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A Reading Group Guide toEuropean Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman
By Theodora GossAbout the Book
Mary Jekyll and members of the Athena Club concluded their investigation into a series of murders only to have another case arrive in the form of a letter from Mary’s former governess, Mina Murray. Enclosed is a desperate plea from Lucinda Van Helsing, who is the subject of her father’s experiments and is left with no protection when her mother is committed to an asylum. Knowing that Abraham Van Helsing is a member of the Alchemical Society, the Athena Club make plans to travel to Vienna and rescue Lucinda. Back in London, Catherine and Beatrice learn that Seward, Prendick, and their like-minded compatriots are plotting to take control of the Alchemical Society at the annual meeting in Budapest. Faced with kidnappings, spies, undead enemies, unusual appetites, indifferent bureaucracy, and their own dark pasts, the two groups race toward Budapest and the fateful meeting of the Alchemical Society. Can this group of “monstrous gentlewomen” keep the scientific community from being taken over by madmen?Discussion Questions
1. Catherine originally chooses to begin the book from Lucinda’s point of view, though she is soon influenced by other members’ protests. Why do you think Catherine’s original instinct is to start with Lucinda? Do you agree with Justine and Diana’s idea that the Athena Club provides a better starting point? How large of a role does Lucinda end up playing in the story?
2. As Mary walks through Regent’s Park on her way to talk to Holmes and Watson, she finds a rose with a beetle gnawing away at its center. She wonders, “How could life be so beautiful and yet contain such evil in it?” How is this theme carried throughout the book? Do the other characters see both the beauty and the evil in the things they encounter? Does Mary ever cease to be surprised by the evil?
3. What role does Mary play in Watson’s and Holmes’s work? Why isn’t she mentioned by name in the stories that Watson writes? Do her feelings toward Holmes affect the Athena Club’s current case?
4. Upon first hearing about Irene Norton’s unorthodox background, Mary is prepared to dislike her. Think about the background of other members of the Athena Club and what might happen if Mary took this kind of attitude with them. What kind of first impression do you think Mary makes? Discuss situations in the book or in your own lives that draw unexpected alliances or friendships.
5. Why did the ladies find Sherlock’s offer to help so insulting? Would you have been offended if you were in their shoes? Like Catherine, do you feel that there were strings attached? Would Mary have been wise to reject it?
6. Mrs. Poole states that men are “‘all very well in their place, but if I were in a tight spot, I would much rather have a woman with me. They’re so much less sentimental.’” How does this fit with the prevailing attitude toward women at that time? Throughout the course of the story, is it women or men who end up being more helpful to the group?
7. Why is Mary determined to leave Diana at home? Why doesn’t Holmes tell anyone that Diana is a stowaway? How differently might the entire trip have turned out if Diana hadn’t been there? Why do Mary and the others always seem to exclude Diana from their plans?
8. Diana tells the others, “‘If I got my way all the time, I’d never have to be bad.’” Can the same be said of any other women in the book? What specific events could have been avoided if the instigator had gotten their way from the beginning?
9. While traveling with Diana, Mary remembers her former cook saying, “What can’t be altered must be endured.” By contrast, Alice tells the others, “‘We don’t become who we are without taking risks.’” How do these differing philosophies resonate with each of the characters? Does anyone vacillate between the two attitudes? Which philosophy proves to be more useful during the course of the book?
10. When Catherine and Alice break into Number 5 Potters Lane to observe the meeting between Seward and Prendick, they are shocked by the differences in appearance between the inside and outside of the building. How does this compare to the reputations of the men in the Alchemical Society? Does the Athena Club appear differently on the surface than from the inside? How does this difference between appearance and reality help or hinder each group as they conduct their business?
11. What is the ultimate goal of the Alchemical Society, and how do they intend to reach it? Do members have different reasons for being involved, or are they united on that front?
12. Why is Justine so upset when she reads the fictionalized account of her own destruction in Mary Shelley’s book? Do any of the other characters have events or people in their pasts that cause them this sort of pain? Do you think it’s cruel for them to be reminded of these things?
