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).

Classics Club Monthly Meme: Question #42 – Science Fiction and Mysteries

The Classics Club

On the 26th of each month the Classics Club post a question for members to answer during the following month. It’s been a while since I last participated so I’ve decided to join in with this one. The question below was contributed by club member Fariba:

“What is your favourite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

I haven’t read a huge number of classics from either of these genres, so rather than pick favourites I’m simply going to write about a few books I’ve enjoyed which fall into each category. First, let’s look at classic mysteries…

Mysteries

And Then There Were None The first author to come to mind when I think about classic mysteries is Agatha Christie. Although I haven’t read all of her books yet (not even half of them), I’ve loved most of those that I have read, particularly And Then There Were None. It’s such a simple idea – ten strangers are cut off from the world on an isolated island and start to be killed off one by one – but the solution is fiendishly clever!

My next choice is from the Victorian period: a book which TS Eliot famously described as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a novel which centres around the disappearance of a valuable Indian diamond. As anyone who has read it will know, the mystery itself is almost secondary to the wonderful array of memorable narrators, especially Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly servant.

With my interest in history, I also enjoyed The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which a detective recuperating in hospital decides to amuse himself by trying to solve the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. In 1990 this book came top of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list. I haven’t read any of Tey’s other mysteries yet, but I have A Shilling for Candles on my shelf to read soon.

Science Fiction

The Midwich Cuckoos A few years ago I read and loved The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic science fiction novel about a mysterious phenomenon which occurs in a quiet English village. I was (and still am) intending to read more of John Wyndham’s books, but haven’t got round to it yet. I know some of his other novels are regarded as being better than this one, so I’m looking forward to trying them for myself.

HG Wells is one of the most famous authors of classic science fiction and so far I have read two of his books – The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. I enjoyed both of these novels but I didn’t find either of them entirely satisfying. In the case of The Time Machine in particular, I felt that there were a lot of ideas which could have been explored in more depth. I’m sure I’ll read more of Wells’ novels eventually.

If I can also class dystopian novels as science fiction, there are quite a few that I’ve read including, years ago, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Otherwise, I really haven’t read much science fiction at all and would love some recommendations!

Have you read any classic mystery or science fiction novels? Which are your favourites?

Love and Other Happy Endings, edited by M. R. Nelson

This is a collection of five classic short stories from five very different authors: Katherine Mansfield, L.M. Montgomery, Wilkie Collins, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Oliver Curwood. The title given to the collection by its editor, M.R. Nelson, means that we know before we begin that each story will have a happy ending of some sort, but I can assure you that this doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading them. The interest is in seeing how each happy ending is reached and how the conflicts or problems in each story are resolved.

Love and Other Happy Endings First is The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield, a story which appeared in her 1922 collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories. This is a very short story, but Mansfield (a new author for me) manages to pack a lot of meaning into it. The story follows Miss Meadows, a singing teacher, who has had some bad news and begins the day “With despair — cold, sharp despair — buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife”. We see how Miss Meadows’ state of mind affects not only herself but the girls in her class; she is someone who brings her personal troubles into work with her. Later in the day, something happens to change the teacher’s mood and the way she perceives the world is suddenly quite different.

Story two is Akin to Love by L.M. Montgomery, best known for her Anne of Green Gables series. I read her Anne novels (or most of them anyway) as a child, but this is the first time I’ve read any of her other work. Akin to Love is from her 1909-1922 collection of short stories. It’s a simple tale of two single people, Josephine Elliott and David Hartley, who are friends and neighbours. David has proposed to Josephine many times over the last eighteen years and she has turned him down every time. Eventually Josephine begins to experience a feeling akin to love, but will she act on her feelings?

The third story, Mr Lismore and the Widow is by Wilkie Collins, who has long been one of my favourite Victorian authors, so it’s not surprising that this was one of the stories I enjoyed most from this collection. Originally published in 1883, it’s the story of a man in need of money and a woman in need of a husband. It’s easy to predict what will happen – or is it? This is a tale with a twist…a slightly implausible twist, but a fun one!

Next is Head and Shoulders, a story from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers (1920). It’s a great story, again with a twist, about Horace Tarbox, a clever, intellectual student and Marcia Meadow, a dancer (a philosopher and a flapper?). Despite being complete opposites, the two fall in love, but their relationship does not follow the course you might expect. I’m not really a fan of Fitzgerald, but this is a bright, witty story which really stands out from the others in the book.

