Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

A scientist should not experiment on himself. He should be a dispassionate observer, and for an experimental subject, young, malleable flesh is best. You have a daughter, have you not? Surely she is old enough for you to begin the process, in whatever direction you decide will yield the most promising results.

~ Giacomo Rappaccini to Henry Jekyll

In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, young women with severe daddy issues pool their collective expertise to solve a series of murders and get to the bottom of their childhood traumas.

Set in the 1890s, the murders are happening in London’s seamy Whitechapel district. Someone is murdering prostitutes and stealing their body parts. If it sounds a bit like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, there’s a reason for that. The estimable detectives Holmes and Watson play a large role in solving the murders.

But the women comprise a one-of-a-kind team. They were raised by “mad” scientists who experimented on them in pursuit of control over human evolution. Literary mad scientists whose names we recognize: Henry Jekyll, Edward Hyde, Dr. Moreau, Victor Frankenstein, Giacomo Rappaccini, and Abraham Van Helsing. Whose works, as we discover, were somewhat different than previously reported and did not entirely die with them.

This book tells the story from the women’s perspectives, complete with humorous commentary that balances their gruesome upbringings and the sinister events around them. I loved the way each woman extended her father’s story into her own; it was like getting sequels to our favorite horror tales, with smart, sassy heroines!

Join me after the jump for more about these fascinating new chapters in our literary nightmares.

The story begins as a simple tale told by Mary Jekyll. Her father has been dead for a long time, and her mother has just passed away, leaving her a packet of papers and a mysterious monthly payment from a secret bank account to puzzle over.

There’s also a murderer on the loose. The corpses of former ladies of the evening have been discovered missing various body parts. And the victims all belonged to the Society of St. Mary Magdalen, a charitable organization that provides “fallen” women with a safe haven and second chance. Which is the same place where Mary’s mother has been sending monthly caretaking payments. So Mary pays the Society a visit, and that’s where she meets Diana Hyde.

As she reads further into the packet and follows the clues, Mary meets more women with childhoods like hers, controlled by brilliant but ethically challenged fathers who knew Mary’s father and sought a similar path to knowledge. One by one, each woman joins in Mary’s research. And eventually, each recounts her tale and weaves it into the larger mystery.

Sorry, only girls can join this club

About the time I started to settle into Mary’s narrative, random comments by unfamiliar characters began to appear. At first I was confused, but I soon figured out that the narrative was being written retrospectively by a group, then edited by one of them and sent out for everyone to review. Pretty soon I figured out who each woman was and how she fit into Mary’s story, and then it became their story.
CATHERINE: I told you, this is a new way of writing. How can I write a story about all of us if I don’t show what we were all thinking? Do you want to the story to be just about Mary?
DIANA: That would be as dull as ditch water.
JUSTINE: No, of course not. It’s just ... different. As though it’s been stitched together of various parts. Like my father’s monsters.
Elsa Lanchester, 1935, Bride of Frankenstein

The comments (or comments about comments) provide insight here and there into the story, the personalities of the characters, and the sibling-like relationship they develop over the course of the story.
Had she come to the right place? She would find out soon enough.

MARY: You’re making me sound like the heroine of a popular novel. That’s not at all what I was thinking at the time.
BEATRICE: What were you thinking, then?
MARY: How much it would cost to buy new boots. If I was going to be walking around London, I would need a stouter pair, and wasn’t sure if I could afford it. That’s what I was distracted by, if you really want to know. The state of my footware.

Mary, who was
NOT thinking about the price of boots because that is so boring, shut her umbrella, awkwardly because she was carrying the portfolio Mr. Guest had given her under one arm. [snip]

For a moment, she wished she weren’t a lady, so she could swear at the driver.

MARY: Well that, at least, is accurate.
Mrs. Poole removed the plate and cutlery in a way that expressed her complete disapproval. She has always had the remarkable ability to show exactly what she thinks without saying a word. It’s a very annoying trait. No, you may not add a comment here, Mrs. Poole.
They are also hilarious, lots of snark. Really, the way the author told this story was fabulous and a big part of what made it fun to read.
I’m going to leave their comments in the narrative itself. You, dear reader, will be able to see how annoying and nonsensical most of them are, while offering the occasional flash of insight into character. It will be a new way of writing a novel, and why not? This is the ‘90s, as Mary pointed out. It’s time we developed new ways of writing for the new century. We are no longer in the age of Charles Dickens or George Eliot, after all. We are modern. And, of course, monstrous...
As Mary learns more, she boldly decides to visit Sherlock Holmes to share information. Soon she and her new friends are gallivanting around London crime scenes, tracking down a murderer and helping to assemble a story that somehow seems to include her deceased father, an escaped psychiatric patient named Renfield who eats flies and babbles incessantly about eternal life, and a mysterious society of alchemists.

