But it is decidedly rarer for an author to tell me “I’m writing this book for you!” two years before the book is actually published.
But that is indeed what happened at Readercon a few years ago; I believe it was the year that Mary Shelley was the Memorial Guest of Honor. There were three of us; I think it was me and Gillian and Emily, and I’d gone to get my copy of In the Forest of Forgetting signed, and Theodora Goss was telling us about the novel she was working on. It was based on all my favorite old Gothic tales, about the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the girl monster creations of a bunch of other mad scientists, who form a club and fight crime. She was writing this book, she said, for us; we were precisely the sort of audience she had in mind.
This stuck in my mind and it has been with possessive glee that I have followed every update on the novel, and when The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter finally hit shelves this summer, I thought, My book is here! The book written for me! because I am self-centered like that. I told Dora Goss this when I attended a reading she did with Cat Valente at Brookline Booksmith this week.
I was reluctant to read it unless I could do it all in one sitting, so I spent the week enjoying the anticipation, and then this morning I made myself a cup of coffee and plonked myself down in the living room with the intention of doing nothing else all day until I finished it.
I was not disappointed.
The story is largely from the point of view of Mary Jekyll, 21-year-old daughter of the long-dead Dr. Jekyll, although the book is being written by puma-turned-human-woman Catherine Moreau, with added commentary from the other characters. (It is a new way of writing a novel, because they are modern girls and it is the ‘90s. The 1890s, obviously.)
The story begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies of complications from madness, and Mary finds herself nearly destitute, with no employable skills, very little in savings, no income from either of her parents, and a large house in London that, in the current economic climate, cannot be sold. In going through her mother’s papers, she discovers that her mother has for years been donating a pound a year to a charitable society for the care and keeping of “Hyde.” The only Hyde that Mary knows about is her father’s former assistant who disappeared after being accused of murder, and for whom there is—or at one point, was—a reward of one hundred pounds for information leading to his capture. Mary takes the papers to her local celebrity detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and from thereon out, things get weird. In short order, Mary finds herself saddled with an incorrigible younger sister named Diana; Beatrice Rappaccini, a lovely young Italian woman who breathes poison; Catherine Moreau, a young lady who used to be a puma; and Justine Frankenstein, who used to be Justine Moritz and who had erroneously been reported as disassembled in Mrs. Shelley’s book from a century earlier.
The girls are all daughters or creations of men with ties to a mysterious group called the Société des Alchimistes, which appears to have something to do with a series of gruesome murders of ladies of negotiable affection in Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson are also consulting upon. The murdered women have all had body parts removed, and the only available description of who they’d been seen with sounds very like the supposedly late Edward Hyde.
If you’re a big old Gothics nerd like me, one of the most fun aspects of the story is the sheer number of old classics that Goss manages to squish into this novel. In addition to the five young women and the aforementioned Holmes and Watson, the madman Renfield from Dracula pops up as a fairly important secondary character, as does Dr. John Seward from the insane asylum and Dr. Van Helsing, although the latter only in the form of letters. I kept half-expecting Mrs. Poole, Mary’s housekeeper, to turn out to be Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, although if she is it’s not addressed in this book. I was also pleased to find a reference to The Castle of Otranto.
With this many other works crammed into it, it is good that the book doesn’t take itself overly seriously. The girls’ commentary occasionally dips into a distinctly modern register, and, of course, the book’s not nearly as dense as any genuine Victorian writing at all. Most of the plot is a sort of comic caper type of action-mystery, with a lot of gallivanting around London and bits of the English countryside infiltrating circuses and chasing Beast Men and doing amateur detectiving and trying to do it all while managing the deliberately constricting reality of 19th century English women’s clothes, although that last bit is not as modern an invention as you might think, featuring prominently in Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White (although apparently in real 19th century novels, women who spy on other people while wearing insufficient clothes have to fall deliriously ill for weeks immediately afterwards, them’s the rules). It’s also a joyous, empowering, delightful portrayal of friendship and solidarity between women, even women who are very different and who don’t always actually get along that well (especially when Diana’s involved).
I don’t want to give the ending away but suffice to say that while the girls and Holmes and Watson do technically solve the Whitechapel murders, the Société des Alchimistes is not an easy foe to vanquish, leaving us with an excellent setup for a sequel as well as a convincing cover for the Whitechapel murders never being officially solved, like with anyone getting arrested for them.
The book is quite light on romantic subplots, which I appreciate. Beatrice has a tragic romantic backstory, although by the time the book is being written by Catherine, Beatrice is more concerned with the suffragist and Rational Dress movements. There are hints of romantic interest between Mary and Holmes, which is cute because Goss doesn’t bring up Holmes’ canonical drug habit at any point. The other girls have decidedly un-romantic backstories re: men’s attention.
I’m already eagerly awaiting the sequel, because reasons, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes funny stuff about mad scientists and girl monsters, even if you’re not a huge Gothic lit dork. I would also highly recommend it to anyone else who is a Gothic lit dork who doesn’t take it too seriously, which I would hope would be most of them, since Gothic lit is a bit goofy to start with.