The title of this newly reprinted 1870s novel by Wilkie Collins is a little deceptive. The well-chosen cover picture obviously represents the Jezebel of the title -- Madame Fontaine, a middle-aged but still fearsomely attractive German widow of a French doctor -- and indeed she is the centre of this excitingly dark narrative. Her daughter Minna does have a part to play in the story, and indeed her desire to get married to a young German businessman is central to the plot, but Minna herself remains a rather shadowy figure around all the dodgy deeds committed by her powerful parent. But who cares -- it's a catchy title and a highly readable story.
The story is mostly narrated by a young Englishman, David Glenney, but mainly takes place in Germany, the home of young Fritz Keller, who lives with his father and helps to run his business. Unfortunately for Fritz, Mr Keller disapproves deeply of his son's choice of bride -- not that there's anything wrong with Minna herself, who is a pretty, quiet and virtuous girl. But Madame Fontaine has a bad reputation and we soon discover that it's well-deserved. She has got herself into deep debt by frittering away all her husband's slender earnings, and even worse rumours are circulating of possible dark deeds.
A further complication is added by the presence of David's aunt, Mrs Wagner, who is the widow of Keller's business partner. She has taken on his role in the business and arrives in Germany full of plans for expansion, including her desire to employ young women as clerks, something Keller firmly opposes. She's a good woman, fond of Fritz, but shares Mr Keller's anxiety about Madame Fontaine. Faced with opposition on all sides, Madame Fontaine decides to take matters into her own hands -- if I tell you that her husband was an expert in little known poisons and their antidotes, I hope I'm not giving too much away.
Madame Fontaine is a wonderfully created character, and quite a complex one. We can hardly approve of the means she takes to forward Minna's marriage, but at least it is founded on her deep devotion to her only child, and her desire that she should have a happy and settled future. Her beauty and seductive charms are made much of, and even the hard-hearted Keller finally falls prey to them, though only when she has... Well, I won't tell you what she does, but it's pretty radical.
The story is much enlivened by the presence of a most unusual character. Known only by his nickname, Jack Straw, this man is, when we first meet him, an inmate of Bedlam in London. Mrs Wagner and her late husband were extremely concerned about the treatment of so-called lunatics, and she manages to arrange for Jack to come and live with her. This proves to be a great success, as he becomes gentle and kind-hearted, with a deep devotion to Mrs W. His presence is not only to make a point about the care of the mentally ill, though -- he also proves to have a long-ago connection with Madame Fontaine, and interferes in her dastardly deeds in a very important way. The final section of the novel takes place in the Deadhouse, a building where newly dead people were placed for several days to make sure that they were not suddenly going to revive. Whether these places really existed I don't know, but it certainly provides a suitably gothic venue for an action-packed denouement. An excellent sensation novel with some fascinating social history. Hooray for Oxford World's Classics for reprinting it.