Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins
Victorian author Wilkie Collins is probably best known nowadays for “The Woman in White”, “The Moonstone” and being best buddies with Dickens. However, a quick glance at his Wikipedia entry reveals that he wrote an awful lot of books! I read both of his most famous works many, many moons ago and loved them – particularly because of the fact that “The Moonstone” is regarded as the first proper detective story and features the wonderful Sergeant Cuff. I’ve often considered exploring his other works, but have simply never got round to it; so I was delighted to be offered a review copy of a new edition of a later novel, “Jezebel’s Daughter”, by the Oxford University Press. The book, published today, is the only critical edition available, and contains all the extras you’d expect from the publisher – an excellent introduction (best read after the book if this is your first time!), notes, background information and chronology. It also looks very pretty…!
“Jezebel’s Daughter” was published in 1880, and Collins used some elements from his earlier (unsuccessful) play “The Red Veil” in the novel. However, the success of the book proved that drama wasn’t particularly his métier, and certainly on the evidence of the books I’ve read he definitely was better at telling an exciting story. The book’s protagonists are, somewhat unusually, two middle-aged widows and the story is narrated in the main by David Glenney, looking back from 1878 to the time of the events in the 1820s. He is the nephew of Mrs Wagner, the wife of an English businessman; the latter has been left his share of his firm on his death and she is determined not only to carry on running the business, but also to continue his planned good works. One of the pivotal parts of the story is the tale of ‘Jack Straw’, a poor inmate of Bedlam; and Mr. Wagner and his wife had been appalled at the cruel treatment that lunatics had been receiving. Mrs. Wagner is convinced that humane treatment will be more effective than harsh, and to prove this takes Jack into her home, where he becomes completely devoted to her.
Mrs. Wagner is the good side of humanity; the evil is represented by Madame Fontaine, a German woman of good family who married a poor French scientist. She had dreamed of glittering Parisian society, but her husband refused to follow the career path she had planned for him, instead remaining in Germany and becoming obsessed with the science of poisons. Madame Fontaine becomes embittered, seeing all her dreams slip away, and all she is left with is her obsessive love of her daughter Minna. When she is widowed, she is in effect left destitute (because she has frittered away what little money her husband earned on clothes and the like); her obsession with her daughter’s happiness becomes all-encompassing, and when Minna and Fritz Keller, the son of Mrs. Wagner’s German business partner, fall in love, the scene is set for plenty of high drama.
Keller senior does not approve of the match; Madame Fontaine has a reputation which has preceded her, and he is a man of rigid principles. Madame Fontaine sets out to win the Kellers over, but things are complicated by the arrival of Mrs. Wagner and Jack Straw from London. There is the hint of Lucrezia Borgia to Madame Fontaine; who will live and who will die? Will the happy couple ever be able to marry? And what secret in Jack Straw’s past links him to the Fontaines? A dramatic denouement in the Deadhouse will reveal all…
Boy, could Wilkie Collins spin a gripping yarn! This was one of those books I just couldn’t put down as I was desperate to find out what happened. The storytelling is excellent, the suspense tantalising, and I really couldn’t foresee how it would end. The finale in the dark morgue was really chilling and I ended the book quite breathless. Really, if you want great storytelling you don’t you need look any further than Dickens, Collins and their ilk – they’re incredibly readable and so enjoyable.
However, there are several elements which lift this book above others. Having the main protagonists as a pair of middle-aged widows is very engaging, and both are well-developed personalities. Mrs. Wagner is the ‘good’ character, but she is not without flaws, displaying a stubborn streak and not recognising the danger Madame Fontaine represents. And the latter, despite her murderous intent, is not entirely evil; the love for her daughter is represented as redeeming her, and when committing vile acts she suffers fear and attacks of conscience. All the supporting characters are well-rounded and if I’m honest, the weakest was Minna, who was simply a bit wet.
Another striking facet was Collins using the novel to champion humane treatment for those who were ill or disabled. The book’s framing narrative is set in 1878, but looks backwards and comments on how attitudes have changed, but also how they still need to continue to evolve, as if Collins was reinforcing the need for constant change. Additionally, Mrs. Wagner’s attitude towards women and their employment is liberal, as she is determined to give them positions in the German arm of the business, despite Mr. Keller’s misgivings.
However, at the heart of this book is a cracking good story – exciting, twisty, thought-provoking and very unputdownable. On the evidence of “Jezebel’s Daughter”, Collins was more than just a one (or two!) trick pony, and I’m definitely up for reading more of his work!
(Many thanks to Katie at OUP for kindly arranging a review copy – much appreciated!)