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In this “miraculous and thrilling” (Diane Setterfield, #1 New York Times bestselling author) mystery for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation, Victorian London comes to life as an intrepid female sleuth wades through a murky world of collectors and criminals to recover a remarkable child.

Bridie Devine—flame-haired, pipe-smoking detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors in this age of discovery.

Winding her way through the sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing secrets about her past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot-tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where nothing is quite what it seems.

Blending darkness and light, Things in Jars is a stunning, “richly woven tapestry of fantasy, folklore, and history” (Booklist, starred review) that explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.

This reading group guide for Things in Jars includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jess Kidd. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into a macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Jess Kidd evokes Victorian London through all five senses. What descriptions brought the city alive for you? Were there any parts of Kidd’s London that felt familiar, or some that felt new?

2. Gan Murphy advised Bridie, “When in doubt, take it apart, girl” (page 80). How does Bridie “take things apart” in Things in Jars?

3. The detective is a familiar figure in Victorian-era fiction. Discuss how Kidd subverted your expectations of a traditional detective—or did she?

4. How would you describe Mrs. Bibby? What defines her as a character?

5. In addition to the merrow, there are many references to mythology from various cultures, including character names like Euryale (one of the Greek Gorgons and a sister of Medusa), Father Thames, and Herne the Hunter, and creatures such as the kraken and the raven. How do these uses of mythology influence the tone and spirit of the novel?

6. Bridie has two love interests in the novel: Ruby Doyle, and Valentine Rose of Scotland Yard. What do the two men have in common? How are they different?

7. Were you surprised to learn who attacked Eliza? How does the revelation affect Bridie?

8. Storytelling is woven into Things in Jars in various ways, including through folklore and family histories. What do you think the author is trying to achieve with these layers of storytelling?

9. How do the worlds of magical realism and science complement each other in this novel? Do you think the author blends them together successfully?

10. There are many writers, poets, and works of literature mentioned by Kidd, including Charles Dickens. In what ways do you see a Dickensian influence in Things in Jars? What elements of plot, characterization, and setting remind you of his novels?

11. What aspect of Christabel/Sibéal most intrigued you? Although this character does not speak, what are you able to learn about her personality? What do you think she and Bridie might have in common?

12. How did you react after learning the truth about Ruby Doyle? Discuss your impression of Bridie and Ruby’s relationship from start to finish.

13. Transformation is at the center of Things in Jars: a child transforms into a mermaid; Bridie remakes herself in childhood and dons disguises throughout her investigation; Cora’s life is changed by a new love; characters live, die, and even return as ghosts. In your opinion, which character undergoes the greatest transformation, and why?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Research mythological sea creatures from other cultures and read a folktale about one of them. Consider in what ways those tales resemble the story of the merrow in Things in Jars, and how they differ.

2. As a group, visit a local natural history museum—you might find some “things in jars.” Are there any displays or specimens from the Victorian era? In what ways do they differ from more modern artifacts?

3. If your reading group has not yet read Jess Kidd’s other novels, Himself and Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, choose one of them and discuss it at your next gathering. What similarities do they share with Things in Jars? Differences? What themes do you think interest Jess Kidd as a writer?

A Conversation with Jess Kidd

Q: What interested you about the merrow figure? Why did you decide to have Christabel/Sibéal be a merrow?

A: I first encountered the merrow in Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, published in 1825. I was instantly fascinated and began to investigate further. Legend had it that the merrow women were beautiful and they would often take a land-based human mate, for the merrow men were astonishingly ugly. The merrow’s magic cap, which allowed her to return to her underwater past life, would have to be taken and hidden by her husband if she were to stay with him. The image of a woman transformed from a wild creature of the sea to a domesticated mortal is found in other shape-shifting folklores, such as the sealskin-shedding selkie. This metamorphosis, in most cases, is not plain sailing. The merrow for me became the wilder, angrier cousin of the mermaid, who has undergone much sweetening through all her many incarnations in popular legend.