13. Why does Freud take such an interest in Diana, and by extension, Mary? Do Freud’s words take on more meaning once we know the conversation Mary will have later with Hyde regarding his research and the circumstances of her birth?
14. How does Lucinda interpret what has been done to her? Why do you think she turns to religion instead of science for an explanation? How does this affect her interactions with other characters?
15. What is Clarence’s crime? What do the series of events leading up to his employment in Lorenzo’s circus say about race and the criminal justice system at that time? Could this have happened in America today?
16. Catherine does not always understand human morality or emotions, as evidenced by her accusations toward Zora. Do you think she should attempt to master these human traits and avoid offending others, or should she be satisfied with the puma parts of her nature? How does this trait compare to Mary and her relationship to emotional matters?
17. While sharing her personal history, Carmilla says of the experiments she helped to conduct: “‘You inhabitants of the modern age cannot imagine what it was like . . . Do not judge me by the standards of a different era. I did what I thought was most appropriate under the circumstances.’” Later, while discussing Victor Frankenstein, Vlad says, “‘Mina would argue that we were wrong, but how can one judge the past by the standards of the present day?’” Can we hold people accountable for their individual actions, even if they fit with popular attitudes and acceptable behaviors of the day? Do you think any of the Athena Club members’ actions would be judged harshly in our day and age?
18. How does Mary react to finding out that many more of the people she encountered throughout her life were members of the Alchemical Society? Does it make her think more or less of the Society to know that they had so many spies?
19. What is it about Ayesha’s past and personality that make her a good leader of the Alchemical Society? Conversely, do you think there is anything about her history that makes her a bad choice to lead the Society? Where do her ideas differ from those of the Athena Club members? Do you think that Ayesha has a strong enough moral compass to head the Society?
20. Forgiveness is an important theme throughout the novel. Which characters want to be forgiven, and which do not feel that it is necessary? Who do you think deserves to be forgiven? Are the members of the Athena Club able to forgive themselves for past misdeeds?
21. Why is it so difficult for Mary to travel to Vienna and Budapest? Why do you think she struggles more than the others in being away from home? Do you see her as playing a different role in the group depending on whether they are traveling or at home?
22. What role do both old and new friends play in these adventures? In what ways are Mary and the others helped or hindered by their acquaintances? Is anyone betrayed by people they considered to be friends?
23. Were you surprised to learn that Alice had mesmeric gifts? How does this gift fit with what you know about Alice’s personality? Why do you think the author chose to end the book with Alice?Extension Activities
1. Justine is chosen to travel to Vienna because she speaks several different languages and can help the group better navigate in a foreign country. Do you speak any foreign languages? Share some words and phrases with the group if so, and talk about a time you found your knowledge of another language helpful. If you don’t speak another language, perhaps you can use this book as an inspiration to start learning one!
2. Both Irene and Vlad have artwork hanging in their homes. Find examples of artwork by the specific artists mentioned in the book or that were produced in similar styles and time periods. Discuss what you like or dislike about the works, and how they fit into the story.
3. Freud plays an important role, helping Mary and the others rescue Lucinda from the asylum. Research Freud—his theories, his methods, and any controversy surrounding his work—and report back to the group with what you’ve learned.
4. Carmilla mentions that much of the folklore and superstition surrounding vampirism is based in scientific fact. Have each member of the group choose a figure from modern folklore such as Bigfoot, zombies, or aliens, and look for any scientific facts that might help explain where these superstitions came from. Have each member of the group explain their findings.
5. The members of the Athena Club spend a great deal of time planning their trips to Vienna and Budapest, even if their plans rarely work out as intended. Think of a destination that you’ve always wanted to visit, and plan out the trip you would take there. Figure out what mode of transportation you would use, what sights you would want to see, and what the costs would be. Share your findings with the group, and see if these travel plans motivate anyone to book a trip.
6. At various points in the book, the characters talk about women’s rights, women’s clothing, and the place of women in their society. How do the challenges facing women today differ from the challenges they faced in Victorian times? Divide your book group into two teams and assign a time period to each team. Have a discussion about what has changed, what hasn’t, and what your most pressing concerns are.Guide written by Cory Grimminck, Director of the Portland District Library in Michigan.This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.