The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Human-Directed Evolution in Theodora Goss’s Victorian Crossover Novel

Miranda Butler is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she studies Victorian reading and writing practices, historical media technologies, and evolutionary discourse.

In chapter nine of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Diana Hyde, daughter of the infamous Edward Hyde, asks the following question of Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and her half-sister Mary Jekyll: “Is anyone not a member of this society?”[1] The question, if posed playfully, could also characterize the novel itself—which manages to incorporate an impressively large number of nineteenth-century characters into a single cohesive plot.

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The cover of Theodora Goss’s novel. Goss is a Hungarian-American fantasy writer whose works have been nominated for such prizes as the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award.

 

Theodora Goss’s latest work, released in June 2017, paints a vivid and historically-rich portrait of London in the 1890s. In addition to constantly calling her reader’s attention to the era’s real political issues, like women’s suffrage, and defining events, like the Whitechapel Murders, Goss weaves together a rigorously detailed story that imagines scientific links and personal relationships between numerous characters from nineteenth-century works.

 

 

 

The story begins when Mary, already left in financial ruin after her father’s death, loses her mother as well, and must put her finances in order. When she finds the name “Hyde” in her mother’s bank papers, she goes searching for her father’s old friend in the hopes of claiming the reward offered for aiding in his arrest. What she uncovers instead is the truth about her father and his experiment—and his ties to a much larger conspiracy, of sorts. Henry Jekyll was a member of the Société des Alchimistes, a group of scientifically-minded intellectuals that includes figures from Mary Shelley and Lord Byron to Doctor Moreau and Abraham van Helsing.

Mary discovers, with the help of Holmes and Watson, that the daughters of many scientists in this Society were either experimented upon, or wholly created by, their father figures. Once she has found Diana Hyde, Mary is also united with Catherine Moreau (formerly known as Dr. Moreau’s puma), Justine Frankenstein (Victor’s female creation, who was incorrectly thought to have been destroyed), and Beatrice Rappaccini (from Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”). Goss’s original inspiration explains the quasi-fanfictional crossover this way: when writing her doctoral dissertation on monsters in late Victorian Gothic fiction,[2] Goss often wondered, “Why did so many of the mad scientists in nineteenth-century narratives create, or start creating but then destroy, female monsters?”[3]

The novel offers a complex argument in its response to the basic question: “why did so many mad scientists create monsters (in the first place)?” Her fictional characters’ engagement with nineteenth-century science suggests evolutionary theories and their accompanying concerns as a potential answer. The Society creates monsters as part of their search for the secret to eternal life; rather than attempting to make human subjects immortal through chemical transmutation, like their medieval forbearers, the Society believes that, “The important scientific advances of this century will be in the biological sciences.” Thus, they begin their experiments in an attempt to advance humanity through human-directed evolution: “Darwin has shown us the way,” Giacomo Rappaccini writes to Henry Jekyll, “although he himself cannot see past the end of his nose!”[4]

The details Goss includes bring to life new ways of understanding bodies and species that inspired nineteenth-century science fiction narratives. Beatrice Rappaccini, whose character was first created by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1844, fifteen years prior to the publication of the Origin of Species, explains that her father has been a proponent of evolutionary theory since “before Mr. Darwin became famous for his proof of it.”[5] For this reason, she describes her father’s initial experiment as a Lamarckian one: “He believed that by introducing traits from plants into living men and women, he could pass those traits on to the next generation. He could direct the course of evolution, create better, stronger human beings.”[6] Similarly, Justine Frankenstein explains that Victor never endowed her with female reproductive organs, for fear that she would populate the world with more monsters.[7] Though it is less clear how Beatrice has lived through the heyday of Darwin’s writings without aging, Goss explains that since Justine was reanimated from the dead, she has not aged like a normal woman.

These earlier nineteenth-century characters’ motivations also illuminate the theories that prompted Goss’s Doctor Moreau to create Catherine, whom the novel reimagines as a fully-self-aware woman with only slight physical traces of having once been a puma. Though The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter focuses on the fictional Doctor Moreau rather than the historical H. G. Wells, the characters use language that mimics several of Wells’s essays from the 1890s. These works accept Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection while simultaneously positing new ways of thinking that could make human-directed evolution possible.[8]

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The frontispiece to the first edition Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Much of Chapter 14 of Wells’s novel, “Doctor Moreau Explains” is taken almost directly from one of his pro-vivisection essays.

In the “The Limits of Individual Plasticity” (1895), Wells writes that, “We overlook only too often the fact that a living being may also be regarded as raw material, as something plastic, something that may be shaped and altered, that this, possibly, may be added and that eliminated […] too much of our modern morality becomes mere subservience to natural selection.”[9] As Robert Philmus and David Hughes have argued, in the mid-1890s Wells chose to view evolution in the short run only, to imagine that its direction might be determinable. When “there could be no change through the inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarck having been discredited to Wells’s mind) […] The question therefore became: to what extent is the mortal individual plastic in his lifetime; to what extent, after birth, is he, or can he be shaped?”[10] This reasoning explains why, Catherine says, Moreau “ignored his Beast Men after they were created.”[11] Goss applies this common theme of overcoming natural selection—whether long-term or simply in one generation—by physically modifying human, plant, and animal forms, to explain the motives of all the mad scientists she has brought together, and also hint at their historical differences.