Gloria Talbott, 1957,
The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll

As they piece together the puzzles of their own existence, their paths keep leading back to the elusive Société des Alchimistes, shrouded in secrecy.
“Beatrice has been telling us about the Société des Alchimistes,” said Mary. “Its members were interested in the evolutionary theories of Mr. Darwin, although they seem to have gone considerably beyond him. They wanted to advance evolution, to create more-perfect men — well, women, really.”
A century ago, a university student named Victor Frankenstein proved that it could be done, that dead matter could once again be brought to life. He paid a terrible price for the success of his experiments. But my father believed his aims could be achieved by other means. Frankenstein was his inspiration, and the inspiration for those who, like him, wished to transmute not base metals, but human beings.
Our heroines’ fathers were at odds with the Société, using increasingly unethical methods to further their own unsanctioned cause. Their ideas were horrifying:
A scientist should not experiment on himself. He should be a dispassionate observer, and for an experimental subject, young, malleable flesh is best. You have a daughter, have you not? Surely she is old enough for you to begin the process, in whatever direction you decide will yield the most promising results.
Transmutation, not natural selection, is the agent of evolution ... Our colleague Moreau was right to conjecture that the female brain would be more malleable and responsive to our experiments.
Each of Mary’s sisters born of science is remarkably well educated, sharp witted, and resilient. They all suffer a deep psychic pain that unites them in a shared understanding, even if their personalities and origins are vastly different.

Mary Shelley, not Mary Jekyll’s favorite author!

They were created by men who might be considered monsters. Men who created monsters. They wrangle with the meaning of monster and how it applies to them. Occasionally they weigh in on published accounts of their fathers, particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
MARY: I’m not a monster, and that book is a pack of lies. If Mrs. Shelley were here, I would slap her for all the trouble she caused.
Mary says the book is a pack of lies, and accuses Mrs. Shelley of writing it to protect the Société des Alchimistes, as it was constituted in her time. After all, she never mentions the society. She implies that Frankenstein was working entirely unguided and alone, which was not the case. [snip]

To understand her motivations, you have to understand the complicated woman who was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, only nineteen years old when she started writing the
Biography. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and one of the few female members of the Société des Alchimistes.
She knew the truth: that Frankenstein had created a female monster, and that the female monster had escaped. And she hid that truth. Knowing of Justine, she did the best she could, for another woman. She erased her from the story.
Madeline Kahn, 1974, Young Frankenstein

Barbara Carrerra, 1977
The Island of Dr. Moreau
These characters seem true to their bizarre creation myths, yet are gals I can totally relate to — even the one who began life as a puma! Pragmatic Mary Jekyll follows the clues her mother left behind with dogged determination and persistence. Diana Hyde is her wild and rebellious opposite. Gentle giant Justine Frankenstein treats all living organisms with extraordinary delicacy and eats no meat. Solitary Catherine Moreau, a strict carnivore, embodies a mix of scientific rigor and feline predatory stealth, cunning, and ruthlessness.

But Beatrice Rappaccini’s story delighted me the most because she comes from one of my favorite literary tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. She grew up tending her father’s walled garden of gorgeous poisonous flowers, and now she can kill with her exotically perfumed breath, whether she wants to or not. When I read the story in high school, I thought she turned out that way naturally. However, we learn here that she was deliberately engineered by her father to be deadly and to derive all her nourishment from “sunshine, weeds, and the occasional insect”. I suppose it’s a lot easier to avoid inadvertently killing people when you don’t need to buy groceries, so that was forward thinking of him. She has also had endless hours of solitude to read the books in her father’s library. That’s a trait she shares with all her newfound companions.

I don’t want to spoil what happens, but the women work closely with Holmes and Watson on solving the mysterious murders. They also forge a strong and supportive (and sometimes sniping and competitive) bond with each other, like long-lost sisters.
“Hyde! This is Hyde’s offspring?” Beatrice looked astonished. “How could your father have done something so disastrous? Allowing Hyde to reproduce himself. I cannot believe it.”

“Hey, who are you calling disastrous, poison breath?” said Diana.
Was it because she was Italian, or because she was poisonous, that she did not understand sarcasm?
And they help each other to become modern, self-sufficient women as the twentieth century approaches. After all, they must earn a practical living until their story becomes a best seller!
Beatrice would sell her medicines, Justine wanted to try painting, Catherine would write. Diana wanted to become an actress, but no, said Mary. Being an actress wasn’t respectable, and anyway she had to go to school. [snip] “Beatrice can teach you science, and Catherine can teach you literature, and Justine can teach you French and Latin.”
They also christen themselves the Athena Club and learn enough about the mysterious Société des Alchimistes to set up a sequel! Because other members are still out there experimenting on other daughters, who have begun to reach out to our heroines.
That was the first meeting of the Athena Club. Oh, we didn’t call it that, not then. Not until several months later, when Justine suggested the name. Readers who remember their classical mythology will immediately realize its significance: Athena, born from the head of her father, Zeus. We do not claim the wisdom of Athena, but we identify with her dubious parentage.
Theodora Goss, “mother” of the
alchemists’ daughters
In the afterward, author Theodora Goss explains her inspiration for giving life to these characters:
This novel began as a question I asked myself while writing my doctoral dissertation: Why did so many of the mad scientists in nineteenth-century narratives create, or start creating then then destroy, female monsters? I didn’t get a chance to answer that question within the dissertation itself, so I tried to answer it here, in a different way.
And so, Saucy Readers, this book introduces a whole posse of kickass heroines, gleaned from the pages of our darkest fairy tales. They are the daughters who should have been, righting the wrongs their fathers unleashed on the world. Rising from the smoldering wreckage of a childhood governed by nineteenth-century scientific hubris and the twisted abdication of parental responsibility, they persisted. And their story was not only great entertainment, it also let me view the literary tales that birthed them through fresh eyes.

Metaphorically. With a story like this, I don’t want to leave any doubt!

This Wench rates The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter...


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