Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins

I love Wilkie Collins but it’s been a while since I last read one of his books, so when the Classics Club recently challenged us to read a classic Gothic novel, thriller or mystery during the month of October, I thought Jezebel’s Daughter would be a good one to choose. Published in 1880, this was one of Collins’ later books, although it was based on a much earlier – and apparently unsuccessful – play of his, The Red Vial. I wasn’t really expecting it to be as good as his more famous novels such as The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name or my personal favourite, Armadale, all of which I read and loved in the years before I started blogging, but now that I’ve read Jezebel’s Daughter, I can say that while it’s not quite in the same class as those other books, it’s still very entertaining and enjoyable.

At the heart of the novel are two very different women who seem to have little in common other than the fact that they are both widows. First, in England, we meet Mrs Wagner, who has inherited her husband’s share of the business in which he had been a partner. Mrs Wagner is looking forward to becoming more involved in running the business and making some changes of her own – including employing more women. As a philanthropist, she also wants to use her money and position to help those less fortunate, such as Jack Straw, an inmate in the Bedlam lunatic asylum. Believing that Jack would benefit from some kindness and affection, she takes him into her own home, determined to prove that her theory is correct.

The action then switches to Germany, where we are introduced to Madame Fontaine, the widow of a French scientist who had devoted his life to the study of poisons. Since her husband’s death, she has found herself struggling financially, so when her daughter Minna falls in love with Fritz Keller, the son of Mrs Wagner’s wealthy business partner, she sees a possible solution to their money problems. Unfortunately, Madame Fontaine has a terrible reputation – she is the ‘Jezebel’ of the title – and Fritz’s father is strongly opposed to the idea of a marriage between his son and Minna. Can Madame Fontaine find a way to ensure that the marriage takes place before her debts are due to be paid?

Jezebel’s Daughter is a great read – it’s suspenseful and exciting and, because it’s a relatively short novel, it’s faster paced than some of his others as well. With a story involving poisonings, stolen jewels, unexplained illnesses, mysterious scientific experiments, morgues, asylums and plenty of plotting and scheming, there’s always something happening and for a long time I couldn’t imagine how it was all going to be resolved! As well as being fun to read, the book also touches on some important social issues, such as job opportunities for women (Mrs Wagner, like her late husband, believes that women should be employed in the office in positions that would normally be filled exclusively by men) and the humane treatment of people with mental illnesses.

The two central characters are wonderful – not the two young lovers, as you might expect, but the two middle-aged widows. They complement each other beautifully, one representing all that is good and the other all that is bad. But although Madame Fontaine can be seen as the villain of the story, Collins portrays her in a way that allows us to have some sympathy; she is an intelligent, ambitious woman for whom nothing has ever gone smoothly and most of the wicked acts she commits are done out of desperation or love for her daughter.

If anyone has read Collins’ better known works and is wondering what to read next, I would definitely recommend this one – or The Law and the Lady, Man and Wife or Poor Miss Finch, all of which I enjoyed too. I’m glad I decided to read this book for the Classics Club Gothic event – it was the perfect choice!

This is book 9/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

I am also counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII Challenge (categories: suspense, Gothic).

27 thoughts on “Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins

  1. whatmeread says:

    Oh, this one sounds much better than the one I read. I think that Collins books got better largely because of the influence of Dickens on him, which you can certainly see in The Moonstone because of its humor. The Haunted Hotel was kind of in the middle of my collected works, which I think are in order, so it isn’t that early of a book, but it didn’t seem as if much energy went into it. I am sure I have Jezebel, and I’m glad you reminded me of Armadale, because, although I’m sure I read it, I haven’t read it for a long time and don’t remember it. I’ll have to reread it. My intention is at some point to read the entire collected works, which I bought from Delphi, but I also have online versions of the collected works of five other classic authors, so it’s going to take me a long time to get through them all. I admit I haven’t been working very steadily at it.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, this is a good one – much better than The Haunted Hotel! I would like to read all of his books eventually too. So far, I think I’ve read about half of them so I still have a lot to get through. Armadale is my favourite, closely followed by The Woman in White.

