“My servant Death, who threatened you in the night; and my servant Life, who raised you up in the morning. What a position! I stand here, a dweller in a populous city – and every creature in it, from highest to lowest, is a creature in my power.”
In the Preface of Jezebel’s Daughter, Wilkie Collins puts lots of faith in his general readers to anticipate the second part of The Fallen Leaves, and is hopeful about it to find its way to them in its fullest justice. “I say plainly, that I have never asserted a truer claim to the best and noblest sympathies of Christian readers than in presenting to them, in my last novel, the character of the innocent victim of infamy, rescued and purified from the contamination of the streets.” To be sure, as the cases of infiltration of fallen children and women engendered from illegitimacy in the streets of London, the infamous baby farmers as well as the concept of Christian Socialism are central plots of the novel instead of the backdrop, it might not receive critical acclaim and popular reception widely especially when reviewers tend to put his works on the category of sensation fiction alongside The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Moreover, some study his works in dichotomy with the aftermath of the death of Dickens in 1870 regarding the tension and pace of his works in proportion to the content of didactic purposes instilled within. However, to me, I find the pleasure of reading Wilkie Collins’s novels is so far not in the least diminished in view of his contemporaries. On the other hand, as a modern reader, it absolutely arouses my literary curiosities and interests in delving into the social conditions at the time concerned.
The cover illustration which accompanies this post is the one to be published by Oxford’s World Classics in January 16. The lady appears so enigmatically graceful on the cover! In fact, she looks remarkably like the countenance and manner limned by Wilkie Collins’s words in the novel. She has an indescribable composure which invades the surrounding objects and causing them to recede in shade. She possesses a witchery aura which makes ones feel ill at ease in presence, and pervents them from getting all secrecy restrained to inconspicuously divulging it out unreservedly. “Her dark eyes, never fully opened in my remembrance, looked at me under heavy overhanging upper eyelids. Her enemies saw something sensual in their strange expression.” So much sensuality exerted in her presence that one is not only observantly felt within but also seen on the outside.
“An educated criminal is almost invariably an inveterate egotist. We are all interesting to ourselves – but the more vile we are, the more intensely we are absorbed in ourselves. The very people who have, logically speaking, the most indisputable interest in concealing their crimes, are also the very people who, almost without exception, yield to the temptation of looking at themselves in the pages of a Diary.”
One aspect which Wilkie Collins examines in the novel is the subject of fatal results unleashed by the biased choice of characters concerning a moral value comprised in humanity at the expense of another. This solution is then followed by evil deeds based on the ground of irrationality. It is mentioned in the Preface of Jezebel’s Daughter as Wilkie underlines one aspect of humanity, “[I[n ‘Madame Fontaine’, I have endeavored to work out the interesting moral problem, which takes for its groundwork the strongest of all instincts in a woman, the instinct of maternal love, and traces to its solution the restraining and purifying influence of this one virtue over an otherwise cruel, false, and degraded nature.” The name “Jezebel” derives from a biblical villain in the Old Testament, and Madame Fontaine’s unpopularity accumulating with the rumors and gossips begets this nickname. Madame Fontaine is a South German femme fatale who marries a professor in the University of Wuzburg below her class rank along with the risks of desertion by her relatives. However giving the juxtaposition of good and evil inbred in humankind, Wilkie Collins also gives a preference of “good’ in Madame Fontaine with allusion to Anna Maria Zwanziger (1760 – 1811) and the means of her diary. This also explains a lot of his signature style and techniques in diary entries and epistolary writing in Armadale, and No Name. One reason for it is perhaps to assess the extent of wickedness in characters, especially the fairer sex in society.
Apart from this antithesis and distortion of intrinsic moral virtues, Wilkie Collins also humorously jokes about the consequent and inevitable crimes accomplished with the educated proprieties in society. David Glenney, the narrator of the story, in possession of “a young head on old shoulders”, acknowledges himself that the reserved character is hereditary in English society therefore he has the resistance to unremitting demand for friendly terms of hugs and praises from his new German friend, Fritz Keller. “Young Mr. Keller never suspected (my English brethren alone will understand) how very near my fist and his head were to becoming personally and violently acquainted. Different nations – different customs. I can smile as I write about it now.” This is also satirically depicted in terms of the dispositions of Franklin Blake in The Moonstone, and Herr Grosse in Poor Miss Finch.
“I have found that the rarest of all human virtues is the virtue of gratitude.”
As regards social contexts and conditions concerned in the novel, Wilkie Collins raises his interests and studies about invention and use of poisons (not arsenic or strychnine), madhouse of Bedlam Hospital with its inmates, as well as humane treatment and insanity and the weak advocated by Society of Friends around the eighteenth century. The parts where Jack Straws compares his release from the madhouse equivalent to the circumstances of being surrounded by seeds of the Sun; and the connection to his new bedroom with the word of “Heaven” is just phenomenal! Of course, Jack Straw is another mythical character without a background like Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone, and so interesting to be the protagonist of the story!
“Slow poisoning by reiterated doses, in small quantities, we understand. But slow poisoning by one dose is so entirely beyond our experience, that medical men in general refuse to believe in it.”
Wilkie Collins also talks about the possibilities and capabilities of educated young women working in offices instead of being seamstresses and governesses, in the philanthropic and resolute character named Mrs. Wagner. As the story is set in 1828, Wilkie Collins mentions the time as orthodox compared to the period when this novel is published (readers of inquisitiveness should read George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893), a fascinating novel on matrimony and women’s education, and invasion)). Also, one of the interesting scenes Wilkie Collins also depicts in great details is the Deadhouse of Frankfort, where he has studied on spot before commencing the story – it is a place functioned as a final resting place for the poor, and more importantly, to safeguard against premature burials, when a doctor’s certificates would not be issued in written authorisation after three days with evidence of the decomposition in the corpse.
To say it all, Jezebel’s Daughter is another fascinating masterpiece of humanity composed by Wilkie Collins and nothing in the least sacrificial in tension and cleverness of plotting and contriving, which are the crucial elements that readers immensely enjoy. The intense rivalry is unprecedentedly driven to the extreme with a “half-witted” loyal young man and a “wicked” maternal siren. It becomes one of my instant favourites of Wilkie Collins’s works and a rescuer amidst my reader’s block, and I hope to acquire the Oxford edition to devour the introduction and explanatory notes. (especially the one about Her Royal Highness – who could She be referred to in the story???)
The Mad Watchman’s Song
The moon was shining, cold and bright,
In the Frankfort Deadhouse, on New Year’s night
And I was the watchman, left alone,
While the rest to feast and dance were gone;
I envied their lot, and cursed my own—
Backwards and forwards, with silent tread,
I walked on my watch by the doors of the dead.
And I said, It’s hard, on this New Year,
While the rest are dancing to leave me here,
Alone with death and cold and fear—
Any company’s better than none, I said:
If I can’t have the living, I’d like the dead.
In one terrific moment more,
The corpse-bell rang at each cell door,
The moonlight shivered on the floor—
The curtains gaped; there stood a ghost,
On every threshold, as white as frost,
You called us, they shrieked, and we gathered soon;
Dance with your guests by the New Year’s moon!
I danced till I dropped in a deadly swoon—
And since that night I’ve lost my wits,
And I shake with ceaseless ague-fits:
For the ghosts they turned me cold as stone,
On that New Year’s night when the white moon shone,
And I walked on my watch, all, all alone—
And, oh, when I lie in my coffin-bed,
Heap thick the earth above my head!
Or I shall come back, and dance once more,
With frantic feet on the Deadhouse floor,
And a ghost for a partner at every door—