literature

An Afterthought From European Travel For The Monstrous Gentlewoman

I had been excited for over a year to finally have a chance to read European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. And when it was finally in my possession, my paperback copy sat on my shelf, beckoning me to start reading as soon as I had the chance.

The members of the Athena Club—Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine—were all waiting for me to indulge in their latest adventure.

I was not disappointed. Theodora Goss has once again outdone herself.

I celebrated my birthday this year by reading this beauty.

I celebrated my birthday this year by reading this beauty.

Being twice the size of its predecessor, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, definitely means there’s twice the action. This plot is more complex but still transitions smoothly as the girls travel across the European continent in search of Lucinda Van Helsing—a young girl being subjected to experiments in biological transmutation, which is a common theme for the Athena Club. 

Our protagonists are the results of various alchemical experimentations conducted by their fathers—great scientists who believed that their work would create a higher man. You’ve heard of them before in the world of literature: the duality of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Rappacini and his poisonous garden, the island of Moreau. And we all know of Frankenstein’s monster.

So of course the Athena Club was quick to run to the girl’s rescue and I wanted nothing more than to pack my bags and run with them.

This entire series so far brings scientific morality upfront and center—just because something can be done, should it? And to what end? 

Morality is a huge grey area for a society of prestigious scientists, the Société des Alchemistes, and the girls are intent on changing that. They know firsthand how inhumane a scientist’s methods can be in order to bring their aspirations to fruition. 

Theodora Goss sets future plot-points in motion well in advance for them to intersect naturally. And I absolutely love her method for foreshadowing. If you ever have a chance to read this series—which I highly recommend you do—pay close attention to the girls’ commentary throughout the narrative. I found myself stumbling across events that the girls had already discussed in the previous book.

My only nitpick about this novel is that Goss often relies on acts of generosity to assist the girls’ adventures, and while everything fits together seamlessly, it would have been nice to see them progress more independently like the strong women they have already proven themselves to be. 

Goss has created a lot of depth within these pages, and reading them was a very contemplative experience for me. Without realizing it, I had dived into much-needed conversations with myself that I had been completely avoiding.

So I want to bring up something important European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman addresses, and that’s how the people we know impact our lives.

Someone I used to know once told me:

“If you want to see how other people see you, look at who your friends are.”

Everyone you meet can create a change in you, and the company you keep reflects on who you are as an individual.

The girls of the Athena Club certainly learned a multitude of life lessons from their encounters, such as the lovely and feisty Irene Norton, snake-charming Zora, and the bold Carmilla Karnstein. And their interactions certainly presented character growth.

But what about the people you have no choice in knowing, such as your parents?

A significant part of the girls’ character arcs revolves around their fathers. Being the results of their experimentation, it is difficult for them to maintain normal lives. 

Books contain the most exciting adventures.

Books contain the most exciting adventures.

Beatrice cannot have direct physical contact without poisoning her loved ones, in fact, no one can be in the same room as her for any lengthy period of time. Justine has clear signs of PTSD as she struggles to adjust to her new life outside of solitude. Catherine was once a wild animal—a puma taken from the Andes—and although she was physically transformed into a human being, she still has much to learn about actually being human.

I think it’s safe to say that Diana is doing just fine, the little hellion that she is, although a little slip of foreshadowing on Goss’s part may herald a turning point for her.

But Mary, as our true window into the narrative, whose father left her at a young age and has strongly opposed to the girls calling themselves monsters, had believed that she was the sole member who had not been physically affected by alchemy. 

But the creeping thought would still sneak up on her:

What if there’s something I don’t know?

Spoiler Alert: her suspicion is correct. 

Mary’s mother, wanting a child more than anything, was barren. Dr. Jekyll, wanting to make his wife happy, slipped a concoction he designed into her tea that enabled her to conceive Mary. 

What exactly this concoction is and how it provided the desired result is up for speculation. Jekyll created it from his research on perfecting the human rationality, and that’s all the information the reader is given.

This concoction more than just produced Mary— it clearly had an impact on her development. She has never cried, blushed, or lashed out because she is unable to do or feel anything irrational or illogical. She was the perfect child who has now grown into Jekyll’s dream of a rational human being without her consciously doing so.

What would you think, how would you feel, to look back and realize that someone has had such an intricate impact in your development? Someone who wasn’t even there for most of your life?

Mary has taken it quite well so far, but it will be interesting to see if that holds up in the next book.

