European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss
With so much to recommend about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, from Theodora Goss’ fresh takes on nineteenth-century novels and characters to the inventive way she brought all of them together, I had extremely high hopes for its first sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018). And while it was great to have the Athena Club back together again, the overall tone and pace of this novel were so different from its predecessor, so committed to following the glacial speed of a contemporary railway journey across Europe (twice, no less), that it was surprisingly easy for me to take reading breaks. However, the final third of the book more than made up for the languorous pace of the first two-thirds, and sets up what I hope will be a cracking good adventure in the next instalment.
The Athena Club has made a bit of a name for itself as a champion of women’s rights and solver of strange mysteries since the close of the Whitechapel Murders. Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Justine Frankenstein, Beatrice Rappacini, and Catherine Moreau have all taken up residence in Mary’s London home, assisted daily by the indomitable Mrs. Poole and thirteen-year-old maid Alice. As the story opens, we meet Lucinda Van Helsing, who is either very mad or in a great deal of danger, before Diana interrupts and tells Catherine to begin the book another way. (The timeline of these interjections and Catherine’s writing process remains unclear — occasional mentions are made of other adventures which clearly take place at a later time than the one currently recounted for the reader. As much as I enjoy these conversational asides, I would like just a tad more context.)
So we begin again, with a quick meeting of the Athena Club before Mark heads off to 221B Baker Street, where she is employed as a secretary to Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, and to whom she reveals a recently-received letter from Lucinda Van Helsing begging for help from the Athena Club and invoking Miss Murray, a mutual acquaintance of Lucinda’s and Mary’s. It seems that Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a member of the Société des Alchimistes, has been carrying out experiments upon his daughter against her will and with potentially dangerous results. Holmes immediately offers the assistance of his close friend, Irene Norton (née Adler), who lives in Vienna and is well-connected among influential people across continental Europe.
While Mary, Diana, and Justine set off for a long journey in pursuit of Lucinda, Catherine and Beatrice stay behind to investigate Dr. Seward, having learned that there is an important Société des Alchimistes meeting in Budapest which Seward and his associates are busily preparing for. As luck would have it, events transpire in such a way that Catherine and Beatrice are compelled to make their own journey to Budapest, and it is here that European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman begins to drag: the narrative has to shift so many times from one point of view to another, between one group of travelers and the other, and it’s often difficult to keep track of what is happening and when.
By necessity, the two groups’ journeys take a good deal of time, but when conflicts do arise, they’re often resolved too quickly. Mary and her companions spend quite a bit of time with Irene Norton, who is a true delight, and I wish she’d had even more page time than Goss gives her; other new characters, such as Miss Murray and a death-defying young woman with a passion for motorcars, add complexity and a deeper sense of history to the Société des Alchimistes, which, itself, is more fascinating and troubled than Goss had previously indicated. Again, I’m excited to see what will happen in further instalments of THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF THE ATHENA CLUB now that we’ve been given new information about the Society, its goals and leadership, and various factions set against it. But the road to that information is bumpy, and wanders a bit when it could go straight, and riddled with diversions that were too-often distracting rather than fascinating.
Goss weaves more and more eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary and historical references into European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, some of which are quite subtle, while others are instantly recognizable. I enjoyed her portrayals of contemporary Budapest and Vienna, and their contrast with London, felt most keenly by Mary. I also appreciated her continuing development of the individual members of the Athena Club, examining their strengths and weaknesses while exploring the continuing legacies of their creators’ experimentation.
Now that even more groundwork has been established, and readers have a better understanding of the Société des Alchimistes and its members, Goss should have plenty of room to spring into the next novel and move it forward with far greater momentum. Despite its sometimes-meandering plot, I’m glad I read European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, and I look forward to reading more of the Athena Club’s extraordinary adventures.
Theodora Goss’s THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF THE ATHENA CLUB Victorian-era fantasy series brings together a valiant group of women who are the results of men’s scientific experiments: men like Dr. Moreau, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and others. In this series, the women characters ― several of whom perished in the original nineteenth-century stories ― not only survive but thrive. Calling themselves the Athena Club, Mary Jekyll, her sister Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein have banded together to protect each other and others from the men who lose their moral compass in the name of scientific exploration and experimentation.
In European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, the worthy but long-winded sequel to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary receives a letter from Lucinda Van Helsing in Austria, begging for the Athena Club’s help: her professor father has been experimenting on her and she is changing in ways that terrify her. When Mary soon after receives a telegram telling her that Lucinda is missing, she, Diana and Justine head for Vienna on the Orient Express train to search for Lucinda, while Beatrice and Catherine (temporarily) stay behind in London to do some investigation there. The courageous women meet new friends and allies … but also some fearsome new enemies.
European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is a fantasy not only set in the Victorian era but informed by the literature of the time, though with a distinctly modern, feminist take on the role of women. It has a great ensemble cast of characters, supplemented by some intriguing new ones (the addition of the Van Helsing family is a broad hint at the Victorian novel from which Goss is taking inspiration for this novel).
But European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is extremely long (over 700 pages, and I sensed every one of them) and overly attentive to mundane details. I mean, it’s possible to be inspired a bit TOO much by Victorian novels. Jana comments on the glacial pacing, and I completely agree. While I still enjoyed the diverse and unusual characters, their humorous banter and monstrous adventures, the length and pacing issues were too much of barrier for me to be fully engaged by this novel.