It’s been pretty hot here and so, when not concocting horrible puddings, I’ve been ignoring the work I should be doing, also my daughter, and lying as close to a fan as possible, reading. And I can heartily recommend this book as the perfect way to forget that it’s 42oC in your garden, and that you have a pile of work, and, indeed, a child.
Mrs Poole frowned and put her hands on her hips. ‘I’m worried about Miss Mary and the rest of them, that’s all. I wish they would write us a proper letter—telegrams are like those Egyptian hieroglyphs they have now at the British Museum. You never quite know what they mean. As for Alpha and Omega, and I don’t know why you couldn’t have called them sensible, decent cat names, like Tom and Puss—just keep them out of my kitchen. Two dead mice they left on the floor yesterday! I stepped on one of them this morning and had to clean the bottoms of my slippers with carbolic!’
‘Well,’ said Catherine, reasonably, ‘I think that comes under the category of doing their jobs, don’t you think? After all, you said they could stay as long as they caught mice. They must have overheard you. And two dead mice are better in the kitchen than two live ones, aren’t they?’
‘Hrumph!’ said Mrs Poole.
MRS POOLE: I would never make such an undignified sound! [...]
Just then, the front door bell rang.
MRS POOLE: It was actually half an hour later, but if you want to put lies into your book, don’t let me stop you!
CATHERINE: It’s more suspenseful this way.
European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, apart from having a brilliant title, is the second in a trilogy which began with The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (published last summer). In the first book, we were introduced to the Athena Club, a group of female monsters from famous nineteenth-century texts (mostly – Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde never existed in Robert Louis Stevenson’s story but they are plausible inventions). Goss re-imagines these monsters, their stories and the stories of their creators, re-casting the monsters as likeable heroines struggling with their unusual abilities, and their creators as monstrous scientists who have abandoned all ethical constraints in their work.
In this second book, Goss takes on Dracula. When the Athena Club – Mary, Diana, Justine Frankenstein, Beatrice Rappaccini and Catherine Moreau – receive a letter from Lucinda Van Helsing begging for their help, they immediately make plans to assist her. But before Mary and Justine can leave for Vienna, a telegram arrives from Mina Murray: Lucinda has been kidnapped. It seems that, like the members of the Athena Club, she has been subjected to dreadful experiments – by her own father. The Athena Club must race to rescue Lucinda, discover the latest fiendish plot by renegade scientists and expose it to the Annual Meeting of the Société des Alchimistes in Budapest, while evading capture by old enemies and destruction by a new and deadly foe, and ingesting vast quantities of cake. It’s fast-paced and entertaining, a book for which the terms ‘madcap’ and ‘romp’ were surely designed; it’s also charming and rather funny.
Goss, many of whose wonderful short stories are formally inventive, has said that the forms of the gothic texts she draws upon are themselves monstrous, and she has tried to reflect this in her Athena Club books. So her tale of derring-do, which is being written down by Catherine, is frequently interrupted by other characters, who comment on – and complain about – the story and on Catherine’s way of writing, adding extra information they deem important. This revising of well-known stories is a collaborative act among the characters who have been ‘wronged’ in the classic versions. It’s also a way of highlighting the inherent partiality, unreliability even, of any one version of a story – Van Helsing’s perspective of events in the novel might be radically different to that of the Athena Club members, in fact sometimes even Catherine’s perspective is different to someone else’s. Furthermore, it reminds us of how an author must shape a text, imagining what she doesn’t know, leaving out some details and including others (Catherine has to deal with interpolated protests about all of these things from her friends, as in the piece I quoted above in which the housekeeper, Mrs Poole, takes issue with her writing). Sometimes she even has to change the language in which the characters are speaking:
‘He does, actually,’ said Greta. Suddenly, she grinned, and Justine could see the street urchin she had been behind the carefully trained maid. ‘Don’t ask me how I know that.’
Justine could not help smiling in response. ‘Very well, I shall restrain my curiosity.’
DIANA: Wait a minute, you were telling Mary’s story, in her voice and everything. And now you’re telling Justine’s.
CATHERINE: Well, Mary wasn’t there, so I can’t tell this part from her perspective, can I?
DIANA: It just seems ... weird. [...]
JUSTINE: Catherine, I seem to remember that Greta and I were speaking in French.
CATHERINE: If you want this section to be in French, you’ll have to write it yourself.
‘Perhaps I’ll tell you another time how I learned where the Emperor keeps his handkerchief!’ said Greta, in French, for that was the language she and Justine were speaking. ‘It is, at any rate, an amusing anecdote [...]’
It’s a clever device and I have to say it works better in this book than in the previous one, enriching the reader’s understanding of the characters, keeping the tone light and balancing the more outlandish happenings.
Although it’s not strictly necessary, if like me you’re a homeworky sort of person it is worth (re)reading the classics on which Goss draws (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Island of Dr Moreau, Frankenstein, The Great God Pan and Rappaccini’s Daughter, and for this volume, Dracula, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and Carmilla). Certainly, seeing how Goss re-works these texts is one of the many pleasures of her two novels and they are all classics for a reason, they’re no hardship to read. (Now I’m sounding like a teacher again...)
All in all, this is superior fun and ideal summer holiday reading...
(Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov, By the Lake, oil on canvas, 1918; from here)