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Collins, Wilkie - Armadale


A Barron's Notes Approach to Reviewing Wilkie Collins's Armadale


This is not a thought - out review but a work in progress as I plod through this very long but fascinating book. Warning: Parts of this give away the mystery. If enough is said to encourage you to read the book, then don't read this entire critique until you have. I am in the process of re - reading this unusual novel after some 30 years. So far I am really impressed. Collins was such a superb writer. The plot is very contrived, but that apparently was his intention, some sort of view - point that denies coincidence and attributes everything to Fate. Just finished the section where one of the Allan Armadales has a 17 - point dream with 3 'visions' (having been stranded overnight on the wreck of the very same ship the other Allan Armadale's father murdered his father on some 25 years before). The local doctor conducts a rational analysis of the dream, based on what had happened the previous day that could have inspired the sub - conscious memories relived in the dream. Naturally, we know better than that and will see what happens over the next 400 pages! That chapter alone is brilliantly done, as are the 'set - pieces' occurring in an Alpine spa (Wildbad), Barbados and Madeira (some 20 years before), and the Isle of Man.


I wish modern mystery writers, who are just as prolix these days, would be more economical and to the point and not push all this psychological rubbish on us. Collins's psychological explorations of his characters' minds are actually very well done, and totally relevant. Lydia Gwilt, one of Collins's wonderful female villains, has not yet made her stage appearance, while I am reading this book, but has certainly been introduced behind the scenes. Has this book ever been made into a movie? It would certainly do well as a TV mini - series of the Masterpiece Theatre sort. Note that as this progresses, I will be giving away parts of the plot. That won't matter for people who don't have the patience to slog through this brilliant but flawed novel. Any high - school kid who sees this is welcome to crib from it for a book report - not that I encourage that sort of behavior. Just to set up, the basic plot involves two men in their low twenties both named Allan Armadale. Their fathers had been rivals for the same woman, Miss Blanchard (a rich heiress from Norfolk), on the island of Barbados; one murders the other by leaving him locked in his cabin in a supposedly sinking ship off the coast of Madeira, which is salvaged after he had drowned.


The 12 - year - old (clever beyond her years) housemaid of Miss Blanchard's had acted as a go - between during the romance, by forging letters, etc., helping the victim (some sort of Armadale cousin who posed as the 'real' Armadale to elope with Miss Blanchard, hence their son took that name, as the impersonation was never publicly revealed); her name was Lydia Gwilt. The murderer Armadale, who had the plantation on the island, ended up marrying a native woman of mixed race and siring the other Allan Armadale, who by complicated means ended up as a gipsy using the name Ozias Midwinter. Years later all these characters come together again in a nicely twisted plot that depends heavily on coincidence. Lydia, one of Collins's great hard woman characters, takes it into her head to marry the Blanchard Armadale to get hold of his money


Ah, I have now met Lydia (through letters only so far) and thoroughly enjoyed her correspondence with the old procuress Mrs Oldershaw as they 'plot their troughs' in regard to the Armadale fortune. What a pair! In the meantime, the first Allan Armadale - the one who has inherited the Blanchard estate by the convenient deaths of the closer heirs (Gwilt has something to do with that too, but it's not clear yet how) - has taken up his grand home in the Norfolk Broads and forsaken his yacht in Bristol. This Allan is a direct forerunner of Bertie Wooster, impetuous and fat - headed but basically a nice guy. His namesake, an octoroon who goes by the pseudonym Ozias Midwinter given him by the tinker he hooked up with when he ran away from boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, is in a constant state of anxiety, based on his father's death - bed confession in Wildbad to the murder that was given him by lawyers when he came of age, and the admonition that he has to avoid any contact with the Armadales at the risk of catastrophe - sort of like the Sphinx's advice to Oedipus, yes? He is definitely a manic - depressive, or whatever they call that disorder now. He is also, apparently, a closet homosexual, but this is not a subject dwelt on in Victorian novels, so I just mention it in passing.


Gwilt and her crony are seemingly just plotting for Lydia to marry Allan for his money (she is a beautiful 35 - year - old woman at the height of her powers, and he is just a 22 - year - old airhead), but the way they go about it is very professional in the con - game line - they know all the tricks, even to the extent of being able to divert investigation by leaving false trails (the investigator being Rev. Decimus Brock, Allan's guardian, who knows lots but reveals little). To continue what seems to be the underlying theme, Collins again has his characters make major decisions with great repercussions based on random acts such as flipping a coin to decide who's going to rent Allan's gate lodge, going for a moonlight sail because it's nice out tonight and a little too much drink has been taken, basing whether to proceed with a scam on where an advertisement for a governess will be published, in London or locally (if the first, cut losses, if the second, continue as planned). I don't think Collins was a Calvinist - in fact he was probably agnostic or atheist - but he is handling this predestination theme with relentless brio


