31 January 2019

The Scientist in Victorian Literature: Professor Fontaine, Chemist (Jezebel's Daughter, 1880)

I was about to say today's Unreality SF review (the Gothic audio drama Blind Terror) isn't like today's book review at all, but I guess there is some similarity between Wilkie Collins and Gothic audio drama.

Trade paperback, 266 pages
Published 2016 (originally 1879-80)
Acquired and r
ead January 2019
Jezebel's Daughter by Wilkie Collins
‘I can understand the murderess becoming morally intoxicated with the sense of her own tremendous power. A mere human creature—only a woman, Julie!—armed with the means of secretly dealing death around her, wherever she goes—meeting with strangers who displease her, looking at them quietly, and saying to herself, “I doom you to die, before you are a day older”’ (77)
I read this book afraid it would contain a female scientist. Not only have I previously published a claim that that was first done in a later novel, but that later novel was also by Wilkie Collins; it seems rather embarrassing to overlook one Collins novel in the rush to establish the importance of another. Somehow, I did not hear of this novel until much more recently. I am safe, however. Jezebel's Daughter is about a woman using scientifically created poisons, but she herself did not create them. Madame Fontaine's late husband was a genius chemist, but she can do nothing more than follow the directions for administering and curing poison he left behind; she cannot even create more of them.

Professor Fontaine dies on the first page of the novel, however, meaning that there is nothing here that will really factor into my project on fictional Victorian scientists. What we hear of him, though, bears many traces of the stereotypical scientist. Madame Fontaine at first loved her husband, and pinned her hopes on him having a distinguished career, but even though he was a medical doctor, he gave it up for a life of experimental science, which had much less social possibility. She bemoans to a friend, "you have married a Man! Happy woman! I am married to a Machine" (75). At the height of his ambition, he becomes what she calls an "Animated Mummy," so lean and dirty is he as he neglects almost everything in his pursuit of chemical discoveries (75).

There's also a Hungarian chemist, never named, but described as "the most extraordinary experimental chemist living" and "[t]he new Paracelsus" (74). He's the one who bequeaths the formulas for the poisons to Professor Fontaine, and he's the one who inspires Professor Fontaine to sink his whole career into experimental chemistry. But he commits suicide, seemingly for scientifically logical reasons: "After giving it a fair trial, I find that life is not worth living for. I have decided to destroy myself with a poison of my own discovery. [...] [M]y body is presented as a free gift to the anatomy school. Let a committee of surgeons and analysts examine my remains. I defy them to discover a trace of the drug that has killed me" (76). He feels like a forerunner for Doctor Nathan Benjulia in Heart and Science (1882-83), a vaguely foreign, sinister, Godless presence lurking at the margins of the novel and enabling some of its darkest moments, but not directly involved in the main plot. (Unlike in Heart and Science, where the villainous Mrs. Gallilee admires Benjulia, Madame Fontaine plainly disapproves of the Hungarian.)

This novel also feels like a forerunner for Heart and Science in its exploration of female villainy. Like Mrs. Gallilee, Madame Fontaine is a strange mix of femininity and anti-femininity. She departs from social mores, but one sense the novel doesn't entirely disapprove of her: it's set in 1828, but narrated retrospectively from the time of publication (1879-80), and the narrator occasionally comments that things were different for women then, they had less options. (The narrator's aunt is the director of a trading company that employs many women, and this is figured as unusual.) So when Madame Fontaine poisons people, you can kind of understand where she's coming from in a society often arrayed against women, as the epigraph above reveals, or the following delightfully villainous speech: "Power! […] The power that I have dream of all my life is mine at last! Alone among mortal creatures, I have Life and Death for my servants. […] What a position! I stand here, a dweller in a popular city—and every creature in it, from highest to lowest, is a creature in my power!" (145)

Like Mrs. Gallilee, Madame Fontaine is pursuing motherly ends through un-motherly means. She simply wants her daughter to be happy-- but is willing to stop at nothing to make it happen. But also like Mrs. Gallilee, she's often obsessed with the appearance of propriety over actual propriety; she refuses to moderate her spending when the family coffers begin running low, insisting it is simply not done, and she must live in the manner to which she has become accustomed. It is a monstrous femininity, its strengths and weaknesses all magnified to dangerous proportions. If you've already read Heart and Science, then, Jezebel's Daughter very much comes across as the dry run for it; in a sense, Heart and Science just takes the husband's scientific sensibility and transfers it to his wife; Mrs. Gallilee is everything Madame Fontaine is with the addition of seeing like a scientist.

Jezebel's Daughter is like Heart and Science in one final way: it is very much minor Collins. There's none of the thrills or mysteries of The Woman in White or The Moonstone or No Name to be found here. It has its moments, but Collins can do better.

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