Subversive Victoriana: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

If you recall my last entry for TBR Stack, I found Artemis to be a fun read; while Andy Weir’s stated aim is to write exciting SF, not make a political statement, part of the fun for me was investing in Jazz Beshara’s financial troubles. In Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, the politics are much more apparent—this is a feminist retelling of Victoriana, after all. But it’s also an examination of class, mobility, propriety, and finances, and how they echo through women’s lives, and constrain them.

In short, this book is about opportunity, and its specific relationship to women’s bodies.

Miss Mary Jekyll is the daughter of the esteemed Dr. Henry Jekyll, who died when she was only eight years old. Her mother, always a fragile woman, gradually descended into madness after her husband’s death, raving about a horrible face appearing in her window. The book opens on Mrs. Jekyll’s funeral, as Mary buries her mother in the English rain, and faces the cold reality that she is now destitute—“quite ruined” as her young housemaid would have it. Mrs. Jekyll’s father had enough money to provide for her as long as she lived after her husband’s death, but there is no inheritance that can pass to a daughter. As a young upper-middle-class lady, Mary has never been trained for work, and as the main caretaker for her mother she hasn’t cultivated the attentions of young men who might swoop in and marry her (though to be honest, she isn’t even sure if she wants that) so all that remains is for her to let her staff go with their two weeks’ severance, and start selling off the furniture.

But wait, isn’t this supposed to be a fun, subversive take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Aren’t Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper in this thing?

Yes, yes, and yes—but the particular way Goss chooses to subvert her Victorian story is to grapple with the reality of women’s lives in 1890’s London. It’s fun as hell, but every moment in the book is also weighted with reality.

The plot kicks into gear when Mary meets with her mother’s solicitor, who ends their meeting by saying, unprompted: “young ladies in your situation often find it a relief to place their affairs in the hands of those who are more worldly, more wise in such matters. In short, Miss Jekyll, since you have recently come of age, you may choose to marry. A young lady of your personal attractions would certainly prove acceptable to a man who is not particular about his wife’s fortune.” After Mary politely ignores this apparent marriage proposal, she discovers that her mother paid a monthly sum to an organization for fallen women for the care of “Hyde.” Naturally she heads out to investigate, finds the young, very angry Miss Diana Hyde, and begins to pick up the threads of a mysterious “Société des Alchimistes.” She also collects a motley group of women: in addition to the incorrigible Diana she meets Beatrice Rappaccini, the “poisonous girl” of Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Catherine Moreau, who escaped her father’s island with her puma teeth intact, and a body riddled with vivisection scars, and Justine Frankenstein, who is more interested in debating Goethe and Kant than in being the Bride of any monster.

The group uses each of their special skills to investigate the Société, which leads them to the enigmatic Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who in turn leads them to the Whitechapel murders. This allows Goss to look at intersections of class and gender, as upper-class Mary goes to Whitechapel for the first time and has to confront poverty and prostitution she had only heard about in the newspaper before. Mary joins a trio of men, Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade, who take on the investigation of their deaths, repeatedly brushing off the contributions of the group of women who are trying to help.

As the case goes on, and Holmes in particular gains more respect for the women, Goss makes a point of checking in on the group’s finances, on how many meals Mary is skipping, on how much, conversely, Diana eats. Mary’s fretting about finances is a constant hum in the background, as she has to plan how to keep feeding and dressing the growing group. They all have to look like respectable women in public, which means day dresses, boots, gloves—all things that will start adding up. Her housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, insists on staying despite the uncertain pay, and becomes an interesting counterpoint to the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson as the women all appreciate her homemaking, and invite her to participate more actively in the case as it unfolds.

Daring escapes, last-minute rescues, and tense investigations are balanced against reality. Diana Hyde would much rather live life as one of Mr. Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars than squish herself into a dress and go to church like a proper young lady. Beatrice, experimented upon by her father, is bound to a quack doctor who parades her around from stage to stage and keeps all of her profits. Miss Moreau and Miss Frankenstein have found steady work in a traveling circus, but Miss Moreau can only earn her tips if she’ll allow strange men to scratch her behind the ears, and Miss Frankenstein can only refer to Victor Frankenstein as father, despite what he did by bringing her back from the dead, and she tries not to talk about the months she was forced to live as the Creature’s wife.

Goss makes a particularly captivating choice by breaking the fourth wall. Catherine Moreau is the one writing the story, piecing it together in between deadlines for her series of adventure novels. But the other women, including Mrs. Poole, interrupt, edit, argue, point out details she’s missed, and call out moments she’s romanticized. Along the way she explains some of the genre tropes she’s using, and points out some she’s decided to throw out the window. This not only serves as a great worldbuilding device, as we’re seeing the creation of an origin story from events that, in the book’s reality, really happened, but it also gives us an immediate sense of the women’s camaraderie before we’ve even met all of them.

It was still raining when Mary emerged from the solicitor’s office. She walked back through the crowded city streets, carrying the portfolio under her arm so it, at least, would not get wet. By the time she reached home, she was tired, wet, and grateful that Mrs. Poole had already laid a fire in the parlor.

