Jezebel’s Daughter – Wilkie Collins

It’s been much too long since I read a Wilkie Collins novel so I was very pleased to see that Oxford University Press were publishing a new edition of one of his lesser-known novels, Jezebel’s Daughter. This is a late novel, published in 1880 & a short novel by Victorian standards, only 250pp. However, it is full of all the themes & preoccupations of Collins’ other novels – the position of women in society, the growing influence of science for good & evil, social justice & a good proportion of superstition, sensation & intrigue, including a pivotal scene in a morgue.

David Glenney is looking back on the events of his youth from a distance of 50 years. In the 1820s, he was working in his uncle, Mr Wagner’s, business which has offices in London & Frankfort. Mr Wagner, a good businessman with a social conscience, dies, leaving his very capable widow to continue the business & to carry out his particular plan, the reform of the treatment of the insane in asylums such as Bedlam. To this end, & against the advice of lawyers, Mrs Wagner decides to take one of the inmates of Bedlam, known as Jack Straw, into her home. Jack Straw got his name because of his ability to plait straw which calms his nerves. Although the origin of his illness is unknown, some form of poisoning is suspected. He is soon devoted to Mrs Wagner & she treats him with kindness, giving him responsibilities in the business such as becoming Keeper of the Keys, a title he’s very proud of.

The Frankfort office is run by the other two partners in the business, Mr Keller & Mr Engelman. Mr Keller’s son, Fritz, is sent to the London office to get him out of the way of a young woman he wishes to marry. Minna Fontaine is the Jezebel’s daughter of the title. Madame Fontaine is the widow of an eminent chemist. She has the reputation of a spendthrift & her extravagant debts are said to have ruined her husband’s health. After his death, a medicine cabinet, said to contain dangerous potions, goes missing & investigations lead nowhere although suspicion points to Madame as the thief. Mr Keller is determined that Fritz & Minna will not marry & refuses to meet either lady. Madame Fontaine is just as determined that they will marry & her maternal devotion & her desire for Minna to marry a rich man who will pay her debts for fear of scandal, is the catalyst for the events of the novel.

David goes to Frankfort to implement another of Mr Wagner’s innovations. He wants to introduce female clerks into both the London & Frankfort offices. His conservative German partners are sceptical but treat David cordially & he does all he can to keep the young lovers in contact with each other. David is suspicious of Madame Fontaine whose outward appearance of kindness & solicitude is betrayed by an underlying tension & frustration which David glimpses several times. Eventually, Madame contrives to meet Mr Engelman, whom she fascinates & flatters until he’s hopelessly in love with her. This provides her entrée in the Keller household. She even becomes housekeeper to Mr Keller, after she nurses him through a serious illness. Mr Keller eventually agrees to Fritz & Minna’s wedding & it seems that Madame Fontaine’s problems are over.

Mrs Wagner decides to visit Frankfort, bringing Jack Straw with her. The two widows dislike each other on sight & Jack is also known to Madame Fontaine as he was once an assistant in her husband’s laboratory. Jack has knowledge of Madame’s past & she fears that this knowledge will ruin all her plans. The contents of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet give her great power & she is not afraid to use it, to devastating effect.

Jezebel’s Daughter began life as a play, The Red Vial, which Collins wrote in 1858. The play was a flop; reviewers acknowledged the sensational elements but felt that the play needed some comic sub-plot to avoid the audience sinking into despair & even some inappropriate laughter at the end of two hours of melodrama. Twenty years later, Collins reused the story in this novel. Collins excels at depicting strong women & Mrs Wagner & Madame Fontaine are wonderfully complex characters. The story doesn’t have many elements of mystery to it as we’re never really in doubt as to Madame’s duplicity. The first half of the story is told by David as an eyewitness & he is suspicious of her from the first. The second half, after an interlude consisting of three letters, is narrated by David from the testimony of others along with letters addressed to him (he’s in London through most of this part of the story) & a diary.