Think about your family, as well as anyone else you’ve ever known. What sort of impact have they had on you? Would you be the person you are today with or without them?


Want to join the Athena Club? You can buy The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and its sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, at Chapters and other bookstores in your area.

Please support your local independent bookstores whenever possible.


Michelle Bonga

Michelle is a wandering soul. She doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. She hopes she’s doing something right. She is a great person to talk to; doesn’t talk much herself. If you’re nice, she’ll haunt you forever. Or until she’s bored.

The Children Behind Anne Shirley

When you think of Canada, it doesn’t take long for your mind to wander to the red-haired girl with the famous puffed sleeves. Her books are still wildly popular in bookstores today, and she is a constant attraction for Japanese tourists.

Anne-with-an-E Shirley managed to steal the hearts of Canadians everywhere upon publication, and she grew in popularity over the decades. It was never much of a mystery as to why Canadians took to her so quickly. She was optimistic. She was thoughtful. She was loving, and in return she was so easy to love. We cherish her as part of a childhood that Canadians seem to universally share. Her book is a beloved staple.

Even during the war years, her upbeat tale managed to inspire. Poland managed to have the story translated during the war, and she snuck her way into school curriculums globally over the decades. Like the classic Cinderella story, she transformed her flaws into her most beloved attributes. Everyone fell madly in love with her charming speeches, as well as her fiery nature.

The tragic orphan had certainly managed to find her happy ending at Green Gables, while also inspiring several sequels, a beloved mini series in 1985, and even a Japanese anime, furthering her reach across the globe. Anne Shirley was such a staple that even the Canadian tourism industry capitalized off of her story, transforming Prince Edward Island into a landscape of Anne Shirley. One cannot visit the island without stopping by and exploring Green Gables, the home where the author Lucy Maud Montgomery grew up.

Canadians love talking about Anne Shirley and the impact the series had on their own lives. Traces of her can be found in the Canadian landscape. Still lakes, bright beneath the sun. Long sweeping fields of golden hay. Cherry blossoms, in particular, hold a treasured connection to the story and character.

What the country shrinks from, however, is the long legacy of home children, the inspiration behind Anne of Green Gables. Originally plucked from a newspaper advertisement, Montgomery had been inspired by the tale of a girl named Ellen, adopted by an elderly couple when they had originally sent for a boy to take up a role on their farm.

Even from this optimistic portrayal of the adoption and happy-ever-after for the girl, there is a bleakness that lingers. Fate had chosen Ellen to find her way to this home, when so many of the home children were abused and lost, left to work like slaves in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. One wonders what happened to the sought for boy and how his story turned out. Another question leads to the girl’s experiences before she arrived to Canada, safely secured in the hold of two siblings willing to let her remain in their family, despite her gender.

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The mission for Home Children brought few happy-ever-afters, and instead scattered children across the globe.

Poverty had been a common element to life in the UK. Workhouses and their legacies terrorized the lower classes, casting a long shadow of abuse. These workhouses had been designed to fix poverty. Those who could not manage on their own would be taken into the hulking buildings and reduced to numbers. Women and men were separated, and children went off to their own section. The working conditions were overwhelmingly desperate, and the prisoners of the workhouses suffered, trying to work long hours on a low-calorie diet.

Home Children was the child migration scheme that took root in 1869, directing 100,000 children towards countries like Canada and Australia. They suffered extreme hardships and had no social security network to protect them, and were overworked by the settlers of early Canada.

The original intention was to liberate children from crushing poverty and to provide brand new opportunities that they ordinarily wouldn’t find in the UK. In exchange for their labor, they would be provided with shelter and food. However, instead of being adopted into families, children often discovered that they were simply workers-in-training, and separated from the rest of the children living in the area. Tasked with work, they often suffered under the demands.

When we look at Anne of Green Gables, we often fail to see the darkness present in the text. Her comments about her past spent looking after young children and acting as the working child often slip by. She frequently experiences despair, having her own father figure die near the end of the first novel, and in later sequels watches her friend die from consumption and suffers herself a miscarriage. Grief and despair linger in the background of her bright enthusiasm, but we ignore it.

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In the most recent adaptation, Anne With An E took to Netflix and brought with it a nearly faithful adaptation. However, by layering in impressive twists to the original plot, they manage to reinvent the story. The formula is all the same— a red-haired orphan girl adopted by the elderly Cuthberts, and growing up over a string of adventures. It seems simple enough, but there is a brilliance that is added to the rehearsed formula.

