Unto us, a daughter is given
For the first real Spring day of 2018, the Beamers took themselves to the fog and rain of Victorian London, chasing after the Whitechapel murders, in Theodora Goss’s debut novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. Gathering up a plethora of women from the speculative literature of the 19th Century, Ms. Goss spun the tales of the female figures who too often were only sidekicks and stand-ins. Would the Beamers find ourselves amused, amazed, or annoyed at how she mixed and matched the characters from disparate tales and different genres?
The Well-Read Poet Writes
Theodora Goss has won renown as a poet and short-story writer. Working from her dissertation on monsters in Victorian Gothic literature, she crafted her first novel from the various fantastic tales and tragedies of American and British authors from the period (or slightly before). So, our main character is Mary Jekyll, daughter of the infamous Dr. Henry Jekyll, struggling with the death of her mother, 14 years after her father’s demise. Examining her family legacies, she discovers a link to the even more notorious Edward Hyde, which clue brings her together with her half-sister(?) Diana Hyde. In rapid succession, Mary is joined by Beatrice Rappaccini, the titular daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s botanical fairy tale, and then by Catherine the Puma Woman, escaped from the island of another renegade doctor, Moreau. Along with Catherine is Justine Frankenstein, the “bride” who seemingly was not stitched together in Mary Shelley’s account (pace Elsa Lanchester!.
Did I mention that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are also part of the team?
Clearly, Ms. Goss presented us with a very well-stuffed package, much like novelists of the Victorian period, where the task of recognizing an abundance of characters was alleviated by a character list at the beginning of the book. In this more modern age, though, we were on our own, a fact that was complicated by Ms. Goss’s stylistic innovation in having the characters interrupt the narrative to comment on the writing of the story (being handled by Catherine, who is a writer of penny dreadfuls as well as a sideshow performer). Both Fran and Donna remarked that the first half of the book seemed unnecessarily complicated by these interruptions, no matter how amusing they cold be, since we are bombarded by characters and events that are not yet introduced in the main narrative.
The Game is afoot!
After the first half, though, as we became comfortable with this collection of ill-used daughters making their own stories out of the yarns in which they were originally tangled, another surprise hit us. We were actually in a Sherlock Holmes story! Liz, in fact, knowing of Chris’s affection for the master detective of 221B Baker Street, even asked him how he came to recommend the book to the Beamers. Actually, Kathy found it on Goodreads and sponsored it, but the confusion was understandable to all of us. I, having owned a copy of William Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, found myself both pleased and puzzled at the Holmesian intrusion. Certainly, Ms. Goss does a masterful job at portraying the world’s first consulting detective, as Chris demonstrated with his quoting of a passage with the classic Holmes rattling off a list of biographical details from his first close observation of an unknown person. And Holmes and Watson, as regular visitors to the Jekyll household, do not upstage the daughters. There is a welcome lack of “Dr. Who-itis”, where a single character dominates every scene on entry. Still, I did find it a bit disconcerting to have Holmes (and to a lesser extent, Watson, who gets himself shot and thus is sidelined a bit more) become Mary Jekyll’s most regular compan.
The More, the Merrie Ol’ England-er
Otherwise, the addition of dozens of characters from Victorian literature worked like comfort food for us, whether they be main characters (like Frankenstein’s first monster, here called Adam, and Edward Prendick, Moreau’s castaway guest) or minor (like Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer), either alone or in company (such as nearly the entire cast of Dracula, other than the vampiric count). Alan, who enjoys works that re-use characters (either historical or fictional) was quite pleased with the regular jolts of recognition that the book provides. With one possible exception: Renfield, the life-obsessed eater of flies and spiders, known associate Dracula. Why is he here, where he provides no more advancement to the plot than he does in Stoker’s novel?, Alan mused. Donna, having seen the movie version of Dracula, suggested that Renfield is comic relief and thus popular, but Alan’s amusement stemmed more from the apparent superfluity of Renfield than from the character’s antics.
The jumble of characters was also reflected in a jumble of plot details, perhaps not coincidentally. Liz found the plot to be a regular series of reversals and escapes, which somewhat negated the efforts of the main characters to uncover the mysteries of Jekyll’s past, the Society of Alchemists to which he belonged, and who Edward Hyde truly is. Kathy also had trouble at times maintaining her suspension of disbelief, especially as Moreau’s beast-man ran wild through the streets of London chasing our heroes, without any notice or reaction from the regular citizens. I liked the idea of Justine having a peaceful idyll of 70 years on the Cornish coast (where she spawned a local legend of the Cornwall Giantess), but I did persist in wondering how she stayed clothed for all that time in an abandoned if luxurious manor house.
All’s well that ends?
The ending, too, provided us with both too little and too much. Liz hoped for a bit more resolution to the mysteries, while I would have settled for at least some advancement to a later stage, even if the mysteries were still unsolved. If Edward Hyde is introduced, then having Mary be simply too emotionally averse to speak with him is not the most elegant way to maintain his secrets. Clearly, too, the book would have a sequel, with the Jekyll household become the headquarters of the Athena Club. But, were we really in need of several pages introducing the plight of Lucinda Van Helsing? What should have been a tease seems a bit more like a taunt. And the dissection of Mary Shelley, whose seminal work was a part of this work’s universe but whose “facts” disagreed with the contemporary framework and thus reduced Ms. Shelley to apologist for the Bad Guys, seemed more like a Moreau-style vivisection than a laser-surgery reconstruction to reconcile the differences.
All that being said, we still appreciated Ms. Goss’s handling of her materials and had any number of inspirations for further reading, following Alan’s lead into Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” or Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (possibly the October Beamer book). The ratings on the book were a round of 7’s and 8’s (with a generous 9 from Nick, who read this one straight through, without skipping ahead or around), even given its first-novel issues and its position more in the Conan Doyle canon than in the H. G. Wells tradition. But there are numerous Beamer books that gleefully stray from the beaten path of sf/f, and we were gleefully in straying into many of the associated works that helped fertilize the fields of sf/f on which we usually graze.