I’m always berating myself for writing such long posts: just one of many ways I can second-guess myself. But I may have hit on a solution: all I need to do is write about something I read so long ago I can hardly remember it.
The book in question is Jezebel’s Daughter (1880), a rather creaky but pleasurable enough novel from Wilkie Collins’s last decade. Longtime readers will know I’m a Collins fan. I read the famous ones pre-blog, but wrote about two of his less well-known books last year. This one kept me amused on a longish flight earlier this year.
Jezebel’s Daughter is narrated by the now-elderly David Glenney, who reflects on some sensational events from his youth in the 1820s, some sixty years before the time of his telling. In this sense, it is much more conventional than the works of Collins’s prime, Woman in White, say, or the brilliant, underappreciated No Name.
Glenney works in the firm of Wagner, Keller, and Engelman. No idea what this firm does—maybe we’re told and I’ve forgotten, but I actually think Collins can’t be bothered to tell us. I’ve a vague idea they’re a bank. At any rate, they’ve offices in London and Frankfurt. The book begins with the death of Wagner; in his will he has appointed his widow, David’s aunt, as his sole successor. Mrs. Wagner has a shrewd head for business, but her real distinguishing characteristic is her love of socially progressive causes. She immediately hires women to work in the office—and demands the same happen in the much more conservative Frankfurt office. And she rescues a foundling, named Nicholas Grimm but called Jack Straw by the other characters, from a madhouse that she and her late husband had worked hard to reform. Straw becomes a kind of pet or devoted servant to her and affirms his benefactor’s conviction that all anyone needs is to feel useful and loved.
Glenney is sent from London to Frankfurt on a kind of exchange program. Keller, one of the German partners, has sent his son, Fritz, to London to get him away from a girl. Minna is sweet but insipid, of no real interest to anyone in this novel. The editor of this edition puts matters in the best possible light when he says that unlike in many of Collins’s earlier books, where spirited young women are at the center of the action, Jezebel’s Daughter concentrates on two mature women. That means the title is a misnomer: what matters in this book isn’t the daughter, but the mother, the Jezebel of the title, one Madame Fontaine, whose husband, an experimental chemist, bequeathed several vials of deadly and recherché poisons along with their antidotes to his not especially grieving widow.
But it’s not that Madame Fontaine is looking for a man for herself. All her attention is directed toward her daughter. She’s so desperate to marry her daughter into the Keller family that she insinuates herself into the firm by charming—and eventually humiliating—the good-natured bachelor partner, Engelman. Having gained access to Keller’s household, Madame Fontaine poisons him with one of her late husband’s concoctions, carefully measuring the dosage so that he hovers on the brink of death. Then she nurses him back to health (using the antidote), eventually becoming his housekeeper. Keller, grateful to the woman who in fact almost killed him, consents to the marriage between Fritz and Minna. The wedding date falls just before a large debt owed by Madame Fontaine falls due, which is important because Keller abhors debt and would stop the marriage if he found anything so disreputable in his future daughter-in-law’s family.
At the last minute, though, the wedding has to be postponed. The debt comes due; Madame Fontaine is desperate and she steals the money from Mrs. Wagner, who at some point in all this has arrived in Frankfurt—for the wedding, I think, but also because she is determined to force Keller to hire women in the office. The supposedly mad Jack Straw—who has suffered greatly at the hands of the Fontaine family, in a complicated and fairly preposterous back story I won’t go into here—discovers the theft and when Mrs. Wagner confronts Madame Fontaine she does the only thing a woman in her terrible position would do: she poisons the other woman. This all leads to the climactic scene in the Frankfurt mortuary, the Dead House, in which Mrs. Wagner is revived from the dead and replaced by Madame Fontaine who accidentally poisons herself.
Cue the happy ending. Minna is blonde and sweet enough that no one really minds that her mother is an attempted murderer. The wedding goes on as planned, Jack Straw remains devoted to his benefactor, and has the satisfaction of having proved himself more competent than most of the so-called sane characters, and Mrs. Wagner recovers enough to push through her egalitarian vision of the workplace.
Yes, I gave a few things away here, but unusually for Collins the book isn’t that suspenseful. And that’s a pity, because suspense is what Collins does best. It’s pretty clear what Madame Fontaine is up to. A different novel would have kept us unsure about whether she had actually poisoned Keller. So why should anyone read this book? Its interest is in the pairing of the two widows, both of them smart and determined, and more interesting than any of the men in the book. Because Mrs. Wagner’s drive is channeled in socially productive ways, we’re meant to sympathize with her rather than with her continental (read louche, untrustworthy) opposite number. But Mrs. Wagner is a bit too decent to hold too much of our interest (though she’s never saccharine, I will give Collins that—quite unlike any of the good female characters in Dickens, say.) At the same time, Madame Fontaine isn’t quite compelling enough to be a study in glamorous evil, the lurid reference to Jezebel in the title notwithstanding. Indeed, at its best the novel suggests she’s simply a mother who will do anything to see her daughter made happy. It seems as though Collins is suggesting that in the absence of the reforms desired by Mrs. Wagner a woman could be forced to the excesses of Madame Fontaine. Unlike someone like The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, who does evil for the hell of it, Madame Fontaine does evil for her daughter. She’s as exhausted as I expect today’s Tiger Moms are.
In the end, the only really engaging and sympathetic character is Engelman, the old bachelor. Here’s how Glenney introduces him:
Mr. Engelman, short and fat, devoted to the office during the hours of business, had never read a book in his life, and had no aspirations beyond the limits of his garden and his pipes. “In my leisure moments,” he used to say, “give me my flowers, my pipe, and my peace of mind—and I ask no more.”
The redundancy of the last sentence—it pretty much repeats the previous one—gives you a sense of Glenney’s prose. (He’s just prosy and complaisant enough that I’m willing to believe Collins is aiming for dullness here, rather than just being dull.) Sadly, Engelman’s peace of mind is ruined when Madame Fontaine ensnares him. The kindhearted Engelman is ready to throw over his tidy, careful, indolent bachelor life for the captivating widow but when he realizes she is only using him as part of a greater plan he withdraws to his hometown and dies of apoplexy aka shame. He’s a more tragic version of Joseph Buschmann from The Dead Secret. At least he had the wisdom not to fall in love. Does love ever work out in Collins? It’s enough to make me wonder if there isn’t something ominous (rather than, say, sickly sweet) in the tears which, filling Glenney’s eyes at the end of the book, oblige him to break off in his description of Minna and Fritz’s wedding. Wishful thinking on my part, no doubt, but even in a minor work Collins always leaves us a little uncertain.
Minor Collins, no doubt, but props to Oxford to putting this out in a decent, affordable, well-edited edition.