It's very likely this post is going to contain spoilers, if that's a problem stop reading now!
I've had a thing for Wilkie Collins since I was in my mid teens, there was a whole run of his books in my dad's house; as I recall they looked like a popular Victorian edition (green and gold covers), and I read a few of them over wet Shetland summers. Oddly, because I can't see why you would buy Collins if you weren't going to read him, the pages hadn't been cut on any of the ones I read. I wish I'd asked dad to keep them aside for me when the house was sold, they would have been nice to have.
On the other hand the Oxford classics editions take up less space, have notes, and don't require a paper knife, so maybe it's better this way. What I've always loved about Collins is that he's fun; his books are full of gothic details and eccentricities, and that he confounds my preconceived notions of the Victorians generally.
'Jezebel's Daughter' is a splendid example of this. It might not be as innovative or accomplished as something like 'The Moonstone' or 'The Woman in White' but nonethe it does something really interesting. It is, essentially, a story of two powerful middle aged women. The Jezebel's daughter of the title refers to Minna Fontaine, an attractive and amiable young woman whose chance of happiness (In the form of marriage to a young man called Fritz) is being threatened. The Jezebel is Madame Fontaine, Minna's mother, the name an insult which about sums up her general popularity, and this is her story, hers and Mrs Wagner's.
Mrs Wagner and Madame Fontaine become widows on the same day, Mrs Wagner inherits her husbands considerable business and his reforming ideals - it's her aim to promote employment for women in clerical positions within the company, and to reform the treatment of the insane. To this end she rescues an inmate of Bedlam who goes by the name of Jack Straw. Madame Fontaine's husband has been less successful, a professor who has devoted his life to the study of some obscure poisons, she's been left with debts and a daughter who is everything to her. She may also have pinched some poisons and antidotes.
What we have then is one woman who holds all the economic power, and another who can choose life or death for those who cross her path. Madame Fontaine is a ruthless woman, one who's made mistakes, and one who seems all set to make more, but I feel Collins has real sympathy for her. Yes she may have run up debts, then lied about them, but her family cast her off when she married someone they didn't approve of, and he bleakly failed to live up to his side of the bargain by failing to provide either materially, or in lieu of that any outlets for his wife's talents.
Meanwhile, Mrs Wagner may be a pattern card for every womanly virtue, but for all her excellent qualities she lacks the necessary compassion to understand her enemy - with dire consequences. The pivotal moment, for me at any rate, is when Mrs Wagner realises Madame Fontaine has stolen money from her to pay her debts. The discovery of those debts would mean Minna's marriage to Fritz was off, the wider discovery of the theft would obviously mean the same, and more - if Minna's mother us known as a thief what respectable future is open to Minna?
To Mrs Wagner the difference between right and wrong is black and white, consequences be damned. She simply can't understand the desperation that led to the crime in question, and because she doesn't understand it, she can't imagine the lengths Madame Fontaine might go to when she's truly cornered.
Collins, of course, can and does imagine it - in fine gothic detail to boot, and in Madame Fontaine he creates a character who neatly illustrates the shortcomings of a woman's position in the 1820's. Here is an intelligent, capable, ambitious woman who is thwarted at every turn, with no respectable outlet for her talants or ambitions she becomes embittered and isolated. A dangerous combination.
I love Collins in this mood, it may not be his best work, but its a gripping book to read, and at its heart is something really interesting. Women may have more options now, but the difference between the haves and have nots really hasn't changed at all.