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).

Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy

Desperate Remedies (1871) was Thomas Hardy’s first published novel, following an earlier manuscript which failed to find a publisher and was later destroyed. I love Thomas Hardy’s books and have been looking forward to reading this one as it has been described as a sensation novel, a genre of Victorian fiction that I’ve enjoyed since I first discovered authors like Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood, in the years before I started my blog.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that our heroine, Cytherea Graye, was named after her father’s one true love, a woman who disappeared without explanation and left him heartbroken. Mr Graye later married and had two children – Cytherea and her brother Owen – whom he raised alone after his wife’s death. When Mr Graye himself dies, having made some poor business decisions in the final years of his life, Cytherea and Owen are faced with making their own way in the world. Owen decides to pursue a career as an architect, while his sister advertises for work as a governess.

Finding it harder to get a job than she had expected, Cytherea eventually accepts a position as lady’s maid to Miss Aldclyffe, a middle-aged unmarried woman who seems to be hiding a number of secrets. Why does she have so much affection for Cytherea, whom she has never met until now? Why does she go to such great lengths to employ the mysterious Aeneas Manston as steward on her estate – and why is she so keen to encourage Cytherea to marry him? Manston is another person with secrets and Cytherea is reluctant to marry someone she feels she can’t fully trust, especially as she has already fallen in love with Edward Springrove, her brother’s friend. Unfortunately, Edward is engaged to another woman – and when Cytherea’s financial situation becomes increasingly desperate, she finds herself drawn into Aeneas Manston’s schemes.

I loved Desperate Remedies! It starts off slowly, introducing Cytherea and her family background and explaining the circumstances that lead to her arrival at Miss Aldclyffe’s house, but it quickly develops into an intriguing and entertaining page-turner with plenty of twists and surprises. I liked Cytherea; there are stronger, more interesting heroines in some of Hardy’s later novels, but Cytherea is by no means a weak and helpless woman and I enjoyed following her story.

I did find two of the novel’s big secrets quite easy to guess, but there were still times when I wasn’t sure where the story was going and when the actions of one character or another left me mystified. The plot makes it feel quite similar to a Wilkie Collins novel, but there are still some elements which make it recognisable as a book written by Thomas Hardy, such as the descriptions of the landscape and the portrayal of a small rural community. This isn’t one of my absolute favourite Hardy novels – I think some of his later ones are better – but it’s still a great read.

The remaining novels I have left to read by Hardy are all books that I know nothing about: The Well-Beloved, Two on a Tower, A Laodicean, The Hand of Ethelberta and The Trumpet-Major. Does anyone have any recommendations from those five? I also haven’t read any of his short story collections, Wessex Tales, Life’s Little Ironies and A Group of Noble Dames, so I still have lots of Hardy to look forward to.

This is book 4/20 of my 20 Books of Summer and book 6/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Asylum by John Harwood

The Asylum Imagine waking up one day to find yourself in an asylum, with no memory of how you came to be there. You know your own name – Georgina Ferrars – but the doctor tells you that you had admitted yourself as a voluntary patient the day before under the name Lucy Ashton. The clothes and belongings you’ve brought with you, marked with the initials LA, seem to confirm this, but you’re sure that’s not who you are. Sending a telegram to your uncle, a London bookseller, you wait for him to prove your identity, but when the reply comes it isn’t what you’d hoped for at all. Apparently Georgina Ferrars is safe and well at home…which means you must be an imposter.

This is the nightmare scenario in which a lonely young woman finds herself in this atmospheric gothic tale of betrayal and deceit, secrets, insanity and identity. To describe the plot in any more detail would risk giving too much away, so I won’t try – I think it’s best if you begin this novel knowing no more than I’ve already told you above as part of the fun is in wondering what’s going on and coming up with theories of your own. And I certainly came up with plenty of theories…and had to keep changing and revising them as new clues and revelations came to light!

As I read The Asylum I felt as confused and bewildered as our narrator did. Was she really Georgina Ferrars, as she claimed to be? I thought so at first – I liked her and wanted to believe her – and I was convinced she must be the victim of a conspiracy. But who exactly was involved in the conspiracy? The doctor? The uncle? The fake Georgina? After a while, though, I began to have doubts. Was the narrator herself the fake after all? I couldn’t believe she was telling lies, so did that mean she was deluded or just suffering from a total loss of memory? There were so many questions to ask and so many possible answers.