There may not be much mystery but there’s a lot of sensation in the plot. From the visit to Bedlam when Mrs Wagner meets Jack Straw, to the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet, illnesses & miraculous recoveries & the final scenes in the Deadhouse where superstitious Germans paid a Watchman to stay with their dead loved ones before their funerals in case they revived, there are enough shocks to satisfy any fan of sensation fiction. Minna is a bland heroine, sweet, dutiful & rather dim & her Fritz is boisterous & conventional. The real interest is in Madame Fontaine’s almost obsessive love for her daughter & the mixed motivations inherent in her desire for Minna’s marriage. She certainly wants her daughter to be happy & to marry the man she loves but she needs Minna to marry a rich man who will pay a promissory note that’s about to fall due. Madame Fontaine will do anything to bring about the marriage & it’s frightening to see the lengths that she will go to when it seems her plans are about to come unstuck.

Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t one of Collins’s best novels, coming near the end of his career & twenty years after the high points of The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. However, there’s a lot to enjoy in the portraits of the two widows, kindly Mr Engelman & rigidly correct Mr Keller & Jack, who often plays the role of fool or jester, presuming to speak the truth to his social superiors whether they want to hear it or not.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a copy of Jezebel’s Daughter for review.

Rambles Beyond Railways – Wilkie Collins

Rambles Beyond Railways is Wilkie Collins’s account of a walking tour through Cornwall in 1850. He just made it before the railways though because a note written for the second edition refuses to apologise for his title, now out of date. This is a very good humoured book. Wilkie & his artist companion, Henry Brandling, want to see everything of note in the county. They are objects of pity & amusement to the locals who can’t understand why gentlemen who can afford to travel by coach or horseback, choose to walk. Nevertheless, they are cheered by the kindness & hospitality of the people they meet on their travels. They visit all the well-known towns & villages, St Ives, Liskeard, the pilchard fisheries along the coast, Loo Pool & the Lizard Head.

One of their most fascinating expeditions is their visit to Botallack Mine, a copper mine on the coast where most of the workings & shafts are hundreds of feet  beneath the sea. The excursion begins amusingly with Wilkie being fitted out by a gigantic miner in the appropriate clothing for a trip down a hot, dirty mine. When the miner has obligingly hoisted Wilkie’s trousers up under his armpits & folded over his sleeves several times, he’s ready at last to descend into the mine. They descend ladders until they reach a depth of 420 feet but this isn’t the bottom of the mine. The shafts descend for hundreds more feet & spread out beneath the ocean for hundreds more. They decide that they’ve gone far enough, trying to imagine the miners working for 8 hour shifts in such hot, moist, dirty conditions, and thankfully ascend to the surface.

They are amazed by famous natural phenomena like the Cheese Wring (photo above from, a pile of stones that seems to defy gravity as it balances precariously with the smallest stones at the bottom of the pile & huge stones on top. I could sympathise with Wilkie as he gingerly stood under the overhanging stones fearing they might topple over & crush him at any minute. Kynance Cove is famous for the water spout known as the Devil’s Bellows & the Devil’s Throat emits an eerie groan as the water rushes into it. The history of St Michael’s Mount (photo below from  is told through a series of “dissolving pictures” that take the reader from the earliest Stone Age people of the area through medieval times when the monastery was built to modern times.

I read this book on my e-reader & I can see I’m going to have to take a lot more notes to review an e-book than a printed book where I can flick back & forth & leave post-it notes on pages I want to quote or remember. It’s been quite tedious trying to remember placenames & find details again. Still, I couldn’t have easily read this book without the e-reader. Finding pictures to illustrate the post will also be more challenging without the cover of the book to photograph. Still, as a first test of the e-reader, it was very successful. I think I’ve been converted!

* Thank you to everyone who told me that the picture of St Michael’s Mount in the original post was actually Mont St Michel in France! I’ve replaced it with the Cornish Mount by Turner.

