Gary K. Wolfe reviews European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss (Saga 978-1-4814-6653-0, $26.99, 720pp, hc) July 2018.

When Theodora Goss introduced us to the members of the Athena Club in last year’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, that fun she was having with her lively and contentious group of women was contagious, but that fun masked a more provocative reconsideration of the roles imposed on women in Victorian society – in particular in the shelf of classics she chose to raid for her characters’ origins: Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson, Catherine Moreau from H.G. Wells, Justine Frankenstein from Mary Shelley, Beatrice Rappacini from Nathaniel Hawthorne, and – in supporting roles – Holmes and Watson from Doyle. All the women were victims of hellish fathers (though the pumawoman Catherine and the revivified Justine were more or less manufactured ‘‘daughters’’), and each had particular skills or characteristics: Justine’s superhuman strength, Beatrice’s poisonous metabolism, Diana’s street-smart skills (like burglary), Mary’s level-headed organizational ability. In the course of that novel, Goss introduced additional characters from Bram Stoker, and one of them, Van Helsing, now turns out to be the nastiest dad of them all. European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman begins some time after the earlier novel, which we are given to understand was written by Catherine (who’s made something of a name as a thriller writer), when Mary receives a letter from Van Helsing’s daughter Lucinda, who is trapped in a prisonlike asylum in Vienna, begging for assistance. Like the other nightmare fathers, Van Helsing is involved with the shadowy Société des Alchimistes, basically a group of power-hungry mad scientists obsessed with the idea of ‘‘biological transmutation’’, which includes everything from Moreau’s vivisection experiments to vampirism. (We later learn there is more to the Société than at first meets the eye.)

Goss’s passion for Victorian-era thrillers is again apparent, and this time out she adds more figures from Stoker (including, finally, the Count himself), as well as from Sheridan le Fanu and H. Rider Haggard, with brief shout-outs to Polidori and even Maturin. While Holmes and Watson remain offstage for most of the tale, the Athena Club manages to enlist the aid of Irene Adler, as well as Mina Murray from Dracula and even, briefly, Sigmund Freud. It’s never been clear to me how significant such literary and historical allusions are to readers simply looking for a good thriller, but Goss’s obvious affection for her own invented characters is what really propels the narrative, if at a somewhat more leisurely pace (and considerably greater length) than The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. While that novel had to pack in the backstories of the main characters while revealing the horrors of the Société des Alchimistes (and even solving some familiar Whitechapel murders along the way), European Travels is largely what the name implies – the long journey from London to Vienna, an inadvertent side trip to Styria, and finally to Budapest (described in such loving detail that it almost does serve as a travel guide).

As before, banter among the club members, as they seem to read over Catherine’s shoulder while she’s writing the story, periodically interrupts the narrative with comically snarky interludes, and as before the youngest member, Diana, is permitted some pointedly anachronistic contemporary dialogue (‘‘a pain in the ass,’’ ‘‘That is so gross’’), while the housekeeper Mrs. Poole pops up from time to time as the guardian of traditional Victorian values. In fact, the considerable charm of European Travel comes from the manner in which it deepens and complicates the relationships among its central characters; while there are plenty of hairbreadth escapes and hair-raising battles with unpleasant creatures, along with such classic melodramatic techniques as overheard conversations, clever disguises, and long-held secrets, most of the supernatural spectacle is saved for the second half of the novel. Until then, it’s fun to settle in and enjoy this company of remarkable women, discovering themselves and supporting each other in open defiance of the expectations of their era. As before, though, there’s a hook at the end clearly designed to draw us into the next volume. It works.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the June 2018 issue of Locus.

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