The plot both thickens and bogs down.... These middle bits of the book tend to drag on, although there are some nice comic interludes, such as Midwinter's disastrous meeting with the Armadale's tenants the Milroys (and the Major's ridiculous clock) and that dreadful picnic on the Norfolk Broads with the deaf old Mrs Pentecost and her dyspeptic clergyman son with the green - tinted eyeglasses - this has a nice argument about the wording and playing of a Tom Moore song: Mrs Pentecost elevated her ear trumpet, and Allan elevated his voice. “Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen's Bower - - “ He stopped; the accompaniment stopped; the audience waited. “It's a most extraordinary thing,” said Allan; “I thought I had the next line on the tip of my tongue, and it seems to have escaped me. I'll begin again, if you have no objection. 'Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen's Bower' - - - “ “'The lord of the valley with false vows came,'“ said Mrs Pentecost. “Thank you, ma'am,” said Allan. “Now I shall get on smoothly. 'Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen's Bower, the lord of the valley with false vows came. The moon was shining bright' - - - “ “No!” said Mrs Pentecost. “I beg your pardon, ma'am,” remonstrated Allan. “'The moon was shining bright' - - - “ “The moon wasn't doing anything of the kind,” said Mrs Pentecost.


Also some funny stuff about Allan's attempt to ingratiate himself with the local upper class neighbors, his quibble with lawyers, and his dealings with Miss Milroy, the 16 - year - old flirt who hasn't learned yet how to handle men - all resulting in disaster, to his bafflement. While overlong, the middle section is a nice forerunner of the British 'cosy' mystery, with a village full of gossip and scandal. Much ado about nothing, but important as income tax liens to everybody concerned.


Some things to note about Collins: (1) His language is surprisingly modern (not slangy but idiomatic enough to read well a century and a half later) - no 'prithees' or anything like that, though that would not have been used in the 19th Century anyway, except by medievalists like Scott; (2) he is into 'modernity', what we would call high - tech or state - of - the - art, loving new - fangled things like railways, also the early stages of psychology as it was developing; (3) his straightforward and knowing approach to sleaze and con - games. (4) The main action of this book takes place in 1850 or thereabouts, with much going back 25 years from then, yet it is strikingly 'modern' in its one could almost say cynicism about human morality, as well as technology. (5) There is another important innovation, if that's the word: he has a Private Investigator (Bashwood) at the “Private Inquiry Office in Shadyside Place” - almost forty years before Sherlock Holmes's debut on Baker Street. One shouldn't be surprised, really, that such things existed back then because there has always been a need for the non - official tracking down of adultery, insurance fraud, absconding debtors, and embezzlement. Still, it's interesting to see this in such an early setting, and also to see that it was regarded as a rather disreputable business.


Bashwood is expert at his job, and personable, but is as venal and greedy as they come. He also has a Dickensian way of describing people. Here is his introduction to the elder Bashwood, who is Allan's lawyer's clerk, estate steward, later Lydia's dupe (and detective Bashwood's father): The figure came on, clad from head to foot in dreary black - a moving blot on the brilliant white surface of the sun - brightened road. He was a lean, elderly, miserably respectable man. He wore a poor old black dress - coat, and a cheap brown wig, which made no pretence of being his own natural hair. Short black trousers clung like attached old servants round his wizen legs; and rusty black gaiters hid all they could of his knobbed ungainly feet. Black crape added its mite to the decayed and dingy wretchedness of his old beaver hat; black mohair in the obsolete form of a stock, drearily encircled his neck and rose as high as his haggard jaws. The one morsel of colour he carried about him, was a lawyer's bag of blue serge as lean and limp as himself. The one attractive feature in his clean - shaven, weary old face, was a neat set of teeth - teeth (as honest as his wig), which said plainly to all inquiring eyes, “We pass our night on his looking - glass, and our days in his mouth.” That is way too long for what it is saying, but is amusingly written.


Note again the sheer chancedness that isn't, getting the Bashwoods involved with the Armadales. Midwinter was just lost at a crossroads when he encountered the old man and asked directions. And Bashwood Sr. becomes a deus - ex - machina in his own feeble way. Random stuff like this plays a major theme in this fugue of a novel.


