number of essential oils, too — a “home apothecary,” one could say! Here are some of the more interesting teas and tinctures I researched, all of which I use at home on a regular basis.
- Peppermint – Peppermint is one of the (benign!) teas served by the apothecary in The Lost Apothecary and a personal favorite of mine. Aids in digestion, so great after meals.
- Turmeric – An effective anti-inflammatory herb with an earthy taste, turmeric gives curry its yellow color. In addition to sipping turmeric tea, I like to add it to smoothies after exercise.
- Valerian and skullcap – since ancient times, both valerian and skullcap have been used to treat anxiety, grief, PMS, etc. In one scene of The Lost Apothecary, the apothecary dispenses this remedy to a grieving woman. These herbs aid in sleep, too. One of my favorite nighttime tea blends.
- Tea tree – Forget itch cream: a bit of tea tree oil, mixed with coconut oil, is all you need. In fact, the recipe for a bug bite balm at the back of The Lost Apothecary includes tea tree oil. It’s also antibacterial and anti-fungal. A must-have in any home apothecary!
- Clary sage – Long used to relieve stress and lower blood pressure. Rub a few drops on your inner wrist and breathe deep. Or, use an aromatherapy diffuser.
- Eucalyptus – An effective topical remedy for coughs and congestion, but toxic if ingested. This oil plays a central role in the present-day narrative of The Lost Apothecary. I can’t say much more at the risk of revealing a spoiler — you’ll have to read to find out.