The writers brought forward the darkness that loomed in the backdrop of the original source material. While Home Children and their legacy remain absent from the television adaption, flashes of previous trauma flicker across the screen, and the story introduces dangerous characters willing to inflict harm. In the second episode, viewers witness a man attempting to abduct children from the train station, and how close Anne is from being whisked away and never seen again. There is something startling in the casual aspect of the scene as audiences finally acknowledge the perils Anne finds herself engaged with.

One of the main elements to the first season was the harsh financial blow that the farm suffers, representing the dark difficulties of rural farming. The family running the farm depended on yearly success, and without it, things swiftly would go dark. This newly updated story provides insight to how crippling this devastation can be.

The only traces of Home Children can be found in the original inspiration for the novel, and that brings forward a shame. Having played a massive role in working in agricultural realms of Canada, they have been written out of history books. We fail to note our shortcomings in protecting and supporting these workers. Despite being children, they were shipped out for labour purposes only, and were lost from records over time. These children experienced limited agency and only found relief from the Home Children program during the Great Depression, when excess labour was no longer needed.

For now, their grim shadows can be found in the history behind Anne of Green Gables.

It is a fact that Canada fails to properly represent the Home Children. In 2009, the Minister of Immigration refused to apologize for the plight they underwent, and the suffering that they experienced at the hands of Canadians. Only a few token efforts were made to account for their presence, such as a plaque that can be found at the Home Children Memorial and Orphanage Building in Ottawa, a lone marker of the long history that sits in the shadows of elegant trees. A year after the Minister’s refusal to acknowledge the suffering of these labourers, the image of Home Children was printed into a postage stamp, rendered down in a plain piece of art.

As we fail to account for the labour that the country benefited from, the memory of these children suffocate under our silence.


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Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore just to write bad poetry.

A Haunted Legacy

When considering the horror genre, our attention often swivels to the large sections in bookstores occupied by the still growing collection of Stephen King. He’s the writer behind classics like Misery and Carrie, and has inspired so many films based off of the words he originally wrote.

Nevertheless, if we creep back to the years before King’s influence, we arrive at Shirley Jackson, the original inspiration for much of the current genre.

The Gothic genre flourished from her care. Responsible not just for six novels, she also wrote an extensive collection of short stories and two autobiographies, along with other nonfiction works. Her popularity was built off of her ability to startle, using clever symbolism and dark undertones to rattle readers. She revolutionized American literature during the 1950s and 60s.

All of her work was complex. Each story had layered meanings and could be analyzed further, to peel back each element in order to reveal the smooth inner workings that made her writing great. However, the novel that truly sparked her career as a novelist was The Haunting of Hill House.

This book was filled with the turmoil from the relationships she had with both her husband and her mother. Her husband, Stanley Hyman, was known for his frequent sexual relations with other women. In contrast, her mother was an obsessive woman, hellbent on dominating Jackson. Despite her infusion of her painful relationships, this was the first novel that she wrote that achieved immediate financial success upon publication.

Telling the story of a haunted home referred to as ‘Hill House’, Jackson created a slow build of characters finding themselves caught up in the influences of the house. Eleanor Vance, the protagonist, spiralled into a descent of madness throughout the book before killing herself. The house dominates all who enter, and takes who it will. Hill House was a chaotic architectural landscape and bleak history wrapped up into a haunting tale.

Published in 1959, Jackson’s book focused on the theme of terror and revolved around a cast of characters who had taken to staying at Hill House to look for scientific evidence about the existence of the supernatural, due to the long sordid history of the house. She intentionally ensured that the house lacked any physical appearances of ghosts, and instead fixated on the psychological realm of fear, except for a single brief scene where Eleanor is confronted with a pastoral vision of her own desires. Instead of ghostly figures lurking, Jackson was intrigued by how a branch would strike a window during the dead of night and the fear that it would spark. Her book delved into finding the irrational as well as the rational in that emotion, and how it managed to manipulate the different characters.

1963 brought the grim novel to film. Retitled as The Haunting, it was a cinematic masterpiece. Cleverly filtered to remain dark and haunting, the house visually dominated the screen. Jackson’s original story was translated to screen with mostly minor changes, and the house took a defined shape under the influence of MGM and Robert Wise. Wise followed Jackson’s lead and never once revealed any physical images of a ghost. Instead the house was filled with harsh physical angles and dreadful artwork, and set to the uneasy tune of a house settling loudly. The atmosphere produced enough gloom to make anxiety twist in the stomachs of the viewers.