The story is set in the 1880s and written in the style of a Victorian sensation novel. Like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and other books of that era, parts of the story are told in the form of journal entries and letters. These help to fill in some gaps in our knowledge so that we can start to understand what is happening to Georgina. There were other aspects of the novel that reminded me of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and one of the letter writers finds herself in a situation similar to the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but there were enough original ideas here to make this an intriguing and absorbing story in its own right.

Most of the action takes place within the confines of Tregannon House (the private asylum on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, in which Georgina becomes trapped) and the atmosphere Harwood creates is wonderfully claustrophobic and eerie. I really sympathised with Georgina’s situation and shared her terror and bewilderment. My only criticism of the book is that the ending – in particular the way in which one of the villains of the story is eventually dealt with – felt a bit too melodramatic in comparison to the rest of the book.

This is the third John Harwood novel I’ve read and while I think the first, The Ghost Writer, is still my favourite, I enjoyed this one more than the second, The Séance. They’re all great, though, and if you like this sort of book you can’t go wrong with any of them!

Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Aurora Floyd When I decided to take part in the recent Classics Club Spin I was delighted when the book chosen for me was Aurora Floyd. I have read two of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s other books – Lady Audley’s Secret and The Doctor’s Wife – and loved them both, so I had high hopes for this one.

Aurora Floyd, like Lady Audley’s Secret, is a Victorian sensation novel which means you can expect a story filled with mystery, murder and family secrets. Aurora Floyd is a young woman who lost her mother at an early age and was raised by her father, a rich banker. We are told that the lack of a feminine influence has led to Aurora having some unsuitable and unconventional hobbies, including an obsession with dogs and horse racing. It’s this interest in horses that causes Aurora to become involved in a scandal that her father does his best to cover up.

Time passes and Aurora attracts the attentions of two very different men: the handsome, proud Cornishman Talbot Bulstrode and the loyal, loving Yorkshire squire John Mellish (one of my favourite characters). She marries one of them but it’s not long before the secrets of Aurora’s troubled past come back to haunt her. Of course I’m not going to tell you what Aurora’s secret is, and if you really don’t want to know I would also advise not reading the blurb on the back of the Oxford World’s Classics edition. It’s not all that hard to guess, admittedly, but it’s completely unnecessary for the publisher to spoil the story for people in my opinion! Even after the truth about Aurora’s past starts to become obvious, though, there are still more mysteries to be solved and plenty of suspense right until the end of the book.

I’ve mentioned that I liked John Mellish; I also loved Aurora’s uncle, Samuel Prodder, and there are some great villains too, including the governess, Mrs Powell, who is jealous of Aurora, and Steven Hargraves, who is looking for revenge after losing his position as groom for kicking Aurora’s dog. As I’ve already said, Aurora is not a typical Victorian heroine, especially in contrast to the novel’s other main female character, her cousin Lucy, who is portrayed as gentle, feminine and obedient. But while Lucy is presented as the 19th century ideal and Aurora as ‘unwomanly’, the author never sounds disapproving or judgmental of Aurora and she is by far the more interesting and engaging of the two. At first, to maintain the aura of mystery and secrecy surrounding her, we are not allowed into Aurora’s head; everything we learn about her is through either the authorial voice (Braddon, like many Victorian authors, has a habit of talking directly to the reader) or through the eyes of Talbot Bulstrode, John Mellish and various other characters. Later, after her secrets start to be revealed, we get to know her better.

In some ways Aurora Floyd is definitely a product of its time – attitudes towards class, for example, and the offensive terms used to describe Hargraves, who has what we would probably call learning disabilities today – but in other ways, Braddon’s views feel refreshingly modern. I also liked the fact that while many authors would have ended the novel with the heroine’s marriage, in Aurora Floyd the marriage takes place less than a third of the way through the book, when the story is only just beginning rather than ending:

Yet, after all, does the business of the real life drama always end upon the altar-steps? Must the play needs be over when the hero and heroine have signed their names in the register? Does man cease to be, to do, and to suffer when he gets married? And is it necessary that the novelist, after devoting three volumes to the description of a courtship of six weeks duration, should reserve for himself only half a page in which to tell us the events of two-thirds of a lifetime?

