The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

Reviewed by Helen Parry

I’m very fond of Theodora Goss’s short stories, so when I saw that she was publishing a novel I was excited and ordered a copy straight away. Goss’s stories are often formally quite experimental and fantastical; if you like Lud-in-the-Mist or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, her work will appeal to you. This novel in fact grew out of a short story called ‘The Mad Scientist’s Daughter’, which you can read here. While I feel that ‘daughter’ and ‘wife’ have become overused in titles, here that use is appropriate, since it is their fathers and their fathers’ work which form the common bond between the main characters. It also alludes to Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which as you will see is also appropriate.

Mary Jekyll has just buried her mother; her father predeceased her some years before and in mysterious circumstances. A provision in her mother’s will leads her to the Society of Mary Magdalen and a young girl named Diana Hyde who claims to be her sister. The fate of their father(s) is intertwined with an investigation into a series of brutal murders of prostitutes in London’s East End, conducted by Sherlock Holmes. For yes, this London of the 1890s is a London in which monsters abound, there’s a nefarious secret society and Mary and Diana are not the only young women with monstrous fathers.

It isn’t actually necessary to have read Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, Rappaccini’s Daughter, The Island of Dr Moreau and Dracula, but I must say that part of the fun of this novel is seeing what Goss has done with the original texts. All of the female monsters have their first appearances, however fleeting, in these Gothic classics. During the course of Goss’s novel they recount their own versions of the stories, which differ significantly from the originals. The differences imply a feminist commentary on the originals, while destabilising them and insisting they are not ‘true’. Questioning the factual ‘truth’ of fiction and claiming it is poor biography is a nice inversion of the accusation sometimes levelled at autobiographies that they are not ‘true’ but ‘made up’ like fiction. There are some good in-jokes too, such as Justine having ‘Miltonic’ English prose.

Goss’s playing with the idea of text and fiction continues in a lovely innovation. One character is the ‘author’ of the novel; she writes the main action and she ‘rewrites’ the other characters’ stories, presumably to their satisfaction because they all chip in with their comments. Here Diana has been telling/writing the story of her origins – Mrs Poole is the housekeeper.

‘To think that you were born in such a place!’ said Mrs. Poole. Suddenly, her heart swelled with pity for the poor orphan child, and she regretted her earlier harshness.

MARY: It’s a good thing Mrs. Poole is sorting laundry, or whatever she’s doing. I don’t want to hear what she would say to that!

DIANA: How do you know her heart didn’t swell with pity? Mrs. Poole can say what she likes, but she always gives me the largest chop and the most pudding.

CATHERINE: That’s because you’re so scrawny.

DIANA: How do you know? Wouldn’t it be rich if our precious Mary wasn’t her favorite after all?

MARY: For goodness’ sake, can you just finish your section?

DIANA: You were the one who interrupted in the first place.

‘Yes,’ said Mary, also feeling a surge of pity for her long-lost sister.

MARY: Oh please!

This questions the ‘truthfulness’ of this account too; after all, Catherine admits that she is using her imagination when writing it all down. It also enacts, on a textual level, the mutual co-operation of the characters who must work together to defeat their common enemy, and the reclamation of their own voices.

By doing this Goss diverges from a tendency of the classics on which she draws to use their monsters and their plots to externalise fear. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for instance, is at a very basic level concerned with our relationship with our ‘dark side’ and our terror of being overwhelmed by it: the characters and plot externalise this. In Goss’s work, the female monsters are a marginalised group who turn their differences to their advantage, whether this be by appearing in a circus or running an apothecary. There is little of the psychological darkness and horror here other than the division of London into two distinct cities: the ‘nice’ London of the West End and the poorer, darker one of the East. Goss instead creates a very detailed and physical world in which the efforts of the main characters are often hampered by practical issues. Such matters as housekeeping, the supply of clean clothes, the lack of pockets in women’s clothes, food, the cost of a cab, the propriety of entering certain places: these all prey on our heroines’ minds. This focus on the mundane makes the monsters and the monstrous more acceptable. Sherlock Holmes mansplaining to Mary Jekyll the story of her own father’s death made me chuckle.

Do I have some quibbles? I do indeed, although this shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is a very enjoyable book to read and clearly written in a spirit of fun. It’s a very plot-driven novel and the pacing is good but the plot itself holds no great surprises or twists. The real strength of the book is its premise – female monsters telling their own stories! – and the literary games it plays. I wished Goss had pushed the commentaries which interrupt her narrative further; they sometimes became a bit repetitive or even redundant and that was a pity. I should also have enjoyed a little more introspection on the part of the characters, especially about their monstrousness, in between the somewhat breathless action. One of the victims of the serial killer is named Molly Keane; I couldn’t help wondering what an innocent Anglo-Irish novelist had ever done to Theodora Goss that she had to meet such a gruesome end. However, it seems there is a sequel in the works – our heroines have been invited to Vienna by one Lucinda Van Helsing, an orang-utan is on the loose and surely heading for Paris – so perhaps some of my quibbles will become superfluous. Certainly Theodora Goss is a writer to watch; if, for me, this didn’t quite match up to her stories, it’s entertaining and bodes well for future novels. (Meanwhile, you can find some of her work online here.)

Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry [http://gallimaufry.typepad.com/blog/] and wouldn’t mind meeting a few monsters.

Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (Saga Press:, 2017). 978-1534409637, 416pp., trade paperback.

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3 Comments

  1. Goodness, sounds so enticing. I either love or hate novels that draw on others, depending on how they’re handled, and it’s always fun to play hunt-the-reference in such books (like Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, for example)

    1. Hello Susan, I’m REALLY sorry, I’ve only just found your comment. This is a lovely, sit-down-for-a-few-hours-with-a-cup-of-tea-and-get-lost-in-it sort of book.

      1. Posted too soon! Meant to add that Goss draws on her source books in a way that’s both respectful to them and fresh, I liked her approach a lot. And I hope you track down a copy and enjoy it!

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