  2. realthog says:

    Hm. I’ve read quite a lot of Collins (I binged on him in my late teens/early twenties when Anthony Blond’s Doughty Press reissued a bunch of his novels) but I don’t think I’ve read this one. Off to Gutenberg we go . . .

    Thanks for the tantalizing review!

  3. Lark says:

    I need to read this one! I love The Woman in White and liked The Moonstone as well. And Armadale is sitting on my tbr shelf. I should spend a month reading Wilkie Collins’ novels. 🙂

  4. buriedinprint says:

    Were all of his books published serially, or only some of them? I think it’s funny that novels of this time can contain all this: “poisonings, stolen jewels, unexplained illnesses, mysterious scientific experiments, morgues, asylums and plenty of plotting and scheming”; a novel of today would be declared over-ambitious in a heartbeat with even half of those! This isn’t a time period that I am reading from often these days, but I happen to be reading The Moonstone for the first time this October and quite enjoying it (although only reading about a chapter a day which means it will last for some time)!

    • Helen says:

      I don’t read Victorian novels as often as I used to, but I still love them. It seems that most of Collins’ novels were serialised, though I’m not sure whether all of them were. I’m glad you’re enjoying The Moonstone – it’s not one of my personal favourites, but I do like it, especially the chapters narrated by Gabriel Betteredge.

  5. April Munday says:

    It’s also been a while for me with Wilkie Collins. I love The Moonstone and have read it a few times. I’ve also read some of his more ‘eccentric’ works. This sounds a bit more entertaining.

    • Helen says:

      The Moonstone is great, although I prefer The Woman in White and Armadale. I think once you move away from his more famous books, his work becomes quite hit and miss, but this is a good one.

  6. Café Society says:

    I’ve only read the four really well known novels, probably because friends have spoken so scathingly about some of his other works. This is a new title to me, however, so perhaps I should give it a try.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read quite a few of his more obscure books and I’ve found most of them to be worth reading, as long as you don’t expect them to be as good as the four famous ones.

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’d only read the two main Collins titles before I read this one, and I really loved it! I liked the fact that the focus was on the women with the main protagonists being feisty older women was a real plus point for me. And it was *very* exciting! 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Most of Collins’ novels have strong female characters, which is one of the reasons I love his books so much. And yes, they all have exciting plots too! I would recommend Armadale next, if you haven’t read that one yet. 🙂

  8. Judy Krueger says:

    I think it is time I got serious about reading Wilkie Collins. After all, I read lots of mystery novels. They are where I go for palate cleansing without losing edginess. And he was one of the originators of the genre. I like the fact that in this one there are these contrasting female characters. A point that has come home to me in my reading this year is that while strong admirable female characters are inspiring, not all women fit into that box and that is a good thing!

    • Helen says:

      Wilkie Collins created some wonderful female characters – both heroines and villains, though, so not always admirable! As you like reading mystery novels, maybe you would enjoy The Moonstone.

    • Helen says:

      Collins seemed to have surprisingly modern views for his time. Most of his books have strong female characters and explore some interesting social issues. He’s definitely worth reading! 🙂

  9. jessicabookworm says:

    This sounds great! Sadly, I still haven’t read anything by Wilkie Collins, however I do have The Moonstone and The Woman in White on my new Classics Club list, and I really looking forward to reading them!

  10. Brona says:

    I love Collins – the few that I’ve read that is. This one sounds rather delightful and fun and makes me want to read another one of his again sooner rather than later.

  11. Lisbeth Ekelöf says:

    I loved The Woman in White and The Moonstone. This sounds like a good and interesting read (and not so thick as the others). Thank you for the recommendations. Will try out Armadale too one day.

    • Helen says:

      I would definitely recommend this one if you’re looking for a slightly shorter Collins novel to read. Armadale is great too and so is No Name, if you haven’t read that one yet.

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