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).

The Classics Club Gothic Book Tag

I don’t often take part in book tags, but I couldn’t resist this Gothic-themed one hosted by The Classics Club.

If you want to join in too, here are the rules:

* Answer the 13 questions with classic books in mind.
* How you define ‘classic’ is up to you.
* How you define ‘scary’ is up to you (it could be content, size of book, genre etc).
* If you’re feeling social, visit other blogs and leave a comment or share your thoughts on twitter, fb, instagram or goodreads using #CCgothicbooktag
* Join in if you dare.

1. Which classic book has scared you the most?

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Not all of his tales and poems are scary ones, but there are definitely some very eerie, atmospheric ones in that collection.

2. Scariest moment in a book?

The scene from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes where the blind Dust Witch hovers over the rooftops of Green Town in a hot air balloon.

3. Classic villain that you love to hate?

I thought Madame de la Rougierre, the governess from Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu was a truly horrible villain!

4. Creepiest setting in a book?

Hill House in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Haunted houses are always the settings I find the creepiest!

5. Best scary cover ever?

6. Book you’re too scared to read?

Are Stephen King’s books considered classics now? I think they probably are. If so, I’m scared to re-read my copy of The Shining, although I loved it when I was about fifteen!

7. Spookiest creature in a book?

I’ll have to say the triffids in The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. The thought of seven-foot tall plants walking the streets and lashing out with their long, stinging arms sounds terrifying to me!

8. Classic book that haunts you to this day?

I first read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier as a teenager and when I re-read it last year I still found the atmosphere, the sense of place, the characters and the beautiful writing as haunting as ever.

9. Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist?

The moment in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None when the solution to the mystery is finally revealed. Still my favourite of all the Christie novels I’ve read.

10. Classic book you really, really disliked?

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Maybe I was just too old for it by the time I read it – I think I was probably past the age when I might have been able to appreciate it.

11. Character death that disturbed/upset you the most?

One death scene that I found particularly disturbing occurs in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. I don’t want to spoil anything for future readers, but anyone who has already read Jude will know exactly what I’m talking about!

12. List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads.

I’ve already mentioned some of my top reads in my answers to the previous questions above, so I’m going to choose a different five to list here:

The Monk by Matthew Lewis
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

13. Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.

Linking back to my answer to Question 1, here is the beginning of Edgar Allan Poe’s Ulalume:

“The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere –
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir –
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

~

What are your favourite spooky or Gothic classics?

The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom

The Gothic The Gothic is one of a series of books offering very short introductions to a wide variety of different topics. I have read one of the other books in this series – The Tudors – and found it a good way to gain a brief overview of a subject without going into an overwhelming amount of detail. I was attracted to this particular title because I enjoy reading Gothic novels, but the book does cover other aspects of Gothic culture as well as literature.

Nick Groom begins by explaining the history of the Goths (who originated from Germanic barbarian tribes) and how their influence spread throughout Europe. He then looks at Gothic architecture, before moving on to the more recent past and discussing the development of Gothic fiction, music, art and film. For such a short book (150 pages) it’s surprisingly comprehensive, but it really is intended to be just an introduction. If you want to explore any of the topics covered in the book in more detail, Groom gives some suggestions for further reading at the end.

This is a fascinating little book, but I don’t think it succeeds in showing how the different meanings of the term Gothic are related to each other. In the preface the author states that each of these meanings and associations are “part of a common history and occasionally share common features”, but I feel that I still don’t really understand how the Gothic culture with which we’re familiar today is connected with the original Goths of the fourth and fifth centuries. I did still enjoy reading the book, though. The chapters on literature were of particular interest to me, and as I hadn’t heard of some of the Gothic novels Groom talks about, I now have a whole list of titles to investigate!

I found the book itself very well presented (as was the other book I read, on the Tudors); the text is divided into short, manageable sections, there are some useful maps, photographs and illustrations and references are provided at the back. I think The Gothic and the other titles in the Very Short Introduction series will appeal to many different types of reader, from the student who wants to gain a general understanding before delving more deeply into one area to the non-academic reader who just wants to learn something new and interesting.

You can find a full list of all the Very Short Introductions on the Oxford University Press website.