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.