An introduction to a classic Victorian novel
Will the real Allan Armadale please stand up? Armadale, Wilkie Collins’s longest novel (and he wrote quite a few doorstops), was serialised in Cornhill magazine between November 1864 and June 1866, and published as a two-volume novel in 1866. It took Collins two years to write. Like another of Collins’s perennially popular novels, The Moonstone, the narrative comprises a series of testimonies and accounts (such as from characters’ diaries and letters) which gradually shed light on the mystery. What follows are some notes towards an analysis of the novel’s themes and characters, perhaps the most notable of whom is Lydia Gwilt, one of Victorian fiction’s most scandalous villainesses.
Armadale is a long novel – over 800 pages in the (recommended) Oxford World’s Classics edition – but this will have to be a short plot summary. In 1832, Allan Armadale confesses on his deathbed to murder: his clerk, Fergus Ingleby, stole his name and married Jane Blanchard, the woman Allan loved. Pursuing the couple on board a ship, Allan locked Fergus in a cabin and left him to drown when the ship was wrecked. Allan later travelled to the West Indies where he married a creole woman and had a son.
We move forward to 1851, and the murderer’s son has adopted the name Ozias Midwinter, while the drowned Fergus Ingleby’s has been brought up under the name Allan Armadale – and with it, has inherited Fergus’ property, the estate of Thorpe Ambrose. Ozias learns the truth about his father’s crime – that he murdered his friend’s father – while on a sailing trip with Fergus and Jane’s son, Allan Armadale. He destroys the letter containing Allan Armadale Senior’s confession, and vows to keep the secret from his friend.
Lydia Gwilt, the former maid to Jane Blanchard (Allan’s father), sets her sights on marrying Allan for his money. Both Ozias Midwinter and Allan Armadale end up falling for Lydia, but her plan to marry Armadale is scuppered when her cynical motives are uncovered. So Lydia hatches Plan B: having learned the secret that Midwinter’s real name is also Allan Armadale, she plans to marry him under his real name, get the other Allan Armadale out of the way, and then use the marriage certificate as legal proof of her entitlement to the Armadale estate. (Clever, eh? Confusing? Very.)
Lydia marries Midwinter, concealing her chequered past from him – a past involving a marriage to a rich Englishman whom she later poisoned, followed by an affair with a Cuban man, Manuel, who had married Lydia but then abandoned her after he’d spent her dead husband’s money. Manuel returns to Lydia and Lydia decides to put him to work on Allan Armadale’s yacht, in the hope that Manuel will kill Allan and steal his money, thus getting Armadale out of the way. When this plan fails, she enlists the help of a villainous doctor, Downward, who is an ‘alienist’ (an early proponent of what would later become known as psychoanalysis) and has opened up a sanatorium which he and Lydia use to lure Armadale to his death, by putting him up in a room there (to aid his recovery from the attempted murder on his yacht) and gassing him while he sleeps. But Midwinter and Armadale swap rooms, forcing Lydia to rush in and save her husband from the poison gas. She confesses her crime before poisoning herself. Allan Armadale marries happily, and he and Midwinter, united by their traumatic experiences, end the best of friends.
Armadale is unusual among Wilkie Collins’s best-known sensation novels because it demonstrates a detailed interest in human psychology, with dreams cropping up at numerous points in the novel, and Collins taking time (and at over 800 pages he certainly has the time) to explore what John Sutherland, in his indispensable The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, calls ‘the psychology of crime’. Granted, the dreams are used as plot devices rather than as a sort of proto-stream-of-consciousness designed to shed light on, or analyse (much less psychoanalyse) Allan Armadale’s character, but Collins’s use of the dreams, and Midwinter’s analysis of their significance as premonitions, adds another psychological layer to this complex novel.
But the real triumph of Armadale is Collins’s portrayal of Lydia Gwilt, whose surname suggests ‘guilt’ (and ‘gilt’, evoking her gold-digging ambitions), but also, through a twist, ‘will’, foregrounding her own independent agency and, it must be said, her pluck and cunning. Like Lady Audley in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel, Lydia Gwilt can be analysed as a resourceful woman, even though, ultimately, she is an evil-minded (would-be) murderess whom Providence must punish with her death at the end of the novel.
Of course, such a character was bound to get up the noses of the Victorian moralists, and reviewers were frequently scathing about Lydia Gwilt. A reviewer in The Spectator, for instance, wrote:
The fact that there are characters such as he has drawn, and actions such as he has described, does not warrant his overstepping the limits of decency, and revolting every human sentiment. This is what Armadale does. It gives us for its heroine a woman fouler than the refuse of the streets, who has lived to the ripe age of thirty-five, and through the horrors of forgery, murder, theft, bigamy, gaol, and attempted suicide, without any trace being left of her beauty.
As T. S. Eliot later said, ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ Victorians couldn’t bear too much realism, as such reviews demonstrate. And in the 1860s, in the wake of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, marriage and the role of women in society had become a hot topic of debate. This is the contextual backdrop of Armadale.
But what makes Armadale more than a successful example of sensation fiction and, indeed, a studied analysis of crime and its motives and consequences, is not the hard-to-summarise plot so much as the moments of psychological vividness and the moral murkiness of the characters. T. S. Eliot called the construction of Armadale ‘almost perfect’. It continues to attract admirers. Although nobody would suggest it as the first Wilkie Collins novel for a reader to pick up, it should certainly be on the list somewhere.
Armadale (Oxford World’s Classics) is a long and satisfying Victorian classic from the golden age of sensation fiction and the triple-decker novel. We thoroughly recommend it if you’re a fan of Victorian classics.
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I sometimes think that Wilkie Collins gets overlooked as an important novelist these days. The length of his books may have something to do with it.
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