BEATRICE: Oh, your London rain! When I first came to London, I thought, I shall never see the sun again. It was so cold, and wet, and dismal! I missed Padua.

DIANA: If you don’t like it here, you can go back there. No one’s stopping you!

CATHERINE: Please keep your comments relevant to the story. And it is not my London rain. I dislike it as much as Beatrice.

Mary changed out of her black bombazine into an old day dress, put on a pair of slippers, and wrapped a shawl that had belonged to her mother around her shoulders. She lit the fire with a match from the box on the mantelpiece.

Again and again, Goss focuses on “small” moments like wardrobe choices and teatimes to show that real life is flowing in and around the adventure. The women may be monsters investigating murder, but they still have to dress appropriately to walk down a London street, and unlike their male colleagues, they can’t simply throw on a pair of pants, a shirt, and a bowler. Ladies’ dress requires constrictive corsets, chemises, petticoats, delicate buttons, high-heeled boots, hats, and gloves. These garments take time—the game may be afoot, but you still have to get your corset laced. And as to the matter of food, if Diana Hyde doesn’t get her tea, she’s going to be a grumpy and disagreeable pubescent detective. Like the constant thrum of Mary’s bank balance, this focus on everyday matters becomes a motif in the book, creating a sense of reality that does a giant amount of worldbuilding in only a few words.

What the book is really “about” is the exploitation of women. Mary’s solicitor tries to use her new poverty to manipulate her into marriage. The Magdalen society exploits “fallen” women for cheap labor. The fallen women are exploited by their johns. The Société des Alchimistes exploits young women’s bodies, debate the malleability of young women’s minds, and actively hope for daughters to experiment upon—all of which only makes sense in a society that doesn’t care about women. They know that they can do their nefarious work undisturbed. The Whitechapel murderer relies on this same indifference, and uses the women he kills for their body parts knowing that no one will be too fussed about a few dead prostitutes. Frankenstein’s Creature seems to enjoy talking philosophy with Justine, but he regards these conversations as quid pro quo for her housework and the use of her body. Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine are all exploited as cheap entertainment by a quack doctor and Lorenzo’s Circus of Marvels and Delights, respectively—and while the Circus at least pays a decent wage, one can assume the two women don’t make as much as their boss.

As the action returns again and again to Whitechapel, we hear the same tragedy repeated: poor girl is left destitute by the death of her shiftless dad/a governess is fired by Mother after Father gives her one too many appraising looks/a chambermaid is knocked up by the eldest son and thrown out onto the street—woman after woman, whatever the details of their tragedy, they’re working on the street, “ruined,” used by men and further scorned by women who are desperate to hold on to their own tenuous status.

Goss is gradually building to a fantastic point: these women are all just parts. The sex workers, bought and sold so men could use one or two particular parts without being concerned about the rest, are instead dissected and doled out among the Societe. This is only slightly more brutal than the way Justine and Catherine are used for their parts to try to “advance science.” Beatrice is valued for her poisonous breath, but she isn’t permitted to speak onstage. You would think upper-class Mary could escape it, but as soon as she’s rendered poor she, too, is only valued for her looks, which are apparently attractive enough for her mother’s lawyer to hit on her days after the funeral. You would think Diana could escape it, being a young girl, but as long as she’s imprisoned at the Magdalen Society she’s treated just as harshly as all the other “fallen” women.

Another motif of course is the women’s mothers—or rather their absence. Victor Frankenstein and Moreau cut out the middle mom by creating Justine and Catherine from spare parts. Beatrice’s mother dies in childbirth (just like the mother of Mary Shelley, who is name-checked repeatedly) and Diana’s mother dies before her daughter reaches puberty. Mary’s mother is driven mad by her husband’s transformation… and it becomes more and more apparent that Hyde was the one who finally caused her death.

Each of the women start out under the shadow of a famous father. While Mary wasn’t tortured like a few of the others, her father had many Hyde-based secrets that put her life into a tailspin. Did Giacomo Rappacini truly love Beatrice, or was she simply an experiment that happened to work? Did Moreau ever intend to regard Catherine as a true human equal, or did he see a monster when he looked at her? Only Diana and Justine have more positive feelings—Diana never met Hyde, and so has no idea if she likes him or not, and Justine lived a fairly idyllic life with Victor Frankenstein before his Creature showed up and ruined it all. But always, always, the women know that none of them were given a choice. Dr. Rappacini didn’t ask Beatrice if she wanted to be poisonous. Victor didn’t get his servant’s permission before bringing her back from the dead. And so the book also becomes a female-centric bildungsroman of each woman finding her own talents, and creating her own future, partially by rejecting her dad, and partially by embracing a found family of women.

Above all what I loved about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter was Goss’s dedication to asking hard questions of the Victorian tales many of us grew up loving, while also giving us an original cast of characters that are as compelling and fun as their famous fathers.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another shall rise in its place. Come celebrate monsters with her on Twitter!

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