One can only admire the Pedgifts, however - Allan Armadale's lawyers. They, especially the old man, are in the best of the Rumpole tradition if you will forgive the anachronism. Pedgift's Postscript, his habitual parting shot, is justly famous and has had many successors, such as Columbo. It's that 'by the way...' as he is just about to leave after losing his argument that always turns things around. Several people are looking after the naive Allan Armadale (who in my opinion doesn't deserve such attention) and carry on investigations during the story. It has now been telegraphed, i.e., not explicit, that Lydia Gwilt was an adventuress, and Mrs Oldershaw's 'line of business' is as a ladies' hairdresser, an expert in disguising the ravages of old age and bad hair, who makes discrete arrangements for her clients with the abortionist Doctor Downward (a wonderfully slimy character), whose office is in the same building. Racy stuff for the period. There is another 'racy' aspect unusual for the time this book was written - that is, Ozias Midwinter, the other Allan Armadale, is of mixed blood, his mother having been a Barbadian quadroon who as a widow marries an awful Scotsman introduced in the first chapter, and he drives the poor lad into gypsy - dom before he disappears from the novel.


The Mr Neal/Mrs Armadale encounter in the beginning is an understated masterpiece of implied sexual attraction. When he wasn't just churning out words to fill his publishing contract, Collins was a really marvellous writer. But as mentioned, the opening scenes are wonderfully gripping, maybe the first 100 pages, especially the prologue in the German spa, where old man Armadale makes his deathbed confession to Mr Neal (who doesn't want to be involved, except that he is attracted to Mrs Armadale), and the tale of the murder at sea. In fact I can hardly list the novels I've read that have such great openings. I'd love to see this book properly done as a mini - series for television. But the middle sections really drag. As I say, the protagonists behave like idiots and keep the plot going by that alone. Nobody but naifs would have been fooled by Lydia for long. (We used to make fun of the had - I - but - known approach to suspense, although it is a good if primitive method.) Much of this section, as in the rest of the novel, is conveyed in epistolary style (letters and diaries); however, the best parts are done in author's omniscient voice. A real mixture of points - of - view - something that later became important in literary art, that consistency thing, but is really less important than the lit - crit folks would have you believe. It works here even though Lydia's diary is somewhat overdone. (As always, the reader can't but wonder how she has time to write all this stuff when she is either in the middle of plotting or in a laudanum daze.)


The plot thickens, and the coincidences pile up as the facts are revealed with the help of Bashwood's investigation into Lydia's past: Be it noted that Lydia was heavily involved as a young servant girl in the original Armadale/Blanchard conspiracy in Barbados that resulted in the murder on the ship; I won't go into that - read the book! Miss Blanchard was Allan's mother, and heiress to the huge Norfolk estate. A snake - oil doctor and his wife Mrs Oldershaw had come into town with the little orphan Lydia, who catches the eye and compassion of Miss Blanchard and is 'bought' off the couple to become her personal maid. After the murderous events in Madeira, Lydia is sent off to a convent on the Continent to get rid of her and suppress the scandal, gets into trouble with men (teachers, monks), at an early age, since she is beautiful and has striking red hair, gets involved with a Russian Baroness who is actually a card sharp who preys on the aristocracy of sophisticated European cities, marries a brutal rich Englishman the Baroness tried to cheat, poisons him with the help of her Cuban lover, is convicted of murder but pardoned by the Home Secretary after a journalistic sob - story orgy results in public demand for her release from the gallows, goes to prison for two years for theft instead as a sop to justice in that event, on release marries her Cuban who turns out to be a bigamist and steals all the money she inherited from her first husband, then hooks up again with Mrs Oldershaw. When Manuel left her, she tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Thames, and the Blanchard heirs die in the rescue attempt, leaving the fortune open to Allan to inherit. Nice juicy stuff and totally absurd - but it all works given Collins's Fate methodology.


Lydia comes up with an idiotically complex scheme to marry Midwinter (under his real, legally recorded name of Allan Armadale), kill the other Armadale, then claim his fortune as his widow. And probably have to kill Midwinter too, although she can't make up her mind about this because she actually falls in love with him. He's besotted with her and they do get married (so much for my closet - gay theory, although he becomes alienated with her after the honeymoon for no explicit reason), staying one step ahead of the sleazy Bashwood Jr., the P.I. who has been hired by his Lydia - besotted father (he, too, doesn't know about the two Armadales), and they go off to Naples, where Ozias has got a job as a foreign correspondent for a newspaper. She doesn't know quite how to kill off Allan, but is glad to find out that he will be sailing his yacht to the Mediterranean to meet up with them, and hopes a convenient storm will come along. Well, it does, and wrecks his yacht on the coast of Portugal (but he survives). Then she tries to poison him with laudanum in his lemonade (she is an addict, by the way), but laces it with brandy to hide the taste, not knowing that he is allergic to brandy and can't drink it.


