Jezebel’s Daughter

Apr 23, 2017 | Reviews

Jason Hall and OUP are to be congratulated on this first ever scholarly volume of one of Collins’s more readable later works. Jezebel’s Daughter as brought out by Sutton Publishing in 1998 certainly responded to a need created by the sudden flourishing of interest in Collins that marked the end of the twentieth century. This new edition meets the questions asked of his works today, which enquire into their periodical and newspaper serialisation. For the less academically orientated reader, it is likewise great to have access to a well-presented copy of one of the less-familiar novels. I anticipate that both academic and leisure readers unfamiliar with the story will delight in the experience of anticipation and suspense in the face of this ‘new work’, so there are no spoilers in this review.

Accurately billed on the cover as “a suspenseful case study in villainy”, Jezebel’s Daughter (1880) is propelled by a conflict between two women, in a permutation of No Name (1864). Each protagonist variously strains the boundaries of stereotypical female propriety, both those of 1828, the year in which the novel is set – a date which allows Collins to demonstrate how much had changed in the last half century – and also the restraints which still held in the year of its telling, 1878, a date close enough to the year in which the novel was published to hint, in typical Collins’s fashion, that much was still left to be achieved.

The novel stages a contest between an enlightened Englishwoman, Mrs Wagner, a London-based widow of a German merchant, and Mme Fontaine, the German Jezebel of the title, an older widow who – “handsome, distinguished, dress[ing] to perfection, possess[ing] all the accomplishments” (32) – inveigles her way into the home of her daughter, Minna’s, sweetheart, gaining influence, leverage, and the position of housekeeper.

The youngish English widow, by contrast, operates ever candidly and directly. Assuming her late husband’s business responsibility of running commercial houses in both London and Frankfurt, Mrs Wagner also continues his activity of supporting lunacy and gender reform: she befriends Bedlam innate, Jack Straw, a character whose action is later imperative to the plot, and insists on employing female clerks in Germany’s financial centre of Frankfurt, a far more conservative city than London.  The traditionalism of Frankfurt will later have significant bearing on a crucial a bill of exchange, the socio-moral significance of debt and credit, and will thus trigger the catastrophe.

Mme Fontaine, Mrs Wagner’s German counterpart and rival, is depicted in contrast as a wily figure and is beautifully captured by the OUP cover image. This shows a portrait of a renowned Second Empire courtesan, with sphinx-like charm, Mme de Loynes, by Amaury Duval (1862) (reputedly the inspiration behind one of Singer Sergent’s best known portraits, that of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892)).  The link to nineteenth century painting bears on the novel, for what propels the Jezebel of the story is her frustration that her marriage to a young French doctor has led not to the glamour of salons and society in Paris but life in “a detestably dull old German town” where her eminent chemist husband has secured a professorship at its “famous […] medical school” (73).

Mme Fontaine uses her past as the chemist’s wife to realise her own and her daughter’s aspirations: Minna’s marriage to Fritz Keller.  She does so by generating the gratitude of an initially hostile and suspicious man, his father, to gain advantage, just like fellow housekeeper Mrs Lecount in No Name. However, whereas the late “eminent Swiss naturalist” Professor Lecount leaves his wife a reptile-filled aquarium, which is played for comic effect, the poison-filled medicine chest Professor Fontaine leaves behind for destruction by a colleague is dishonestly sequestered by his wife, who, using its poisons, acts with far greater audacity than the Swiss housekeeper, and more far-reaching consequence: Collins plays all this in earnest.