The Haunted Hotel & other stories – Wilkie Collins

I can’t stop reading Wilkie Collins! I read three novellas a couple of weeks ago & went straight on to another selection of his short stories. This collection is published by Wordsworth Editions, a terrific company specialising in the classics at incredibly reasonable prices. I’m especially fond of their series of horror & ghost stories, Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural. I love a good ghost story & Wordsworth have reprinted many once popular authors like May Sinclair, Amelia Edwards, D K Broster & Louisa Baldwin in this series as well as better known authors like Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, Arthur Conan Doyle & Wilkie Collins.

This volume contains The Haunted Hotel which I’ve already read, as well as a range of ghost stories from different periods of his career. Blow up with the brig! was one of his earliest published stories. It‘s a suspenseful tale that has a scene where a young man waits as a candle burns down to set off an explosion that will kill him & destroy the ship he’s trapped on, that would not be out of place in a modern thriller. The Dream Woman is a story that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s tales of fate & destiny. A man has a dream of a woman attacking him with a knife. He describes the dream to his mother who superstitiously writes it down in minute detail. Later, he meets a woman very much like the woman of his dream but he ignores his mother’s warnings & marries her with terrible results.  

The Dead Hand is a truly creepy story of a young man who spends a night in an inn with a dead man. It’s race day & he’s left it too late to get a bed. He arrives at a dingy tavern & the landlord offers him a very quiet room mate indeed. Collins describes the growing unease of the young man as his candle slowly burns down & he realises that he will soon be in the dark with the corpse. Just as darkness is about to descend, he sees the hand of the man slowly move to the edge of the bed & fall over the side.  

The Devil’s Spectacles is a story of a mysterious pair of spectacles that give the wearer the ability to see the true thoughts of anyone he looks at. This story is about a young man, Alfred, who is torn between two women & when he is given the spectacles by a dying man, he can’t resist trying them out on the women in his life. The previous owner of the spectacles was a villainous old man, Septimus Notman, disliked by everyone, who tells Alfred a horrible story of cannibalism & an encounter with the Devil as he lays dying. He gives the spectacles to Alfred who accepts them reluctantly but can’t resist the temptation to try them out. I like the humorous touches in this story although some parts of it are shocking. Alfred cleans the glasses thoroughly before putting them on as the old man had been dirty & he’s a fastidious young man. Alfred hears some truly catty comments while wearing the spectacles, not only from the two girls he’s involved with but also from his mother who is trying to encourage him to marry her niece. The Devil, when he appears to Septimus in the icy wastes of the Arctic, is quite a humorous fellow,

A human being who elevates himself, and rises higher and higher to his immortal destiny, is a creature I hate. He gets above me, even in his earthly lifetime. But you have dropped – you dear good fellow – to the level of a famished wolf. You have gobbled up your dead companion; and if you ever had such a thing as a soul – ha, Septimus! – it parted company with you at the first morsel you tasted of the Boatswain’s mate. Do you think I’ll leave such a prime specimen of the Animal Man as you are, deserted at the North Pole?

Wilkie Collins certainly knew how to tell a good story. I’ve borrowed another collection of his stories from work & I’ve been dipping into the Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins as well. I’m also tempted to get hold of his novel, Hide & Seek, after reading this review of it over at Desperate Reader. His fascination with the weird & the mysterious is certainly a fascination I share, especially when the stories are set in the Victorian period & are as good as the stories in this collection.

I love this portrait of Wilkie Collins by Rudolph Lehmann. I think it shows the humour & good nature that i think were among his best qualities. I’m certainly glad he wrote so much & there’s still much to discover.

Miss or Mrs? The Haunted Hotel & The Guilty River – Wilkie Collins

On the back of my OUP edition of these three novellas by Wilkie Collins, there’s a quote from T S Eliot, “Melodrama is perennial and the craving for it is perennial and must be satisfied.” Melodrama should have been Wilkie Collins’s middle name. Along with Mary Elizabeth Braddon, I can’t think of any 19th century author who does melodrama as well as Collins. He’s best known for the great sensation novels of the 1860s, The Moonstone, The Woman in White, Armadale & No Name. But, his career lasted into the 1880s & he was writing novellas & short stories to satisfy the magazines of the day throughout his career. This selection of novellas highlights some of the themes of his longer works. Miss or Mrs? further explores the themes of the anomalies of the marriage laws. Collins also explored these in his novel Man & Wife that I read earlier this year. The Guilty River returns the one of Collins’s favourite themes, the Outsider, with one character returning to England after many years abroad & another, a deaf man, who is bitter about his disability. Both men fall in love with the same girl & abduction & tragedy follow.