It has been a few years since I last read anything by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and I had forgotten how much I like her writing. I still prefer Wilkie Collins’ sensation novels, but Braddon’s are not far behind. I didn’t find Aurora Floyd as exciting and gripping as Lady Audley’s Secret but I think I liked the characters better in this one and am grateful to the Classics Spin for selecting such an enjoyable book for me!

A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott

Until recently I hadn’t realised what a diverse writer Louisa May Alcott was. Like many people I read Little Women and its sequels as a child – and Little Women is still one of my favourite books – but I never thought about exploring her other fiction until now. A Long Fatal Love Chase is a suspense novel, written in 1866 but never published in Alcott’s lifetime (it was eventually published in 1995). I didn’t even know Alcott had written books like this, so I’m glad I have now been enlightened!

Rosamond Vivian, eighteen years old at the beginning of the novel, lives with her cold-hearted grandfather in a mansion on a remote island. Bored and lonely, feeling unloved by her grandfather, Rosamond longs for some adventure in her life. When she loses her temper with the old man one day and tells him she would gladly sell her soul to Satan for a year of freedom, it seems that her wishes are about to come true.

That same day, Phillip Tempest arrives (during a storm, of course) to do some business with Rosamond’s grandfather. Tempest, who we are told resembles a painting of the demon Mephistopheles, is handsome, charming and surrounded by an aura of mystery. Rosamond is instantly attracted to him and soon Tempest sweeps her away with him on his yacht. But Rosamond’s happiness doesn’t last for long. When she makes some shocking discoveries about Tempest she decides to leave him…but it seems Tempest is not prepared to let her go.

The rest of the story is, as the title suggests, a long and fatal love chase in which Rosamond flees across France, Germany and Italy from chateau to convent to asylum with Tempest never far behind. The tension builds and builds; almost every chapter ends on a cliffhanger as Rosamond finds herself in danger yet again. With Tempest growing more and more obsessed and increasingly devious in the methods he uses to track down her hiding places, will Rosamond ever be able to escape?

As you’ll be able to tell by now, A Long Fatal Love Chase is not like Little Women at all, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as you’re not expecting it to be (which I wasn’t). Just be aware of its sensational nature and be prepared for something over-the-top and melodramatic. There’s a lot of symbolism too and as well as the Mephistopheles reference I mentioned earlier there are many other allusions to mythology, art and literature, particularly Shakespeare – with a character whose name is Tempest, I suppose that’s not surprising!

If you have read Little Women and remember Jo writing her novels, it’s easy to imagine Jo sitting in her garret writing a story like this and persuading Meg, Beth and Amy to act out some of the scenes with her! It wasn’t the best book of this type that I’ve read, especially in comparison to the more complex sensation novels written during the same period by Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Ellen Wood, but it was still exciting, entertaining and also quite daring for its time, with its themes of obsession and stalking. It has a lot in common with early gothic novels by authors such as Ann Radcliffe too, though with the advantages that this one is easier to read and Rosamond is a stronger character than the heroines of Radcliffe’s books.

Apart from Rosamond, the other characters in the novel are less well-developed and tend to represent either the good side of human nature (the priest who becomes Rosamond’s friend and confidant) or the bad (Tempest). From the moment he first appears in the novel, Tempest is such an obvious villain and there are so many hints and so much foreshadowing, that it’s easy for us, as the reader, to know that he is not to be trusted. Rosamond is a young, naïve girl (though not without a lot of courage and spirit) being taken advantage of by a ruthless and manipulative older man, and it takes her a lot longer than it takes the reader to discover that something is not right. But despite so much of the plot being predictable, some of the twists did still take me by surprise and the ending was not quite what I had expected either!

If you’ve enjoyed this book, I would also recommend Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart – although they were written almost 100 years apart I thought they had a very similar feel.

Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu

Until now my only previous experience of the 19th century Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was the short story, Laura Silver Bell, which I read for Mel U’s Irish Short Story Week in March. I was keen to see what I would think of one of Le Fanu’s full-length novels and decided to read Uncle Silas for the R.I.P challenge.