The final story is The Other Man’s Wife, taken from the 1920 collection Back to God’s Country and Other Stories by James Oliver Curwood, another author I have never read before. In this story we meet a man who has taken refuge in the wilderness because he needs some time away from the woman he loves – and from her husband, whom he describes as “a scoundrel, a brute, who came home from his club drunk, a cheap money-spender, a man who wasn’t fit to wipe the mud from her little feet, much less call her wife.” This is another very short story, and I found it easy to guess how it would end, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying to read.

Reading these five stories one after the other encouraged me to look for common themes and ideas and to think about the ways in which different authors tackle the subject of love. I wondered why, out of all the short stories in the world, Nelson chose these particular five, so I was interested to read her notes at the end explaining her choices. I really enjoyed this little collection and am pleased to be able to give this review a happy ending!

Thanks to M.R. Nelson for providing a copy of Love and Other Happy Endings for review.

The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke

The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins After reading The Frozen Deep recently, my interest in Wilkie Collins was reawakened and I decided it was time to read the biography I bought when I was in the middle of my Collins obsession a few years ago. There were not many to choose from at that time and this one sounded like the best available. I ordered a copy, but by the time it arrived I had moved on to other authors and didn’t feel like reading it anymore. Since then, one or two other biographies have been published which sound more appealing than this one, but it made sense to read the one I already own rather than buying a new one.

The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins was first published in 1988, although the edition I have was revised in 1996. The author, William M. Clarke, is married to Wilkie Collins’ great-granddaughter, Faith Elizabeth Dawson, and maybe because of this connection, the focus of the book is on Wilkie’s private life and relationships with his family and friends rather than on his work. Clarke does attempt to show us the circumstances surrounding the writing of most of Collins’ books, plays and stories and what may have inspired them, but he doesn’t often go into any detailed analysis of these.

After a brief introduction, the book follows Wilkie’s life in chronological order, beginning with his birth in January 1824. Wilkie was the eldest son of the Royal Academy landscape painter William Collins and his wife, Harriet Geddes, who was also from a family of artists. The first few chapters describe Wilkie’s early childhood, some of which was spent in France and Italy and the rest in London. I found this the least interesting section of the book, but it does show us some of the influences Wilkie was exposed to from an early age which would have had an impact on his future career (an appreciation of Italian art, for example, and familiarity with all the writers, poets and authors who were part of his father’s social circle including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Constable). I also enjoyed reading about Wilkie’s school days and how one of the older boys bullied Wilkie into telling stories late at night!

Clarke then takes us through Collins’ adult life, including his friendship with Charles Dickens, his battle with rheumatic gout (an illness he suffered from for many years), his six-month reading tour of America, and his addiction to laudanum and his unsuccessful attempts to withdraw from it. I’ve mentioned that Clarke doesn’t spend much time discussing Wilkie’s writing, but I did find it interesting to read his thoughts on the effects of laudanum and how in the later stages of his career it may have affected Wilkie’s ability to write descriptions of visual landscapes and construct the intricate plots he was famous for.

There are also some accounts of Collins’ travels with Dickens and I enjoyed reading about these, especially their walking tour of the Lake District (which reminds me that I still haven’t read The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices). It seemed Dickens disapproved of his daughter, Kate, marrying Wilkie’s younger brother, Charles Collins, and this put a strain on their friendship in later years.

But it’s Wilkie’s romantic relationships that are given the most attention, which is understandable as this book is supposed to be about his ‘secret life’. Wilkie never married but was in long-term relationships with two different women, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. He lived openly with Caroline and Harriet, her daughter from a previous marriage, while having three children with Martha, whose household he established at a separate address. Each woman was aware of the other and their children even visited each other. I’m sure neither woman could have been very happy with the position they were in but it seems they were both prepared to accept it as this arrangement continued for more than twenty years! Caroline did leave him briefly to marry another man (Wilkie actually attended the wedding) but returned several years later. Collins does seem to have genuinely cared about both of his families but this sort of behaviour must have been scandalous by Victorian standards (and not very admirable by modern standards either) and led to his sister-in-law, Kate, describing him as “as bad as he could be, yet the gentlest and most kind-hearted of men”.

Wilkie’s life was fascinating to read about, but I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book as I found Clarke’s writing style quite dry and boring. This is a book I’ve been dipping into over the last few weeks and reading a few pages at a time rather than ever feeling a compulsion to sit down and read it from cover to cover. It has clearly been thoroughly researched with lots of quotes from Collins himself and from people close to him (references are provided), and there’s plenty of supplementary material – notes, photographs, family trees, bibliography and several appendices, including an analysis of Wilkie’s bank accounts (Clarke’s unique position as the husband of one of Wilkie’s descendants meant he could access this information) but I think I would have been more interested in a book with more balance between Collins’ private life and his writing.