But, the story I enjoyed the most was The Haunted Hotel. This is a story of fate, destiny, unrequited love & murder. As is often the case, the most vibrant character is a wicked woman. Countess Narona is a mysterious figure. She engages our interest when she visits a doctor & asks him if she is going mad. She presents an odd appearance, extraordinarily pale (her complexion is described as corpse-like) but with beautiful, glittering eyes. She speaks with a foreign accent, dresses well, a handsome woman in her early thirties, apart from her pallor & “a total want of tenderness in the expression of her eyes.” The Countess is going to be married to Lord Montbarry, & the marriage is the subject of some scandal because Montbarry has jilted another woman, Agnes Lockwood, in order to marry the Countess. The couple met at the gambling tables of Europe & Montbarry was immediately captivated by her. Agnes has been noble in releasing Montbarry from his vow. She still loves him although everyone, including his own family, condemns him for his behaviour. Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwood, is in love with Agnes & is patiently waiting for her to forget her love for the man who jilted her.

Montbarry & the Countess are married but not before the two women have met at a social function. The Countess is a woman much influenced by signs & prophecies & she feels that she & Agnes are doomed to meet again & that Agnes is fated to destroy her. After their marriage the Montbarrys travel to Italy accompanied by the mysterious figure of Baron Rivar who is said to be the Countess’s brother but some uncharitable gossips call him her lover. The Montbarry’s marriage seems to be unhappy. Montbarry regrets jilting Agnes almost as soon as the marriage has taken place. He distrusts his wife & resents the Baron asking him for money to fund his strange chemical experiments.

While they are in Venice, Lord Montbarry is taken ill & dies. The courier travelling with them, Ferrari, has mysteriously disappeared not long before. Ferrari was an Italian married to Agnes Lockwood’s former maid & Agnes had allowed her name to be mentioned to her former lover in an effort to get the post for Ferrari. Mrs Ferrari becomes obsessed with the idea that her husband has been murdered. Lord Montbarry had insured his life for a great sum of money just after his marriage & the insurers send out investigators to Venice to discover the circumstances of his death.

The prophecy of the Countess regarding Agnes is fulfilled when Montbarry’s family, the Westwoods (including Agnes, who is staying with the family of the new Lord Montbarry, brother of the dead man) travel to Venice to stay in a new hotel, partly bankrolled by Henry Westwood. This hotel is in the very same palace that Montbarry & the Countess stayed in & where he died. The palace has been completely refurbished but, the room where Montbarry died & the room above, where Baron Rivar slept, have been left intact. One after another, the Westwood siblings unknowingly stay in the room where their brother died. One by one they are driven from the room by strange happenings. One experiences disturbing dreams, another is driven out by a horrible smell, another is afflicted by a sense of desperation & depression. The culmination of these experiences is when Agnes stays in the room & fulfils the Countess’s prophecy that Agnes will be her doom.

There are some truly gruesome scenes in this story. I don’t think Collins used the atmosphere of Venice very well. The hotel could have been anywhere. He certainly doesn’t exploit the atmosphere of the canals & waterways of Venice as Daphne Du Maurier did, for example, in her short story, Don’t Look Now. But this is a truly creepy story. The character of the Countess is enigmatic. Her gradual descent into madness is well done & her confession written in the form of a playscript is different, to say the least. In a story of just over 150pp there’s a lot of very convoluted plot & not everything is tied up eg the true relationship of the Countess & the Baron is left unexplained. But, if you love Wilkie & want a story that grabs you in the first few pages with the appearance of the Countess & doesn’t let go until the last page, I’d recommend The Haunted Hotel.

