I seem to have embarked upon a Wilkie Collins season and can’t get enough of him at the moment. Although Jezebel’s Daughter (1880) was one of his least popular novels, it certainly doesn’t lack interest or incident. The plot centres around the firm of Wagner, Keller and Engelman, which has offices in London and Frankurt. After the death of her husband, Mrs Wagner becomes senior partner and is determined not to take a back seat. Eager to continue her late husband’s philanthropic activities, she befriends Jack Straw, an inmate of Bedlam, and takes him to live with her in order to prove that ‘lunatics’ are not beyond redemption.
In Frankfurt, Fritz Keller, son of one of the other partners, has fallen in love with Minna, daughter of a sinister and mysterious widow, Madame Fontaine. Her husband was a renowned toxicologist and she took a somewhat unhealthy interest in his studies. Rumours abound that Madame Fontaine is no better than she ought to be, and Minna is consequently known as Jezebel’s daughter. During the first part of the novel, Collins toys with his reader, who is never quite sure where the truth lies. When Mrs Wagner lets Jack Straw accompany her to Frankfurt, however, the full story soon emerges.
I shan’t spoil it for those who want to read the novel, but suffice it to say, there are more twists and turns than you could shake a stick at. The preponderance of poisonings leads me to conclude that Mr Collins was a tad over-medicated when writing the novel, but it certainly holds the reader’s interest. There’s also a deliciously gruesome scene in a German morgue where a corpse suddenly rings the alarm bell, thereby terrifying the poor watchman, and exploiting the Victorian fear of premature burial.
Although much of the novel is frenetic melodrama, Jezebel’s Daughter is notable for its sympathetic treatment of mental illness, and Mrs Wagner’s advocacy of Jack Straw is both touching and uplifting. Through her character, Collins also suggests that women can be effective business managers, although this idea isn’t really developed. Madame Fontaine is also one of his best evil creations, sharing similarities with the swoonsome Lydia Gwilt. Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t a high point of Collins’ career, but it’s a jolly good read for sensation addicts and those with a weakness for a thoroughly wicked villainess.