Our Hideous Progeny by C. E. McGill

Our Hideous Progeny is a novel that picks up after Frankenstein, as Victor’s great-niece tries to recreate his work using Victorian palaeontology. Mary was raised by her grandmother, never allowed the Frankenstein name after the death of her father, but with the knowledge that her great-uncle disappeared in the Arctic a long time ago. She’s escaped that now and fights to make a living with her husband in the palaeontological world in London, but they lack money and influence. When Mary uncovers the letters sent back to her family about Victor and his creation, she realises that following in his footsteps may bring her and her husband the discovery they need.

The book doesn’t so much as retell Frankenstein as provide a sequel that explores similar themes, particularly around ambition, pride, and obsession, and draws out some of the complexities of motherhood that can be read from Mary Shelley’s book. It is deeply situated within Victorian London’s scientific life, especially the first parts of the novel, and I appreciated how well it followed on from Shelley’s own interest in the science of the time around when she was writing Frankenstein, updating the stuff around electricity to also consider fossils and changing ideas about life and death. The philosophical ideas within the book also take up some of the elements of Frankenstein, particularly in Mary’s relationship to her own Creature, and this was one of my favourite elements of the book.

The narrative itself is pretty predictable, following an adventure story with a clear villain and some commentary on the lives and freedoms (or lack thereof) of women in the period, and I did expect more twists and turns at the end (in particular, I thought that Mary’s discoveries might end up being used for something more desperate and potentially monstrous), but the conclusion of the novel does seem to leave scope for a sequel, which may be the intention. It perhaps had a bit more historical adventure and a bit less of the ideas (scientific/philosophical/queer/etc) than I would’ve liked as someone who is more of a fan of Frankenstein than historical fiction, but I think that makes it suited to people who enjoy historical novels that explore some ideas of feminism and queerness without necessarily having to have read Frankenstein.

I appreciated that, in the author’s note, McGill says they didn’t enjoy Frankenstein when they first read it as a teenager, but later grew to like it more, as I had a similar experience and feel like it is a book that is sadly pushed upon teenagers who really need more of the scientific and literary history of the time to actually understand why Frankenstein feels slower and more contemplative than what they’ve heard. This book is quite different, with a slow pace at times due to the amount of historical detail, but more of an adventure focus, and something you could read alongside Frankenstein to think about how “retellings” might leave an original work as is and run with its ideas in another way. It also might just convince some people to give Frankenstein another go.