I’m going to finish this post with a question: do you like reading biographies of your favourite authors or do you think knowing too much about an author’s personal life can affect your enjoyment of their work?

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins

The Frozen Deep I love Victorian literature and if I had to choose a favourite Victorian author it would probably be Wilkie Collins. The Woman in White was the first book of his that I read, in 2006, and within a year I had also read The Moonstone, Armadale and No Name. Since then I’ve read several of his lesser-known books, most of which I’ve reviewed on this blog, and while they weren’t as good as his ‘big four’ novels, I still found something to enjoy in all of them. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, though, and it’s now been a few years since I’ve felt like reading any of Wilkie’s books. But when the Estella Society announced their Wilkie in Winter event I decided to join in and read one of the titles I hadn’t already read, The Frozen Deep.

The Frozen Deep is a novella which Collins based on a play he had written, with the help of Charles Dickens, in 1856. The story was inspired by reports of a voyage to the Arctic led by Sir John Franklin in 1845 during which the members of the expedition disappeared without trace.

At the beginning of the book we meet Clara Burnham who is saying goodbye to the man she loves, Frank Aldersley, whose ship is leaving the next day in search of the Northwest Passage. However, another man is also in love with Clara. His name is Richard Wardour, and when he discovers that she has become engaged to somebody else, he vows to take his revenge on the man he believes has stolen her from him. Clara, who is gifted with the Second Sight, is convinced that Richard will succeed in finding and destroying Frank – and when she learns that Richard has also joined the same Arctic voyage she becomes even more afraid.

I really enjoyed reading The Frozen Deep. It’s not one of Collins’ best books, but I hadn’t expected it to be so I wasn’t disappointed and with less than one hundred pages it was perfect for those busy days just before Christmas when I was looking for something quick and entertaining to read. But while I was impressed that Collins could tell such a compelling story in so few pages, I do think there was the potential for it to have been expanded into a full-length novel. I would have liked more details of the Arctic expedition itself and the experiences of the men left stranded by the ice-bound ships. And I thought Richard Wardour could have been a fascinating character, if only there had been time to explore his thoughts and emotions in more depth.

Although this book wasn’t without some flaws, I thought it was very enjoyable and I’m hoping to find time soon to read (or re-read) another of Collins’ books.

Review: The Haunted Hotel & Other Stories by Wilkie Collins

Time for one more review before the RIP challenge ends!

Having read so many of Wilkie Collins’ books and loving them all, I’m starting to worry now whenever I pick up one that I haven’t read yet, in case that’s going to be the one that disappoints me. Luckily it wasn’t this one! This collection published by Wordsworth Editions includes the novella The Haunted Hotel and eight other short stories, all with a ghostly, spooky or supernatural theme.

Part ghost story and part gothic mystery, The Haunted Hotel begins in London but soon moves to Venice, an atmospheric setting complete with dark canals and ancient palaces. At the heart of the story is the mysterious Countess Narona, who marries Lord Montbarry after he breaks off his engagement to Agnes Lockwood. When Montbarry dies in Venice soon after insuring his life for ten thousand pounds, rumours abound that the Countess may have had something to do with his death.

While I enjoyed The Haunted Hotel, I wouldn’t class it among Collins’ best work and the shortness of the story means the characters aren’t as well developed. I did love the second half of the story in which the palace where Montbarry died is converted into a hotel. There’s a very creepy sequence of events where each member of the Montbarry family who stays in the hotel feels a ghostly influence that manifests itself in a different way to each person.

You can buy The Haunted Hotel on its own, but I recommend looking for this edition because the additional short stories are well worth reading too. In every story, Collins gradually builds the suspense and draws the reader into the story. One of my favourites was Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman, a short ghost story in which the ghostly happenings are accompanied by mysterious clouds of white fog. I loved the way even though the story was quite predictable, it was still a pageturner. The same can be said about Nine O’Clock, in which a man condemned to death during the French Revolution tells his friend about a family curse. We know almost from the beginning what will happen, but the story still manages to be suspenseful.

Another favourite was A Terribly Strange Bed, an Edgar Allan Poe-like tale which creates a feeling of claustrophobia and terror as the narrator finds himself trapped in a room with a very unusual bed. Another story on a similar theme is The Dead Hand, in which a man attempts to find a room at an inn for the night, but finds that everywhere is full. When he’s eventually offered a bed in a double room, he makes a surprising discovery about the stranger who’s occupying the other bed.

