Megan Shepherd’s The Madman’s Daughter retells the story of The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells, if it had been narrated by the doctor’s daughter (who didn’t exist in the original as far as I know) rather than by a shipwrecked Englishman. I hadn’t read Doctor Moreau before reading this book, but I wish I had. I had to make do with the Wikipedia summary.
The Madman’s Daughter opens with Juliet Moreau in London, scraping by as a charwoman at a hospital. After her father fled England, trying to escape from a vivisection scandal, Juliet and her mother fell on hard times. Times got harder after Mrs. Moreau died of tuberculosis. Six years after her father abandoned his family, Juliet runs across an old family servant, Montgomery James. Juliet burns her bridges at the hospital and begs James to take her to her father on his remote Pacific island. James tries to dissuade her, but he can’t explicitly tell her why she shouldn’t go.
When Juliet and James arrive at the island, it quickly becomes clear to everyone just how insane Doctor Moreau really is. He is a rigid man, bent on perfecting his experiments at all costs and without a thought for ethics or, ironically, the humane treatment of his subjects. Juliet is horrified when she learns the true extent of her father’s–and James’–experiments. The best parts of this novel are at the end, when Juliet and her allies try to escape the island. Until that point, sections of the book are marred by the clumsy writing in the romantic subplots. We are too often told what Juliet is feeling rather than being trusted to work things out on our own.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to write a book that takes on a classic like The Island of Doctor Moreau. Shepherd takes the premise and the frame of that book, then gleefully colors outside the lines of the original story. And I have to give her props for that. When I started reading the story, I was torn about whether or not I should at least read that Wikipedia summary before I finished The Madman’s Daughter. I hesitated because I didn’t want to ruin the ending of Shepherd’s book for myself because, among the many challenges of writing metafiction like this, the author has to decide if they’re going to keep the original ending. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire, and Havisham, by Ronald Frame, bent to conform to their sources (to their detriment, I thought). Shepherd, I was pleased to find out, changed enough of the ending that I was pleasantly surprised by several twists at the tend. I gave in to my temptation to read at least a summary of Doctor Moreau because I didn’t want to miss out on any allusions or thematic resonances or jokes.
When I read Wikipedia’s summary, I developed a strong yen to go read The Island of Doctor Moreau. That link was the reason I picked up The Madman’s Daughter in the first place. But in reading the summary, I think that Shepherd missed out on a terrific opportunity to comment on the unspeakable cruelty of the doctor’s actions. Shepherd discusses them in her book, but Juliet’s thoughts rapidly shifted between horror at her father’s experiments and her attractions to James and a rescued shipwreck survivor (presumably) named Edward and any energy spent on thinking about animal experimentation was squandered. It’s a pity, because that was the core of the original work. The Madman’s Daughter would have been a much stronger and affecting work if Shepherd had dived below the surface of her story more often.