I wanted to rewrite the Irish merrow myth setting it in Victorian London, a period bridging the popularity of cabinets of curiosities and exotica with the later collecting and taxonomic frenzy that followed on the evolutionary discoveries of Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. There was a fascinating interplay between the world of science and the world of the circus—experts would be called on to validate spectacular acts, and circus sideshows offered “case studies.” With a Victorian public clamoring for spectacle, a merrow in this time and place would become more than a myth: she would become a curiosity, and therefore a commodity.

Q: The novel is a fantastic blend of genres with many mythological and literary allusions. Were there any books of mythology or novels that particularly influenced Things in Jars?

A: As I researched the book I began to get a feel for the grit and magic of mid-nineteenth-century London. If you were born poor there was little hope your life would ever be other than precarious, ill-nourished and short. And yet, on the back of massive capital, innovation flourished. The first stretch of the London Underground was built in 1863; some said risking a journey at its breakneck speeds (20 mph) could age you by decades, or realign your organs! I wanted to listen in to the street talk and watch the great new rail lines being laid. The books I was influenced by were varied, ranging from Henry Mayhew’s account of working Londoners published during the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London Labour and the London Poor) to Michel Faber’s remarkable The Crimson Petal and the White. Some of the mythological references were suggested by place (Father Thames, Herne the Hunter for the Windsor scenes), but I had fun bringing in other references, such as the raven from Dickens and Poe. I hoped that these literary references could add another layer to the rich Victorian metropolis. Even today there’s sense of strata to the story of London, that after two thousand years it rests on so many lives and tales and that anything could be possible in this glorious, filthy and glittering city.

Q: Bridie is such an original, fierce character. Were you thinking of any historical or literary figures when you wrote her?

A: I was always drawn to female characters who fought and won control over their lives. Oddly, the first character that came to mind was Jane Austen’s Emma, but I loved the feral wildness of Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights traipsing over the moors as child, woman and ghost. Bridie very much presented herself fully formed, from her extraordinarily ugly bonnet to the poisonous darts she (allegedly) keeps in her boot heels. Bridie is very much the product of her past, and the skills she possesses (no one reads a body or a crime scene quite like her) are as a result of her experiences. She’s been a Dublin orphan, a resurrection man’s sidekick, an anatomist’s apprentice, and she finished her training with an experimental toxicologist.

Bridie adopts a male disguise in order to infiltrate places she would be unable to go as a woman, a surgical lecture at St. Bart’s for example. Consider the extraordinary Dr. James Barry, a decorated military surgeon who hailed from Cork, Ireland, who was found on “his” death to have been a woman all these years. At a time when men controlled the public sphere and women were barred from entering the medical profession, it seemed likely that Dr. Barry had presented as a man in order, amongst other complex motivations, to become a surgeon.

Q: What research was involved in your writing process?

A: I read a fair amount of Victorian fiction and nonfiction, especially novels or accounts written around the time my book is set (1863). I also read historical novels to get a sense of what might provide the reader a way into the period when I started to build by own world. Throughout the process I turned to nonfiction works on everyday Victorian life to get the background details right. The worlds of surgery and the circus in particular were wonderful to research. On any given day I could find myself engrossed in accounts of early operations, or looking at old surgical instruments or finding out about the lives of circus performers. I’m London-based, so I was also able to walk the city I was writing about, which was extremely helpful. During the early stage of planning, a local historian and map expert accompanied me so I could learn to see past the modern day. In this way I started to trace an outline of Bridie’s world on my own, using many of the landmarks still here today. I also found inspiration at sites such as the Old Operating Theatre Museum and the Herb Garret (for drying herbs and storing medicines) hidden in the roof space of St. Thomas’ Church, once the original site of St. Thomas’ Hospital. After several visits to this, Europe’s oldest surviving operating theater, I felt equipped to write the surgical scenes. Throughout the process I consulted specialists in various fields of Victorian studies, for example, to make sure Ruby Doyle’s tattoos were historically accurate! Even when the detail was fantastic, it felt important that it should be historically appropriate. Finally, just before the copyediting stage, I worked with a history lecturer and academic to double-check that I was on the right track.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned from your research?