The novel complexifies its interpretation of evolution by also invoking Wells’s theories in “Human Evolution: An Artificial Process” (1896). In this essay, Wells writes that, “The attainment of an unstable and transitory perfection only through innumerable generations of suffering and ‘elimination’ is not necessarily the destiny of humanity.”[12] Rather, as he has suggested in The Island of Doctor Moreau, “the evolutionary process now operating in the social body is one essentially different from that which has differentiated species in the past and raised man to his ascendency among the animals.”[13] In other words, the acquired characteristics of tradition and suggestion enable humanity, through mechanisms such as Education rather than Natural Selection, to take an active role in determining its own social future.

Such an argument clearly imagines a dangerously Arnoldian vision of culture and education, which can be used to Anglicize colonial subjects and keep the power to suppress “anarchy” in the hands of the ruling classes. Though Goss’s novel does not directly address the destructive force of empire, or the way that evolutionary ideas, including Darwin’s and Wells’s, were used to reinforce racism, it does offer an answer to the question, “why female monsters?”

Goss’s story posits that in the same way Victorian women were seen as more spiritually sensitive and psychologically impressionable than men,[14] the male scientists in her novel believed that “the female brain would be more malleable and responsive” to experimentation.[15] However, the female characters being “molded” actively resist this theory. Although these women were physically malleable enough to be transformed into something other-than-human, their minds cannot be controlled permanently.

In different ways, each of the female characters is taught to be subservient. Mary and Diana were never experimented upon, but nonetheless, Mary was educated to be a dutiful Victorian lady, and Diana a strict religious subject. Justine was told by her “mate,” Adam, that she was created to serve him, and Catherine and Beatrice were both held physically and psychologically captive by different male authority figures who profited from their ability to perform on stage. Yet, despite being inculcated with the importance of obedience, the women each take charge, one by one, of their own lives and futures. In this way, they turn the idea of Victorian ascendency on its head, affirming that modified humans are capable of creating their own futures, but taking that power out of the hands of the patriarchal society that attempted to assimilate them into the expectations of the ruling culture. Throughout the course of the novel, the women liberate each other from the male gaze, and turn their attention to protecting other people from the inevitable consequences of self-serving science. Ultimately, these characters form a new kind of all-female family, whose agency, autonomy, and non-biological kinship disprove the arrogant theories of the Société des Alchimistes.

This alternative, feminist sharing of information to educate each other is also reflected in the form of the novel itself. In contrast to their fathers—solitary “mad scientist” figures who worked in separate geographical locations, and corresponded about their experiments almost exclusively via letters—Goss’s characters tell their story collaboratively. The book is formatted as a novel being written by Catherine Moreau, who is recording the women’s collective story, but does so with her found family physically present, contributing their ideas and voices. For this reason, snippets of dialogue formatted like a play are included intermittently throughout the story, depicting the conversations that took place between the women as they discussed how they wanted their narrative to be told.

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A screenshot of the Kindle edition of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, depicting the play-formatted dialogue interspersed throughout the text of the novel. Page 174.

Though this can sometimes interrupt the flow of the novel, occasionally feeling unnecessary or repeating facts and character traits already explained in the book, that seems to be the point of this authorial choice. Goss reworks the epistolary form utilized by many of the characters’ original literary iterations in a way that ensures each female character always has a platform to express her experience, even when that woman is not the current writer of the story. As Catherine explains in the “author’s note” that concludes Chapter 1, “It will be a new way of writing a novel, and why not? This is the [18]90s, as Mary pointed out. It’s time we developed new ways of writing for the new century.”[16]

 

Works cited:

[1] Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (New York: Saga Press, 2017), 146.

[2] Boston University, “The Monster in the Mirror: Late Victorian Gothic and Anthropology.” English Dissertation Defense of Theodora Goss. http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/calendar/event.php?id=116931&cid=17&oid=0

[3] Goss, Alchemist’s Daughter, 401.

[4] Ibid, 86.

[5] Ibid, 208

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 345.

[8] Similar ideas are currently being presented in the final season of the BBC America television series Orphan Black.

[9] H.G. Wells, “The Limits of Individual Plasticity” in H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction. Edited by Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes (Los Angeles: University of California press, 1975), 36.

[10] Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes, “Introduction” to H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction (Los Angeles: University of California press, 1975), 11.

[11] Goss, Alchemist’s Daughter, 379.

[12] H.G. Wells, “Human Evolution: An Artificial Process” in H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction. Edited by Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes (Los Angeles: University of California press, 1975), 219.

[13] Ibid, 211.

[14] See Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

[15] Goss, Alchemist’s Daughter, 167.

[16] Ibid, 20.

 

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