From the 1963 film  The Haunting

From the 1963 film The Haunting

Cinematically, this gave the house a massive presence that relied more on clever film strategies and less on superficial props. In comparison to the newer remake of the book as a 2018 Netflix series and the use of physical figures in the backgrounds, The Haunting had massive success playing with the anxiety of the viewer through subtle lighting and dramatic angles.

Jackson had been spurred to write a ghostly tale and had turned her focus to finding imagery of houses and mansions to spark her interest. The Haunting of Hill House was not the first novel of hers to fixate on dominating houses. The Sundial and We Have Always Lived in the Castle were two other grim tales that fixated on grand mansions and were each paired with equally lengthy family histories.

Perhaps she had been inspired by her own family history for these books as well. Her great-great-grandfather was a notable architect in the California area and helped to establish many outstanding mansions. Houses were in Jackson’s own blood.

Another source of inspiration for the dark Hill House was from the very real Winchester House, where the widow of a gun magnate had a labyrinth of a mansion built to protect her from all the vengeful spirits that she believed to be haunting her. The chaotic layout was said to confuse any spirits, ensuring that she was safe. Jackson took advantage of the real life architectural nightmare and incorporated the clever details into her own work, layering in the odd turrets and maze like hallways. Hill House was a feat of clever architecture, and had to take the shape of an endless labyrinth.

Wise chose the formerly known Ettington Hall for an exterior film location for The Haunting. Filled with a dark history of tragedies and plenty of potential for ghosts, the building terrified the actresses thoroughly. With the leering stance it took from the deliberate low angles filmed, it is easy to appreciate the hulking stance of the shadow drenched mansion. Wise had found the perfect location to represent Hill House. Perhaps a ghost of a girl would pass by one of the windows, overlooking the film set up.

While Jackson’s love for houses stood out in this novel, her haunted relationships certainly lingered both on page and on screen. The protagonist, Eleanor, frequently wishes for stability and a home. The domestic world is out of reach, and she is consumed by her desire for a place of her own. The Haunting represents this passionate wish by using her inner monologue to reveal Eleanor’s satisfaction in settling in as a member of the group, and her eventual swerve into maddening obsessiveness in remaining at Hill House.

Photo courtesy of Morgue File

Photo courtesy of Morgue File

Perhaps the most startling scene is when Eleanor, terrified, reaches out for someone’s hand. Noises and uneasy shadows cause devastating fear that takes control of her senses. Transfixed by the shadows across her wall, she feels intense pain from someone holding her hand. Originally under the assumption that her roommate Theodora, another guest at Hill House, was at her side, but all fans of both the book and film will recall the grim realization when Eleanor realizes that no one is holding her hand.

Jackson’s overwhelming loneliness and emotional isolation in her marriage may have translated into her work. How often did she look across the dinner table and face a husband who had become a stranger to her? How often did the fear of his sexual activities with other women follow her? Perhaps the hand that would reach for her own had become unfamiliar but yet so very wanted.

Eleanor’s complex relationship with her mother mirrored her own. Jackson’s own mother sent toxic letters to her daughter and despaired upon Jackson’s writing and appearance. The protagonist of the story spent years acting as caretaker to her invalid mother, shackled to her. It is not until the mother’s death that she is able to slowly take flight and wait for her own opportunity to find a life for herself. Maybe this was Jackson’s most secret wish. If her mother died, she would finally be freed from the burden of their correspondence and the endless criticism. She could fully find her own identity and not be smothered with negative remarks about her appearance.

The Haunting managed to translate much of this turmoil onto the screen. Wise managed to adapt the novel with a few alterations, and portray a growing unease throughout the course of the film. Feeding off of fear, the novel builds and creates a sharp terror that viewers will feel and certainly dread.

The movie was the perfect adaptation. Despite a follow up remake in 1999 and a completely rewritten version of the novel made for a Netflix series, The Haunting caught the strangeness perfectly. The expressions of fear across actors faces were exaggerated by the use of camera lenses and Eleanor’s inner thoughts seemed to echo over the film, creating an almost dreamlike quality to them. The Haunting allows for the viewer to slip into the slow build of madness which is why it still manages to hold up, even to this day.

