13 October 2011

A Very Big Victorian Novel

A recent New Yorker article about the Victorian writer Wilkie Collins put me onto one of his less famous novels, Armadale. Like other mystery fans, I knew The Moonstone and The Woman in White, though the latter only through a television series.

Armadale was uncharted territory and a visit to the local university's library revealed it to be a 1000 plus page monster in two volumes. A hearty read, indeed.

Originally published serially in 1864, this epic about two distant young cousins who share the same name, displays all the writer's virtues: brilliant plotting, lively characters, and a knack for raising socially disturbing topics within a popular thriller format. It also displays Collins complex attitudes toward women.

Sympathetic to the position of women in Victorian society as he revealed in The Woman in White, he nonetheless retails various stereotypes of feminine frivolity and irrationality, while creating Lydia Gwilt, a woman of great intellectual power and charisma, not to mention her complex, sometimes friend Mrs. Oldershaw. Gwilt's diary and letters are among the highlights of the novel, and her correspondence with the appalling Oldershaw advances the plot is sprightly ways.

Also interesting is his treatment of the colonial world. Many of the great British fortunes, and great British cities, rested on the profits of the merchant adventurers and officials of the British Raj and on the slave trade and the brutal plantation economy of the West Indies. In general, the suffering that underpinned the grand houses and splendid town squares was kept off stage. In Mansfield Park, a character goes west to repair his fortunes, and the most famous madwoman of the period, Mrs. Rochester, comes from the islands.

But Collins makes a closer connection. The father of the dark Allan Armadale, who you will be happy to know spends most of what would otherwise have been a supremely confusing novel under the name of Ozias Midwinter, was a spoiled child of the planter class. He confesses that "My boyhood and youth were passed in idleness and self-indulgence, among people - slaves and half-castes mostly - to whom my word was law."

Made unexpectedly the heir to a great fortune, then tricked out of it by the father of the blond Allan Armadale, he avenges himself with a murder that he not only confesses on his deathbed but commits to a letter to be given to his son on his majority. The son, the second, dark Allan Armadale, is left in the care of his beautiful, part-African mother. Interestingly for an American reader, her mixed parentage is no barrier to another prosperous marriage. Murder, not miscegenation, as in so many of our country's fictions, is the great crux of Armadale.

No reader of mystery, or other fiction for that matter, will be surprised that the Armadale letter does untold mischief, first to the unhappy young son, who has a Dickensonian childhood, and later to his wealthy cousin. The latter is principally endangered by Miss Gwilt, greatly his intellectual superior, who knows far more about his family and his mother than rich and happy Allan Armadale ever suspects, and who intends to profit from this knowledge.

So far the plot is a typically complex family drama, but as in The Moonstone, Collins adds a supernatural touch. The young men meet after the younger Armadale, now the impoverished vagabond Ozias Midwinter, falls deathly ill at the local inn. Despite the warnings of the fatal letter, Midwinter becomes good friends with Armadale and finds himself unwilling to leave the first real happiness he has known.

A prophetic dream experienced by Armadale troubles Midwinter deeply but Armadale's rational old tutor and mentor persuades him that there is no such thing as curses and fatality. The rest of the novel balances those two possibilities. Sometimes a mysterious gothic fate hangs over the characters; sometimes it is dispelled by reason and, even more, by the virtues of kindness and fidelity.

Needless to say, the virtues of both men are severely tested and so is their aptitude for unraveling mysterious events. Here, again, Collins has a complex view. Detectives, strangely enough from one of the parents of the mystery novel, are thoroughly detestable, and probably the most loathsome character is Jemmy Bashwood, a professional snoop. Poor young Armadale, a person of great sweetness and candor, loses his reputation in the neighborhood when he and his lawyer make what are seen as nosey inquiries about the sly Miss Gwilt.

On the other hand, his faithful old tutor sets up a surveillance of a dubious woman without arousing either the author's or anyone else's ire. The professionalization of detection seems to have been what was beyond the pale. Perhaps Collins, whose two irregular households gave him a greater appreciation than most for privacy, had mixed feelings about activities that were necessary for his plot.

Investigation in Armadale goes on in a haphazard manner and all comes to a spectacular conclusion in what would be a favorite Victorian (and later) British venue, the dodgy private sanitarium. Fans of the gothic, the romantic, and yes, the mysterious, were not disappointed when Armadale ran first as a serial, then as a novel. Such fans won't be disappointed now, either.


  1. In perhaps the fourth grade, I discovered The Moonstone in the bookcase and– never guessing it was a classic and probably enjoying it all the more so– loved it. Much later, I read The Woman in White. I hadn't heard of Armadale, but will add it to my list.

  2. Two irregular households? Tell us more!

  3. He lived with a widow and her daughter for years, while maintaining another household with a second woman and their children. He married neither.

  4. Thanks, Janice. I'm going to have to hunt this one down, too.


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