Man & Wife – Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins is the King of sensation novelists. No one else could write a story of wronged women & villainous men as he did. Man & Wife is one of his more didactic novels as he’s concerned to make a point about the abominable state of the marriage laws of Ireland & Scotland in the 19th century. The Introduction to my OUP edition quotes Swinburne’s couplet, What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition?/Some demon whispered –“Wilkie, have a mission!”, on what was seen as a flaw in Collins’s fiction after the glory days of the 1860’s.

Man & Wife was published in 1870 after a decade of masterpieces such as The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. I can’t say I agree that Man & Wife has less sensational excitement than his best work. My eyes were propped open several nights trying to finish just one more chapter before falling asleep. There is more reliance on outrageous coincidence & the narrator is a bit too full of dire warnings & doom-laden woe on a few occasions but it was such an absorbing story that I didn’t care.

The novel opens with a Prologue forty years before the real beginning of the story which sets up the themes of betrayal & loyalty that dominate the novel. Two young girls are about to be parted, perhaps for life, as Blanche goes out to India as a governess & Anne stays in England to go on the stage. They swear undying love & friendship. Some years later, Anne is married to a man who is tired of her & he asserts that their marriage, which took place in Ireland, is invalid. This is legally, if not morally, true. Anne is left deserted with a young daughter, also Anne, & her faithless husband marries again but leads a miserable life which he thoroughly deserves, the cad. Blanche, now Lady Lundie, returns to England in time to look after Anne who has been caring for Blanche’s daughter, another Blanche, & the friendship between the two daughters is just as strong as between their mothers. The elder Anne dies, leaving her daughter in Blanche’s care. The elder Blanche dies on a return voyage to India & her husband marries again.

The story proper opens with Lord Lundie dead, his new wife looking after her stepdaughter Blanche, attended by Anne Silvester as her governess. Are you still with me? Anne has become entangled in an improper relationship with Geoffrey Delamayn. He has promised to marry her but he’s already growing tired of her. The whole party is on holiday in Scotland when Anne forces the issue with Geoffrey & he promises to marry her privately at a remote inn. She leaves the house to meet him there but he convinces his friend, Arnold Brinkworth, to go to the inn with a letter for Anne after he’s called away to London to visit his sick father. To preserve Anne’s reputation, Arnold is convinced that he must ask for her as his wife when he arrives at the inn & this is where the trouble begins. Scottish marriage law was so unclear that the act of referring to each other as husband & wife may mean that Anne & Arnold are married in the eyes of the law. Arnold, of course, has just become engaged to Blanche. Geoffrey cruelly deserts Anne, leaving her ill & abandoned. Arnold has no idea of the legal mess he’s in until after he & Blanche have married.

There are some great set pieces. The scene in London when all the protagonists are brought together to thrash out the truth of Anne & Geoffrey’s relationship is full of tension. There are some terrific characters in this book. Wilkie Collins always had a fondness for characters with some kind of physical deformity. Here we have Sir Patrick Lundie, Blanche’s uncle & guardian, a crabbed old lawyer with a club foot. Then there’s mysterious Hester Dethridge, a woman struck dumb by the blows of a cruel husband, who communicates by writing on a slate hanging at her side. The second Lady Lundie is a silly yet cunning woman whose meddling efforts to help her stepdaughter only make matters worse. Blanche & Arnold are the stock hero & heroine & Geoffrey is a fairly bland villain. Anne is magnificent, the true heroine of the book. She manages to conduct an improper relationship, emotionally blackmail her lover into marriage, lie to the servants at the inn, wander all over Scotland & England alone (but always with perfect dignity), yet still be presented as a woman more sinned against than sinning. Apart from M E Braddon, I don’t know who else could have done it. No wonder parents & critics were appalled at the immoral influence of the sensation novel. If you love 19th century fiction, I can recommend this book as a lesser-known work by the master of sensation.

An interesting sidelight is that a new book by Chloe Schama, Wild Romance, is just about to be published. This is a non-fiction account of the Yelverton case, one of the real-life stories on which Wilkie Collins based the plot of Man & Wife. I can’t wait to read it!