Uncle Silas is an 1864 novel which seems to incorporate almost every aspect of the Victorian sensation/gothic novel you can think of: gloomy, eerie mansions, graveyards, laudanum addiction, an evil governess, locked rooms and locked cabinets, poison, family secrets. I had high hopes for the book as it sounded like exactly the type of classic I usually enjoy, and after a slow start it didn’t disappoint.

Our heroine (and the narrator of the story) is Maud Ruthyn who lives with her father at Knowl, their family estate. Maud is fascinated by a portrait of her Uncle Silas which hangs on one of the walls inside the house – she has never met her uncle before and is intrigued by hints of scandal in his past. When Mr Ruthyn decides to find a governess for his daughter, the sinister Madame de la Rougierre comes to live at Knowl and a chain of events begins which will finally bring Maud into contact with her mysterious Uncle Silas.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot without beginning to give too much away! I had managed to avoid reading any big spoilers so I never had any idea what was coming next, and I think that was the best way to approach this book.

It did take me a while to really get into the story. It was fun and entertaining from the beginning and I was never actually bored with it, but it seemed to take such a long time before anything really happened. It wasn’t until about one hundred and fifty pages into the book that the pace began to pick up and then I could appreciate why Le Fanu had taken his time building the suspense and slowly creating a mood of menace and foreboding. It was a very atmospheric and creepy story (particularly any scene featuring Madame de la Rougierre, who must be one of the most horrible, grotesque villains in literature), though I didn’t find it as scary as I had expected to.

Maud may not be the strongest of female characters but she felt real and believable to me. Although she could be brave when she needed to be, she was young and naïve and I felt genuinely worried for her as she found herself becoming increasingly isolated, not sure who she could and couldn’t trust. And for me, this was where the story could be described as frightening: the complete lack of control Maud had over her own destiny and the way she was forced to depend on people who may not have had her best interests at heart.

If you enjoyed The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins then I think there’s a good chance you’ll like this book too. It doesn’t have as many surprising twists and turns as The Woman in White but it is a similar type of book, though with a much darker and more gothic feel. I think it’s a shame Le Fanu isn’t as widely read as other Victorian authors, as his work is definitely worth reading. I hope you’ll decide to give this book a try if you haven’t already.

Review: Basil by Wilkie Collins

In 19th century literature, a man can approach a girl’s father, ask for permission to marry her and be given that permission, all without the girl having any say in the matter whatsoever. Sometimes the potential husband has only actually spoken to the girl once or twice; sometimes not at all – and they certainly haven’t had time to get to know each other properly. Basil by Wilkie Collins is a good example of why these arrangements were often doomed to failure and caused unhappiness both for the husband and the wife.

Our narrator, the Basil of the title, is the son of a rich gentleman who is proud of his family’s ancient background and despises anyone of a lower social standing. When Basil meets Margaret Sherwin on a London omnibus he falls in love at first sight and becomes determined to marry her. Unfortunately Margaret is the daughter of a linen-draper, the class of person Basil’s father disapproves of most of all, so he decides not to tell his family about her just yet.

Mr Sherwin agrees to Basil marrying Margaret – but he insists that the wedding must take place immediately and that Basil must then keep the marriage secret for a whole year, not even seeing his wife unless Mr or Mrs Sherwin are present. This unusual suggestion should have told Basil that something suspicious was going on but he’s so blinded by love that he doesn’t care – until it’s too late…

Basil was one of Collins’ earliest novels and it shows, as it’s just not as good as his more famous books such as The Woman in White. The story took such a long time to really get started, with Basil introducing us to the members of his family, giving us every tiny detail of their appearance, personality and background. The second half of the book was much more enjoyable, filled with action, suspense and all the elements of a typical sensation novel including death, betrayal and adultery (Victorian readers apparently found the adultery scenes particularly shocking). There are lots of thunderstorms, people fainting and swooning, fights in the street, and everything you would expect from a Victorian melodrama.

All of Collins’ books are filled with strong, memorable characters and this was no exception. There’s Basil’s lively, carefree brother Ralph, his gentle, kind hearted sister Clara, the poor, frail Mrs Sherwin and the sinister Mr Mannion. However, I thought the overall writing style of this book was slightly different to what I’ve been used to in his later books – although I can’t put my finger on exactly what the difference was. This is not a must-read book but if you like the sensation novel genre, you’ll probably enjoy this one.