What if the “mad scientists” of Gothic literature had, in their various ways, produced a number of monstrous daughters who somehow find each other and start to investigate their mysterious origins? That’s the conceit behind Theodora Goss’s lovely fantasy novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.
Characters appear from Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Dracula and the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s a book written by someone who obviously loved these tales, but who came to wonder, what about the women? What kind of story might emerge from those brief appearances, gaps and omissions?
After her mother dies, young Mary Jekyll find herself in dire financial straits. Suspecting that her father’s criminal friend, Edward Hyde, may still be alive, she enlists the help of Mr Sherlock Holmes and sets out to investigate, in the hope of claiming the outstanding reward for Hyde’s discovery. But what she discovers is the existence of the troublesome teenager, Diana Hyde, who has grown up in a home for fallen women and who claims to be Mary’s half-sister.
As Mary delves into the mystery of Edward Hyde and his associates, she meets, and slowly fills her house with, a group of “monstrous girls” who have all been created through strange experiments: the poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau (a cat in the form of a woman), and the gentle giant, Justine Frankenstein. Each of the characters represents an aspect of how women are viewed under patriarchy and Goss has a lot of fun playing around with these tropes. With the slightly bemused support of Holmes and Watson, their investigations lead them to a confrontation with Frankenstein’s monster and the existrence of a secret society which seems to have had a hand in their creation.
This book is a delight for someone, like me, who grew up on these stories, but is very happy to see them being re-written from a feminist perspective. It’s also warm and comforting and has that “found family” feel which is so emotionally satisfying when done well.
Was there anything I didn’t like? Well, I have great fondness for Frankenstein’s monster, and was a little saddened to find him represented so unsympathetically, but then again, it’s about time poor Justine got her own story.
Sherlock Holmes was also well done, if represented as rather nicer and more laid-back than Doyle’s creation, something Goss gets around by suggesting that that Holmes is the one in Watson’s stories. Dr Watson is perfect though.
I found the shifts in point of view a bit awkward and jarring at times, but overall thought that Goss did a good job of imitating the style of Victorian novels.
I’m looking forward to the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, in which I’ve heard Mina Murray and Carmilla will be making appearances and there will be more cake.
Recommended if you’re looking for a cosy, rather than horrifying, Halloween read.