A: I learned that the Victorians were not at all staid and straitlaced! Many of them were free-thinking and experimental and curious about the world. But conventions were important, and adopting a veneer of respectability could still allow greater freedom. This was a time when your social class and gender dictated the course of your life, who you met and how you ought to behave. One of the most surprising things I learned was exactly how restricted Bridie as a single woman living alone would have been in terms of freedom of unchaperoned movement. This was a time when men controlled the public spheres and women were encouraged to retreat into a domestic setting. This didn’t bode well for my female investigator, particularly one I had envisaged as being able to go from the Rookery slums to the grandest drawing room. I began to see this obstacle as a challenge for the indomitable Bridie to face. Researching the finer points of Victorian society gave a solution: if Bridie adopted a widow’s dress she would be instantly identifiable as a respectable woman with a little more freedom to roam.

Q: The novel moves back and forth in time and has multiple perspectives. Discuss Mrs. Bibby’s story within a story. Why did you decide to have her tell her history as a story? Did you consider other ways to explore her past?

A: I’m very drawn to stories and storytellers and I think they feature in all my fiction. Mrs. Bibby was one of my favorite characters to write: her experiences and history have shaped her into a ruthless and adaptable criminal. However, I didn’t want to make her just out-and-out bad, but rather show how her journey has created her. By fictionalizing her past she’s able to communicate painful events; it also adds to that layering of lore that happens throughout the book. So, two runaway waifs from an orphanage don’t see dangerous fog, they see gamboling otters. I think the role of storyteller is well fitted to Mrs. Bibby, who gets by on her guile and by weaving fictions to disguise her identity.

Q: Ruby is not your first ghost character. Why did you want to include another one in this novel?

A: I have on ongoing fascination with the relationship between the living and dead, not just the idea of ghosts, but who sees them, and what they can come to represent. In my other books I had multiple ghosts, such as the chorus of dead people in Himself and the saints in Mr. Flood’s Last Resort. However, with this book I wanted the relationship to be more intense and intimate. A living character falling in love with a ghost (or vice versa!) is not a new idea, but it’s a very powerful one. I think a lot can be explored through this, not least the difficulty we have in letting go when we lose someone and we want that person’s story to somehow go on. I also set myself a challenge with writing my one ghost: to make him as physically real as possible. As a boxer, Ruby Doyle defines himself by his physicality and to an extent must come to accept the loss of his body.

Q: Relationships between parents and children are central to the novel. Was there any particular aspect of this relationship you wanted to explore?

A: A brilliant question and one that’s got me thinking that my stories tend to start from a place where the protagonist has experienced a loss of family or parent. I find the repercussions of a parent-child relationship, positive and negative, a source of fascination because making sense of this relationship lies at the heart of my characters.

In Things in Jars the parent-child relationships by birth (Dr. Harbin and Myrtle, or Gideon and Dr. Eames, for instance) are not always strong, sustaining, or built on trust. Things in Jars offers family models founded on friendship or mutual respect rather than being related genetically. Dr. and Mrs. Prudhoe foster children whom society has thrown away, and Bridie, an orphan, finds various mentors and charges throughout her life.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I have just finished my first book for children, called Everyday Magic, for readers seven years and upward. Novel Four is on its way and I’m very excited about it, another historical novel but set in a time and a place you might not expect from me. I’m also working on original TV projects with some amazing production companies.
Photograph © Travis McBride

Jess Kidd is the award-winning author of Himself, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, and Things in Jars. She has a PhD in creative writing from St. Mary’s University in London. She grew up as part of a large family from Ireland’s County Mayo and now lives in London with her daughter. Her first book, Himself, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards. Learn more at JessKidd.com.

"Jacqueline Milne's supple, suggestive voice sets a gothic mood as she delivers this dark exploration of the weird in Victorian London. Bridie Divine works for the police as an unofficial medical examiner. When Christabel Berwick goes missing, her father insists that his daughter, no ordinary child, must be found. Bridie reluctantly accepts the case, even though she is currently being haunted by Ruby Dolan, a genial ghost. Milne treats listeners to chilling descriptions of the muck and slime of the London streets and raises goosebumps as she recounts Christabel's freakish abilities. She also excels at detailing the depth of evil found within the human villains—listeners won't soon forget the nightmarish Mrs. Bibby. This strangely compelling audiobook is a must-listen."

– Winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award, AudioFile Magazine

More books from this author: Jess Kidd