The Haunting allowed viewers to feel small beneath the hulking size of Hill House. By making minimal changes to the original material, Wise produced a masterpiece that would hold up in comparison to the later remake. The Netflix series acts as a distant cousin to the original intention of Jackson, and is comparable in name only. Jackson provided a bleak setting filled with historic tragedy and gave Wise a selection of characters that sprung to life on the screen.

Often, we look towards Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft for their extraordinary take on American horror literature. They dominate sections of shelves with their impressive bodies of work and stand out against movie posters. Hopefully, nonetheless, we can begin to turn our attention to Shirley Jackson, the woman often shuffled between fiction and horror sections of bookstores, and who revolutionized the genre with her unnerving terror.


Interested in more Shirley Jackson and the film?

Bernice M. Murphy complied an excellent selection of essays, titled “Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy”. Or, check out Ruth Franklin’s A Rather Haunted Life.

Tania Hussain’s piece explains the inspiration behind Jackson’s Hill House and is a great look into the transition from original material to Netflix series along with Paula Guran’s two articles: “Delight in What I Fear” and “Shirley Jackson & The Haunting of Hill House”.

If you’re more curious about The Haunting and the work put into making it a cinematic masterpiece, check out Andrea Passafiume’s article here to learn more about the film techniques.


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Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

A Stone’s Throw Across Generations

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Very few pieces of literature have been able to traumatize generation after generation of readers. Most high school English classes feature a collection of short stories, demonstrating the style and themes conveyed in a limited space. Shirley Jackson has always been a standout in these collections, her name grim upon a cover. The Lottery drove her to fame, though, as it was the very work which would not just leave intense emotional scars on my mother’s psyche, but also rattled an entire group of subscribers to The New Yorker when it was first published in 1948.

Arguably, this short story is what escalated Jackson’s career in writing. Acting as both housewife and breadwinner, she was constantly engaged in battles of rearing children.

The Lottery had described a small community blindly following a tradition that featured execution. Readers of The New Yorker were not prepared for the sudden violence that Jackson lobbed at them. They were repelled, demanding answers and directing their disdain for the writing to the author herself.

Perhaps it was because Jackson had written this piece in the post-war years, that caused such havoc. People had begun to realize the dangers of blind faith due to the wildly popular anti-Semitic behaviours that nearly eradicated a group of people through a system of industrial execution. This might have spurred the sharp backlash against the magazine and Jackson. It might have even been that people noticed reflections of themselves in her writing, and felt attacked.

Or, maybe they were simply terrified that a mere housewife concocted such a story.

The Lottery clearly earned Jackson a reputation. Recognized as one of the greatest short stories in American literature, it also triggered a landslide of hate. She was responsible for the most mail that The New Yorker had received at the time in response to a published story. By the end of the summer of 1948 she had received over three hundred letters, and only a handful had been kind. Those letters in particular had been written by friends, she admitted.

However, everyone had something to say about her writing. Her own mother contributed to the burden that her mailbox had become, stating her own disapproval for the piece. Jackson was under immense pressure to change her style and to embrace a more optimistic genre of writing. Nonetheless she continued onwards, featuring more abusive villages in her later novels like The Sundial and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Jackson might have been inspired by her own experiences to produce such works. It was when she was living in North Bennington with her family did she experience the toxic environment of anti-Semitic attitudes. Due to her husband’s Jewish heritage and her married name, she experienced social ostracism and witnessed the unchecked behaviour of her neighbours. Despite that turbulent time, however, North Bennington has taken to celebrating Jackson’s life by declaring June 26th Shirley Jackson Day. Clearly, the passage of time has altered some people and their obsession with her work.

Later letters sent to Jackson about The Lottery often carried more curiosity. Readers were determined to discover not only if there were communities such as this, but if they could visit and watch the public stoning.

Interestingly enough, The Lottery grew in fame and popularity that it was later transitioned into other forms of entertainment. The story has been adapted for a ballet performance, a radio play and was also featured on The Simpsons.

Photo Courtesy of Aperture Vintage.

Photo Courtesy of Aperture Vintage.

Jackson had always been loath to discuss her work, or to give any further explanation of it. Her grim worlds had been something of a gift to readers, something she cared little for being interviewed about. It was with The Lottery that she was forced to give a statement saying, “[]what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Perhaps Jackson never knew what she would unleash that day she sat down behind her typewriter, struck with an idea of a strange village and a lottery system. Whatever her intentions were, though, she did alter American literature by providing one of the most unique voices to have been found.


Were you traumatized by The Lottery? What do you think about hate mail? Comment your thoughts!


rachelitme+.jpg

Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

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