The Big Idea: Theodora Goss
For European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, author Theodora Goss considers a famous Victorian book, character and author for an extended thought on who and what can truly be called a monster. Grab your stakes and let’s hammer this one home, shall we?
In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, I brought together a collection of female monsters: Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. They found each other, told each other their stories, and ultimately moved in together, into Mary’s residence at 11 Park Terrace, also known as the Athena Club. There, they live and get along as you would expect five women to: often bickering, sometimes fighting, but supporting each other when it counts.
It’s a good life in a comfortable home, decorated by Beatrice in the latest aesthetic fashion, to the extent a group of women who have to work for their living can afford it, presided over by the redoubtable Mrs. Poole. Right across Regent’s Park are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I could have left them there, to live happily in late nineteenth-century London: Justine could have continued her painting career, Catherine could have continued to write pot-boilers about spider gods and dangerous femmes fatales, Mary could have gone to work each morning for Mr. Holmes, filing his cases and helping solve the occasional mystery. Diana could have continued to be a pain in the arse. But as a writer, I did not want to leave my characters in such peaceful circumstances! I had to make life harder for them . . .
And so, in European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, I send them off to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing.
To be perfectly honest, there wasn’t a single big idea behind this second adventure of the Athena Club—just a collection of smaller ideas that added up to a big, long book. As you may know if you read my Big Idea post for the first book, it started with my doctoral dissertation on late nineteenth-century gothic fiction. While writing that dissertation, I realized that around the turn of the century, mad scientists kept creating female monsters . . . and destroying them. I thought that was not fair, not fair at all. Those female monsters deserved to live and tell their own stories, so I brought them to life in my book. But there was one late nineteenth-century novel that I could not include in my dissertation because it was so long, so complicated, that it would have taken another hundred pages (in addition to the four hundred I had already written) to discuss. That novel was Dracula.
Bram Stoker’s most famous novel is so difficult to write about because it takes all the themes of late nineteenth-century gothic fiction and incorporates them into one very long book. It’s about immigration, the British Empire, the power and importance of wealth, the New Woman and reversed gender roles, evolution and degeneration, the English gentleman, the criminal anthropology of Cesare Lombroso, the emerging field of psychoanalysis . . . even, obliquely, the Irish question. It’s a strange, ambiguous novel. The closer you look at it, the more its multiple narrations collapse, and the more you begin to question who is the monster.
My choice is one of its most complex characters, Abraham Van Helsing, the Dutch vampire-hunter whose first name is Stoker’s own, and whose last name is an anagram for English. He’s the hero of the story, right? After all, he saves civilization and Victorian womanhood by telling his group of male followers to stake and decapitate Lucy Westenra when she has turned into a vampire. That staking scene, which takes place on the night Lucy was supposed to marry her financé Arthur Holmwood, is described in all the lurid detail of a Hammer film, with orgiastic cries and splashing blood.
The problem with a straightforward reading of Dracula is that Stoker was a more complicated writer than he’s given credit for. You can see that in his short stories and less well-known novels, such as The Jewel of Seven Stars and Lair of the White Worm. He may not have been a Henry James stylistically, but he shared James’s tendency to turn stories inside out, so that you’re not entirely sure what you’ve read. The closer my students look at the final scene of Dracula, in which the vampire’s throat is sheared through with a kukri knife while the sun sets over his Transylvanian castle, the less sure they are that he’s been destroyed in the proper, prescribed vampire fashion. Although the Count disintegrates into dust, he’s done that before, on several occasions. And can we really trust the eyewitness account of Mina Murray, who is in Dracula’s power?
Here’s what I think: Van Helsing is a villain, the worst of them all. Dracula and Mina are in league together from the moment he first sucks her blood. And the book, compiled by Mina herself, is fundamentally untrustworthy.
So one of the ideas behind the second book was that I needed to write about the characters and events of Dracula. You simply can’t write about monsters at the end of the nineteenth century without discussing Mina, Van Helsing, his vampire-hunting groupies, and the Count himself. And where would they be, after the events of Dracula? Why, in Budapest of course!
The second idea was to take my characters from the British Empire, which was about to fall apart, to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also about to fall apart. If I was going to write pulp metafiction about the late nineteenth-century, I had to pull out all the stops, and two of those stops are Vienna and Budapest. I particularly wanted to write about Budapest, the city where I was born, which seemed to be the logical place for the headquarters of a secret society of alchemists. After all, Budapest has been associated with both magic and science for centuries—and it is, itself, a beautiful, magical city.
The third idea was that once I had introduced these five young women to one another, they should go have adventures together. It was so much fun writing about Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine, not when they had just met, but when they had known each other for a while and were forced to work together under circumstance that were sometimes exciting, sometimes difficult, and sometimes just plain tedious, as travel can be. I had a lot of fun writing this book, going to Vienna and Budapest to imagine what those cities would have been like in the late nineteenth century.
But in the end, it was all about the central characters. Have they become friends? What do they think about each other and the Athena Club? Has anyone strangled Diana yet? Out of all these ideas came a novel that I hope will be a fun read for anyone who enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and its cast of monstrous gentlewomen.