I also enjoyed the final story in the book, The Devil’s Spectacles, which is about a man who is given a pair of spectacles that allow him to see the true thoughts and feelings of anyone he looks at.

I don’t generally like reading short story collections straight through from beginning to end, but I didn’t have a problem with this book. There are only eight stories (plus The Haunted Hotel) and most of them are less than twenty pages long. This was a perfect book to read in the week before Halloween.

Review: Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins

You are here invited to read the story of an Event which occurred in an out-of-the-way corner of England, some years since.
The persons principally concerned in the Event are: – a blind girl; two (twin) brothers; a skilled surgeon; and a curious foreign woman. I am the curious foreign woman. And I take it on myself – for reasons which will presently appear – to tell the story.

Having read all four of Wilkie Collins’ best known books in my pre-blogging days (The Woman in White, Armadale, No Name and The Moonstone), I am now exploring his less popular novels. I recently reviewed Basil and A Rogue’s Life, two of his earlier books from the 1850s. This one, Poor Miss Finch, was published in 1872 and unlike most of the books that preceded it, is not really a ‘sensation novel’, although it does have certain sensational elements (mysterious strangers, theft, assault, letters being intercepted, mistaken identities etc). What it is is an interesting study into what it’s like to be blind since infancy and the emotions a person experiences on learning that there may be a chance of regaining their sight.

The story is told by a Frenchwoman called Madame Pratolungo, the widow of a South American political activist, who has just arrived in the village of Dimchurch in England to take up a position as companion to Lucilla Finch. Lucilla has been blind since she was a child and her blindness has led to a strange phenomenon – she has developed an irrational fear of darkness and dark colours. Even knowing that someone is wearing a dark purple dress, for example, sends her into a panic.

Oscar Dubourg and his twin brother Nugent are newcomers to Dimchurch. Soon after their arrival, Oscar suffers a fit and learns that he has epilepsy. In the 19th century a common cure for epilepsy was to take nitrate of silver. Unfortunately, a side effect of nitrate of silver consumption is that the skin turns blue. When Oscar and Lucilla fall in love, Oscar feels secure in the knowledge that Lucilla will never be able to see him and need never be told that his face is dark blue. However, when Nugent introduces them to the German oculist Herr Grosse, it appears that there could still be hope for Lucilla after all.

This book handles the topic of blindness in a sensitive and intriguing way. It’s obvious that Collins had done a lot of research into the subject and the results are fascinating. He discusses the theory that when a person is blind their other senses improve to compensate for their lack of sight and he weighs up the advantages and disadvantages there would be if this person then regained their sight. I had never even thought about some of the aspects of blindness that are mentioned in the book. For example, there’s an interesting moment when Madame Pratolungo realises why Lucilla shows little regard for normal Victorian conventions and proprieties.

What did it mean?
It meant that here was one strange side shown to me of the terrible affliction that darkened her life. It meant that modesty is essentially the growth of our own consciousness of the eyes of others judging us – and that blindness is never bashful, for the one simple reason that blindness cannot see.

The characters, as usual, are wonderful – most of them anyway. I didn’t find Lucilla very likeable (she has a tendency to throw foot-stamping tantrums when she doesn’t get her own way) but I loved Madame Pratolungo – she was such an amusing and engaging narrator!

I cast all feminine restraints to the winds. I sat down with my legs anyhow, like a man. I rammed my hands into the pockets of my dressing-gown. Did I cry? A word in your ear – and let it go no farther. I swore.

We also meet Reverend Finch, Lucilla’s father, who chooses to recite Hamlet at the most inappropriate moments, and his wife, Mrs Finch, who is ‘never completely dressed; never completely dry; always with a baby in one hand and a novel in the other’. With Lucilla’s little half-sister Jicks’, Collins even makes a three year old girl into an unusual and memorable character:

This amazing apparition advanced into the middle of the room, holding hugged under one arm a ragged and disreputable-looking doll; stared hard, first at Oscar, then at me; advanced to my knees; laid the disreputable doll on my lap; and, pointing to a vacant chair at my side, claimed the rights of hospitality in these words:
“Jicks will sit down.”

Although I thought parts of the plot felt contrived, the story did become very gripping towards the end. This was an interesting and thought provoking read, and if you have enjoyed any other Wilkie Collins books, then I suspect you might enjoy this one too.

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