An Interview with Theodora Goss

  • By Craig Laurance Gidney
  • October 24, 2017

The novelist talks feminism, fairytales, and Victorian monsters


At first glance, Theodora Goss’ debut novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is a mash-up genre novel in the vein of the TV show “Penny Dreadful” or the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The cast Goss works with includes cameos from iconic characters from classic gothic fiction and the mystery plot concerns the gruesome murders of women in the backstreets of London.

However, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is multi-layered and much more subversive than the “elevator pitch” blurb might lead one to believe. For starters, it focuses on the women of such novels as Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, among others. Goss gives life, voice, and agency to a cast of female monsters barely hinted at in the original texts.

The main protagonist of the novel is Mary Jekyll (a character invented by Goss), the daughter of the famous shape-shifting doctor. As she is going through the papers of her recently deceased mother, she finds references to a mysterious society of alchemists which, in turn, leads her to meeting the daughters of mad scientists. Some of these “daughters” are the monstrous creations of their fathers, and all of the women are caught up in a most fiendish plot.

Revisionist retellings are very hot right now. I’m thinking of the cable show “Penny Dreadful” and graphic novels like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. What inspired you to do your own take?

I love both The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and “Penny Dreadful,” although I consciously limited my reading/viewing of both because I didn't want them to influence my interpretation. What really inspired me was reading the original texts for my Ph.D. in English literature. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on late-19th-century gothic fiction and started noticing that there were a lot of mad scientists running around in the 19th century — and that a lot of those mad scientists either thought of creating or actually created female monsters.

Early in the century, we have Victor Frankenstein almost creating a female monster as a mate for his male monster, then destroying her for fear that they might have monstrous children. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Rappaccini's Daughter," Dr. Rappaccini makes his own daughter poisonous. Her breath can kill, and her touch burns.

The infamous Dr. Moreau creates a vivisected Beast Woman out of a puma on his remote island — she kills him, and is also killed in the process. There are also some less well-known examples, like Dr. Raymond in Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, whose experiments result in the birth of Helen, a deadly creature who can channel forces from beyond the rational world. I thought, what's up with all these mad scientists? Why do they keep creating or almost creating female monsters? And perhaps most importantly, why do all these female monsters die?

I mean, in late-19th-century fiction, monsters in general die, but there's a sense that female monsters are even more deadly than their male counterparts. And some of them, like Frankenstein's female monster and the Puma Woman, get no speaking lines. Unlike Frankenstein's monster, whose narrative takes up a significant portion of the novel, they never get to tell their own stories. I wanted to hear those stories, but no one had written them…so I figured I would.

What drew you to explore the stories of these particular Victorian female monsters?

They were my favorites! I've always been fascinated by Beatrice Rappaccini. Who wouldn't be fascinated by a beautiful woman who is also poisonous — whose beauty is, in fact, created by her toxicity? Giovanni, the narrator of her story, is certainly fascinated by her. With Frankenstein's female monster and Moreau's Puma Woman, my motivation was part anger and part curiosity. The first didn't even get to exist! The second was essentially tortured in the process of becoming human, then killed off to serve the narrative. That seemed so unfair.

Those were the origins of my characters Beatrice Rappaccini, Justine Frankenstein, and Catherine Moreau. The other two central characters in the novel, Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde, don't appear in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; I added them. I did so because I noticed something strange in the story. First, it has almost no female characters — a maid and a housekeeper, that's about it. Second, Hyde himself is presented as symbolically female: Jekyll describes the process of turning into Hyde as "unmanning," and Hyde is described as hysterical (a term associated with women in the 19th century).

Third, all the theatrical and film versions I'm aware of add female characters, typically love interests (a fiancée for the upright Jekyll, a prostitute for the degenerate Hyde). I thought, there's something going on here, something hidden in this text. I decided that for my novel, that hidden thing would be daughters. After all, if the other mad scientists of 19th-century literature created monstrous progeny, why not Jekyll and Hyde?

Tell us a little about your background, particularly your connection to the DC area.

I actually grew up around DC. I'm an immigrant: my mother left what was then communist Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain, when I was 5 years old. We lived in Belgium for two years, then moved to the United States. My mother was a research scientist who was working at the National Institutes of Health, so we lived in Bethesda. Later, when she entered private practice as a pediatrician, we lived in Arlington, and then moved out to Loudon, and finally moved in to Fairfax. So I lived all over the DC suburbs. On weekends, we would drive into the city and go to all the amazing museums around the Mall. When I moved away from DC for law school (after college at the University of Virginia), I suddenly realized that most museums charge entry fees! Boy, that was a real bummer. I don't think I would have gotten the cultural education I did growing up if it were not for the wonderful DC museums.

You teach classes in fairytales and folklore at Boston University. In what way are fairytales feminist texts?

Some are, and some aren't — it depends on the tale and the version of the tale. For example, I would not call the Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” feminist tales. The Perrault version, in which Little Red is eaten by the wolf, is a cautionary tale for aristocratic young ladies, warning them against seductive male courtiers at the court of Louis XIV. The Grimm version, in which Little Red and her grandmother escape with the help of a huntsman, is a story for the daughters of the German bourgeoisie, teaching them the virtues of punctuality and obedience.

But if you trace the story back to its folk origins, it does become a feminist tale: In the oral "Story of Grandmother," the girl tricks the wolf and runs away, saving herself. In some versions, she is helped by laundresses at the river, who hold up the sheets they are washing so she can run over them, while they let the wolf drown. In general, older folk versions tend to focus more on clever heroines. If you think about it, the folk who told those oral tales needed to be clever to survive — they valued trickery and pluck.

For Perrault's audience, a woman's value was determined by her virtue: hence the frightening lesson that the wolf might eat you up. The Grimms were writing for a middle class in which girls were expected to listen and obey their parents. That said, in the Grimm version, there is a second story we often don't hear: After grandmother and Little Red are saved by the huntsman, they return home. Along comes a second wolf, but they have learned their lesson: Little Red tricks him into drowning himself in water that her grandmother used to cook sausage.

So the feminist message persists after all — we just don't transmit it to our children. If anyone complains that modern writers are rewriting fairytales to add feminist messages, tell them those messages were there in many of the oldest versions! It's not updating the tales, but taking them back to their origins.

What can we expect in the thrilling next installment?

In the second book, my characters must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they will once again confront the Société des Alchimistes. I don't want to give too much away, but it was a lot of fun to research. I had to go to Vienna and Budapest, and try to imagine what those cities would have looked like in the 1890s, which was a period of tremendous change artistically, technologically, and politically.

For a while, in my head, I was calling the book Monsters with Baedekers (no, that's not what it's going to be called), and I actually have a Baedeker's guide to Austria-Hungary from that time period. It was very helpful when I wanted to know the exchange rate between francs and krone! The second book will introduce some new characters that I loved writing about — hopefully people will be interested in reading about them!

Craig Laurance Gidney is the author of the collections Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories (Lethe Press, 2008), Skin Deep Magic (Rebel Satori Press, 2014), and the YA novels Bereft (Tiny Satchel Press, 2013) and The Nectar of Nightmares (Dim Shores, 2015). He lives in his native Washington, DC. Find him on Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter at @ethereallad.

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