Sensation novel published in 1880 and dedicated to Alberto Caccia, Collins's Italian translator. Based on the 1858 play, The Red Vial, Collins's attempt to write for 'the masses' resulted in an unduly melodramatic tone. The novel, however, is notable for the way it handles the treatment of lunatics and the mentally retarded; and for the creation of a female character who is effective both in business and as a philanthropist. The plot revolves around the use of poisons and includes forensic details applicable to detective fiction.
1880 First edition in 3 volumes
1828, the firm of Wagner, Keller and Engelman has offices in London and
Frankfort. After the death of her
husband, the progressive Mrs Wagner becomes senior partner, running the London
office where she plans to employ women clerks.
To prove that lunatics can be cured by kindness, she removes the
simple-minded Jack Straw from Bedlam and takes him into her household.
Frankfort, Fritz Keller, son of one of the other partners, has fallen in love
with Minna Fontaine, daughter of a sinister widow whose husband made a
life-time study of poisons. Keller's
father disapproves of Mrs Fontaine, who is constantly in debt, and refuses to
allow Fritz and Minna to marry. Fritz
is sent to London and a young Englishman, David Glenney, who tells the story,
goes to Frankfort in his place. Here
he meets Minna and her mother and innocently introduces them to the third
partner, Engelman. Mrs Fontaine,
determined to further her daughter's marriage, uses Engelman, who falls in
love with her, to trick her way into Keller's house.
Fontaine possesses a chest of poisons and their antidotes which her husband
intended to be destroyed on his death. She
doses Keller with a slow-acting poison and to win his goodwill revives him
with the antidote. She becomes his
nurse and then his housekeeper, having assured him, falsely, that she is no
longer in debt. Keller withdraws
his objections to the marriage of Fritz and Minna.
Wagner comes to Frankfort on business accompanied by Jack Straw, who is much
improved by her kindness and devoted to her.
He is immediately recognised by Mrs Fontaine as 'Hans Grimm', mentally
damaged by being accidentally poisoned in her
husband's laboratory years before.
returns to marry Minna. Mrs
Fontaine has a debt to pay which falls due the day after the wedding, but when
the ceremony has to be postponed she steals the key to Mrs Wagner's desk from
Jack Straw and embezzles the money she needs from the firm's funds.
Mrs Wagner discovers the theft and, unable to pay back the money, Mrs
Fontaine poisons her with a fast-acting, undetectable poison.
Jack Straw unsuccessfully tries to revive his benefactress with the
same antidote that had saved Keller but her body is taken to the Deadhouse,
where the devoted Jack refuses to leave her.
In a lurid scene Mrs Fontaine, who has secretly followed them, is
accidently poisoned by her own mixtures while Mrs Wagner recovers from a
deathlike coma, ringing an alarm bell which alerts the watchman. Mrs
Fontaine dies, leaving a self-incriminating diary.
Fritz and Minna marry, while Jack remains in the care of Mrs Wagner.
Mrs Fontaine dies, leaving a self-incriminating diary. Fritz and Minna marry, while Jack remains in the care of Mrs Wagner.
1880 Tauchnitz edition
published in the Bolton Weekly Journal, 13 September 1879--31 January
1880, and several other Tillotson syndicated newspapers.
volumes, Chatto and Windus, London 1880. White
cloth, covers blocked in black, spines lettered in gilt, green and white
decorated end-papers. Half-title in
each volume. Published in March 1880. Variant
binding in tan cloth with later publishers' catalogue dated April 1880.
I viii + 284 pp.
32 pp publishers' catalogue dated February
1880 bound in at end.
II (iv) + 284 pp
III (iv) + 296 pp
& Windus 1880-1901; Sutton, Stroud 1995.
Library (vol 34, no 696), New York 1880 (first book publication).
The Hague 1880
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