Unfortunately, when Collins first devised this narrative of chemistry and cunning, as a drama called The Red Vial staged in 1858, the story was “hooted off the stage” by the audience (Catherine Peters cited by Hall, viii), and reviewers were equally as ungenerous in their response. In a finely researched and wide ranging introduction, Jason Hall takes us through the history behind the transformation of a three act play into a three volume novel, a process he sees as Collins’s response to his critics. The OUP edition Hall has produced is based on the 1880 three-volume Chatto and Windus edition, with manuscript, serial and one volume variants noted. In his seventeen pages with one spoiler alert, Hall seamlessly moves through theatre history, Collins’s theatre journalism, the novel’s newspaper serialisation, its narrative mechanisms, the Frankfurt ‘Deadhouse’ scene, factual poison cases reported in the press and fictional cases in novels and opera, all the while conveying a sense of the novel’s themes, narrative structure and linkages to other late-nineteenth-century popular fiction, as well as matters of pressing political concern: vivisection, invasion, racial stereotypes, gender politics and the politics of science. This editor’s magnificently comprehensive introduction is accompanied, at the other end of the volume, by an equally broad-ranging, and useful, set of explanatory notes, drawn up by researcher Ryan Sweet. These follow up and fill out historical and geographical allusions as well as intertextual evocations within Collins’s and Dickens’s work, and a range of specialist texts of the period, particularly in the field of science.

Before closing, I’d like to add a few words about an aspect of Jezebel’s Daughter common to many of Collins’s novels that is often overlooked in favour of the scientific (here chemistry and the mind-sciences) and gender politics: namely, the financial. In addition to the contest between the two widows, the novel features a further narrative dynamic sparked by the contrasting cultural differences of the two European financial powerhouses, London and Frankfurt. These feature as the novel’s secondary and main settings respectively. Indeed, for all the surface allusion and dramatization of lunacy and poison, what actually triggers the eventual catastrophic events is a conflicting understanding of what it is to have a debt. It needs be recalled that this period spanning 1828 and 1880 was one of profound, rapid and bewildering change in commercial legislation, in England and elsewhere, and contemporaries found the esoteric mechanisms and terminology of financialization as confusing as the average person on the Clapham omnibus does today. One of the mysteries of finance, then as now, was how the extremely powerful could secure credit with ease when the workingman or woman could be prosecuted in the country courts and imprisoned for paltry sums. Jezebel’s Daughter depicts a range of different attitudes towards credit.

The forthcoming marriage of Jezebel’s daughter, Minna, to Fritz, the son of Herr Keller, the upright and somewhat uptight partner and manager of the Wagner’s Frankfurt branch, is jeopardised by rumour of her mother’s debt. As early as the second chapter the narrator tells us that Minna’s father, the late Professor Fontaine, had died in debt, purportedly owing to his wife’s extravagance. Keller will not have his family reputation for probity undone by his son’s marriage to Minna. Collins, deploying his hallmark multiple narration, has Mme Fontaine contest report of her insolvency, claiming “that the debts [were] due to expensive chemical experiments in which my late husband engaged”, and – most truthfully – testifying “that I have satisfied the creditors to the last farthing” (65). The plot then turns on her sin of omission: she has failed to mention that she paid off the creditors using money raised with a promissory note, a financial instrument that draws colourful plot strands into the main narrative thread, involving, among other things, a shady looking bailiff, Jewish money lenders, an indisposed sister in Munich, and a pearl necklace family heirloom. It is the promissory note falling due which ramps up the tension as the wedding day nears. Mme Fontaine has to occasion repayment or deferral, or, be revealed as a debtor and liar, and thereby destroy her daughter’s chances of happiness with the man she loves.

The day of the bill falling due as the mechanism subtending narrative tension is a variant of a device used elsewhere by Collins, for example by the villain Godfry Ablewhite in The Moonstone (1868) (a half-yearly payment day of money in trust) and even closer to that found in “Miss or Mrs” of (1873) (a duplicate lading bill). In this novella, fraudster Richard Turlington defends his machinations thus: “The fraud was a fraud in appearance only. The security was a pure formality. His marriage would supply him with the funds for repaying the money.” These are terms Mme Fontaine would understand.

I sense that today it is probably the poison/chemistry and the lunacy/bedlam elements, derived from The Red Vial, that most grip the reader, rather than the dismal scientific affiliations. But think of the ‘new Paracelsus’ reference midway through the novel, the philosopher’s stone, chemistry, turning the base into gold. Looking back over all the dodgy financial instruments Collins deploys in his fiction, it is difficult to think that ‘the English Science’ of political economy wasn’t at the back of his mind as he transformed the play into the novel.