This post contains Spoilers for All Men of Genius. Read ahead at your own risk.
I have a special affection for Dr. Henry Voukil, a very minor character in my novel, All Men of Genius. For those of you who haven’t read the book, this won’t make much sense, and for those of you who have… you might not remember Dr. Voukil.
Dr. Voukil appears in three places; Professor Curio’s history, Fiona’s history, and the list of Society Members that Ernest finds. He is the chemist who employs, teaches, and tests chemicals on Curio, and is later killed when Curio has one of his Mr. Hyde like fits. The allusions to Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde are very intentional – right down to the name. Some circles theorize that Robert Louis Stevenson named his protagonist Jeckyll because of the phonetic, multilingual meaning of it: Je Kill. Je being French for “I,” so “I kill,” which is what Jeckyll does after downing his potion and turning into Hyde. Dr. Voukil, however, gives his similar brew to Curio. So, “You kill” – and the French for you is vous. This isn’t actual French class, so obviously, don’t look for correct grammar or anything. It was just my little homage, as I knew I wanted Curio to be a Jeckyll/Hyde type character, but also a victim. He had to be such a character mostly because I wanted someone else in the cellar to be suspicious, but I also tried to pay homage to many various clasic Victorian science fiction stories. But I’m not talking about Curio here. I’m talking about Voukil.
Voukil also shows up on that list of Society Members that Ernest finds. Ernest also finds in his father’s notebooks that his father was trying to replicate and cure Curio’s Jeckyll/Hyde state. Steampunk is so often about the upper class, and I won’t try to deny that my book is different. But I wanted to at least shine some light on the fact that the Victorian Era was not all gears and flowers – the lower classes, such as young Curio, were often abused and overworked and lived in horrific situations. I wanted to show this, but with a bit of a mad science-y twist, so I made Curio a young test subject. Poor and orphaned, Curio is taken in by Voukil purportedly as an assistant, but he soon becomes a test subject. He drinks all sorts of experimental potions resulting in very nasty effects. When I was outlining the book I even considered putting in a second assistant/test subject who is killed by the experiments, but ended up cutting such a character because it would mean too much time away from the central plot. Curio grows up to be a successful professor, but he is forever damaged, and forced to live his life in a locked room. The Victorian Age had a dark side, and I tried to use Curio to express that. But again, I’m not trying to talk about Curio, I’m trying to talk about Voukil. And if Curio shows the easy way the lower classes were victimized, then Voukil is the perpetrator of such victimization. He represents the upper classes, and also the mad scientist – just like the rest of the Society he belongs to. Just as he was callous about Curio’s life, the Society is callous about all life. I didn’t show much of the Society. I confess, I didn’t want to tie that plotline up in hopes of keeping people interested in a sequel. But I tried to show who they were by showing what their members did. And what Voukil did was seriously abuse a child.
The final place Voukil shows up is in Fiona’s flashbacks. He’s never mentioned by name, so you might not realize whom I’m talking about. I didn’t want to draw the line with too much of a heavy hand, but I hope you suspect what I’m telling you here: Voukil was the first man who paid Fiona for sex. Fiona is another character I tried to use to show that the Victorian Era was as dark as it was brilliant. She’s a lower class actress who dabbles in prostitution and has lost a child. In the book, she remembers him in one paragraph:
“The first man who had paid her for sex was a scientist. He had been a gentle lover, like Drew. He was older than she—she was only fifteen—but kind, and not bad looking. His name was Henry, and he smelled of chemicals and glass. He had taken his time with her, finding out which sensations caused her pleasure or laughter, trying to create the formula that would put her most at ease. The night had had its good moments, for what it was. He paid her and kissed her on the forehead, told her she was beautiful and that he would be back. She never saw him again.”
Originally, I had Fiona at thirteen for this, not fifteen, but many of my readers were put-off and very distracted by that (and actively taken out of the world of the book), so I aged her to fifteen, which I hoped was still young enough to accomplish my goal of making her seem a victim. (I don’t want to go into the social arguments for and against prostitution, and I don’t mean to imply that every prostitute is a victim.) Henry (as Voukil’s name is given on the list of Society Members) is described as a gentle lover, but I hope that the way he experiments on her, sexually, though in her memory sweet, has an undertone of something sinister, as though he saw her as an experiment, rather than a person. Her youth also makes him seem more sinister, as does his position of power as a man with money and more years. Again, he is a member of the upper classes victimizing a member of the lower classes. Admittedly, Fiona doesn’t feel victimized, and even feels that it wasn’t such a bad night – but I wrote this because I wanted Fiona to be the sort of woman who could never see herself as a victim, and so viewed this unpleasant experience through glasses as rose-colored as she could muster. She isn’t a victim the way Curio is, but she is treated as an object and experiment, and taken advantage of.
So why is Voukil a favorite of mine? I certainly wouldn’t want to know him, but I like that his is both symbolic and human, remembered in different shades while also characterizing the Society as what so many members of it were – ruthless scientists who saw the rest of the world as beneath them, as tools and experiments. I wonder if I was too subtle with him, though; if readers will make the connection as to who he is and what he represents. Because I do have more books planned, and he represents more of what’s coming. Volio may have been the villain of the first book, but it’s Voukil, lurking in the background, whom Violet and her friends should be afraid of.