I shall write no more to-day. If so lady-like a person as I am could feel a tigerish tingling all over her to the very tips of her fingers, I should suspect myself of being in that condition at the present moment. But, with my manners and accomplishments, the thing is, of course, out of the question. We all know that a lady has no passions.Armadale is a long, convoluted, but ultimately very rewarding novel about fate and portents versus free-will and coincidences; about the intimate friendship between two young men who happen to have the same name; and about the consequences of women’s lack of legal and economic recourse in Victorian society. It’s quite a challenge to attempt to summarise the plot of Armadale without giving too much away, because even things that help set up the premise are sources of suspense for the first two-hundred pages or so – Collins takes his sweet time getting the story started. However, I shall to my best.
The first section of the novel tells the story of the first generation of Alan Armadale (yes, there are different characters by that same name, but it’s far less confusing than it might sound). Something happens between them that motivates the surviving Armadale, then on his deathbed, to dictate a letter to his toddler son begging him to stay away from his nemesis’ son, who happens to be his namesake just like in the first generation. Fast-forward twenty years, and of course that despite all these warnings the two men’s sons become intimate friends. However, the shadow of what happened in their parents’ time haunts them. Things become even more complicated when Lydia Gwilt, who worked as a maid for Mrs Armadale, enters the scene. Miss Gwilt is introduced as a menacing character from the very beginning, but as Armadale progresses and her backstory is unveiled, it becomes clear that she’s a character who challenges dominant assumptions about Victorian women.
Armadale is a novel that rewards patience: I’ve come to expect Wilkie Collins’ verbosity, but even then I flew through novels like The Moonstone, The Woman in White and No Name in very little time. Armadale demanded more of an initial investment on my part, but that investment absolutely pays by the end. The first section of the novel emphasises a theme of fate, portents and choice. It stars off rather like a Greek tragedy, only it gives its characters a chance of escape in the end. Collins’ subversion of the idea of doom was pretty interesting, but none of that grabbed me anywhere near as much as Lydia Gwilt’s story. I was won over when we were given access to her voice through excerpts of her letters and diary and she was allowed to emerge as a conflicted, multi-dimensional character. I was extremely impressed with the way Collins moved her from the background to the foreground and had her completely steal the show. The novel may be called Armadale rather than Gwilt, but it’s her story more than anyone else’s.
On the surface, Armadale is framed as a story about “the mischief a woman’s beauty has done”, as Pedgift the lawyer puts it in the letter that makes the epilogue. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find an entirely different narrative: one about domestic violence, unfair property laws, women’s precarious social standing and vulnerability to blackmail, their closed off career paths – in short, all the reasons why an unmarried woman without a secure income could easily find herself in a desperate situation. Here’s what the same Mr Pedgift who condemns Miss Gwilt as a schemer says about her:
The face of Mr. Pedgift the elder expressed but one feeling when he had read the letter in his turn and had handed it back—a feeling of profound admiration. “What a lawyer she would have made,” he exclaimed, fervently, “if she had only been a man!”Even the characters who strongly disapprove of Armadale’s heroine recognise her talents and intelligence, but also how little those talents will amount to in a society that closes down all possibilities for women and has them live under “the established tyranny of the principle that all human happiness begins and ends at home”.
Lydia Gwilt was described by Victorian reviewers as “one of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction”, but historical hindsight makes her seem an entirely sympathetic figure to me. It’s difficult not to compare her to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley: Elaine Showalter famously said that Lady Audley’s real secret is that she’s perfectly sane and is only responding to her desperate circumstances and complete lack of legal options. The same could be said of Lydia Gwilt; although the narrative never overtly frames her as insane, her circumstances and background story speak for themselves and offer a strong counterpoint to any condemnations of her conduct as “unnaturally ambitious” and “unfeminine”. Here are, in her own words, her motivations for the crime whose planning is at the heart of this novel:
Triumph! It is more than triumph—it is the salvation of me. A name that can’t be assailed, a station that can’t be assailed, to hide myself in from my past life! Comfort, luxury, wealth! An income of twelve hundred a year secured to me secured by a will which has been looked at by a lawyer: secured independently of anything Armadale can say or do himself! I never had twelve hundred a year. At my luckiest time, I never had half as much, really my own. What have I got now? Just five pounds left in the world—and the prospect next week of a debtor’s prison.Since I brought up Mary Elizabeth Braddon, I can’t help but to note that she’s always a little more daring than Collins, especially regarding her endings. Wilkie Collin keeps up appearances by getting rid of the disturbances a character like Lydia Gwilt causes in the usual fashion wherever disruptive women are concerned. If you’ve read enough Victorian novels, you can probably tell where this is going. So yes, the ending was unsurprising but still disappointing; but oh, the possibilities the middle raises! I see Collins’ endings as a way to pay lip-service to the status quo more than anything else; perhaps even as a way to make the story just safe enough that people would engage with it without discounting it altogether. I can’t resist borrowing a sentence from Iris’ review of The Moonstone from yesterday: “In the words of John Sutherland, who wrote the introduction to my edition, ‘Collins is adept at raising subversive thoughts in the reader only to leave them ambiguously hanging’”. While that can be occasionally frustrating, it’s interesting to think of it as a strategic decision to get those subversive thoughts in by the backdoor. Armadale may follow the traditional structure of having the “bad” woman punished at the end, but there are hints all over the text suggesting that the narrator’s sympathy is very much with Lydia Gwilt.
My reading of Armadale was enriched by a happy coincidence: I read it alongside Ruth Braddon’s Other People’s Daughters, a non-fiction book about governesses in Victorian England. Lydia Gwilt takes up a position as a governess to gain entry to Alan Armadale’s social circle: her success at forging a reference, her beauty, her uncertain social origins, and her designs on the neighbourhood’s eligible bachelor make her an embodiment of all the most common fears and social tensions surrounding the appointment of governesses. But even as he explores those tensions for dramatic effect, Collins also does an excellent job of illustrating the hopelessness and vulnerability of a woman in such a position.
They read it too: The Indextrious Reader, Shelf Love, Becky’s Book Reviews, Bibliolatry
(Have I missed yours?)
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