Allan finds another yacht for sale in Naples and decides to take it out for a test cruise but can't find a crew. Lo and behold, guess who is a member of the chorus in Bellini's opera Norma and spots her in her box seat? It is her old nemesis Manuel. He tries to blackmail her, but she persuades him instead to sign on as captain of Allan's yacht (Manuel, of course, has the proper credentials since he has done everything in his nefarious life) by telling him about Allan's cash box. That yacht is lost in the Adriatic during another storm (storms involving ships occur several times in this book) and she slips away from Ozias, now in Turin, to go back to London because of a health crisis involving her fictitious sickly mother - but really now to claim Allan's money as his ostensible widow. The marriage license is fine, but the signature on the registry doesn't match - how will she get around that? Mrs Oldershaw has had problems with the law, along with Dr Downward, and has become a born - again Christian and will not cooperate.


Well, re - enter Dr Downward in his new identity as Dr Le Doux, who comes into his own here as a really fine crook, an early version of Caspar Gutman of Maltese Falcon fame; he undertakes to claim to have witnessed the marriage if she gives him half her inheritance. The doctor has changed his specialty and now is setting up a bizarre Sanatorium in Hampstead, catering to nervous disorders of rich hypochondriacs - a quack spa Collins has a lot of fun satirizing: very funny set - piece where he gives a guided tour to the local ladies, while at the same time cluing in Lydia as to how to commit the murder of Allan (but I've jumped ahead!). Gwilt “You seem strangely depressed this morning. What are you afraid of now?” Downward “The imputation of being afraid, Madam, is not an imputation to be cast rashly on any man - even when he belongs to such an essentially peaceful profession as mine. I am not afraid. I am (as you correctly put it in the first instance) strangely depressed. My nature is, as you know, naturally sanguine, and I only see today, what, but for my habitual hopefulness, I might have seen, and ought to have seen, a week since.” Gwilt “If words cost money, the luxury of talking would be rather an expensive luxury, in your case.” Allan has survived the ship - wreck faked by Manuel although his money was stolen (his luck is always incredible - this time the first - mate feels guilty and lets him escape by jumping overboard as the yacht is scuttled and getting picked up by a Hungarian tramp steamer that puts him incommunicado for a month or so suffering the inevitable brain fever so convenient to 19th Century authors).


He writes to Bashwood the elder, his steward, who hands the letter right over to Lydia, who then plots to entrap Allan in Dr Downward's private loony bin and arrange his death there, since his obituary has already been published in the Times, the executors have been notified about Lydia's claim, and only Bashwood knows different. What Downward was leading up to in the quotation cited above is that their original plan to lure then just to shut Allan up in the asylum has to become murder. There is to be a tragic accident involving the doctor's state - of - the - art oxygenator device equipped for claustrophobic patients in Room 4. All the patients' rooms are fitted up with trick door locks and windows, opening up the possibility for a locked - room murder, but Collins does not pursue this line except in a minor way. The ending is melodramatic and fast, with Lydia finally repenting when she nearly kills her husband instead of Allan; she rescues him from the infamous Room 4 then shuts herself up in the gas chamber and thus perishes. I will let Downward provide her epitaph (from an observation he thought earlier): “It's been a harder struggle for her than I anticipated.... Good heavens, what business has she with a conscience, after such a life as hers has been!”


PS. In the 'happy' ending epilogue, it turns out that Downward becomes successful with his Sanatorium after all that publicity about Lydia's accidental death as a patient, Mrs Oldershaw becomes an evangelist for fallen women, Manuel gets murdered in a bar brawl in a falling out of thieves, old Bashwood gets committed to an old - age home, Allan marries the silly Miss Milroy (they deserve each other), and who really knows what happens to poor Midwinter, although he does have a small income from what's left of his Barbados estate? Presumably he sticks around in the Armadale household, although it is hinted that he so impressed his newspaper employers that he went on to become a famous journalist. He was definitely cured of his superstition about fate and prophetic dreams.


I hinted that Collins was pre - Freudian in his description of Ozias Midwinter, but it is very obvious why such a person would be screwed - up the way he is, even before Freud could explain it. Our very first view of him (in the original illustration in Cornhill Magazine) is as a small boy sitting on his father's deathbed with awful people surrounding him, while the dying man confesses to murder. Too young to remember that? Well, ask Freud (who is too dead now to ask). You also have to take into account his mixed - race and his travels on the road after he ran away from school after his mistreatment by his stepfather. Collins didn't play up the racial thing (good for him!), but it is there buried in the story. Just as Collins didn't say Dr Downward was an abortionist, but we know damn well he was, as well as being a quack.


It isn't as though Ozias lacks street - wiseness - in fact he shows it on several occasions, as you'd expect from his background - it's just that he is a 'psychologically damaged' personality subject to manic depression, and starving for any affection that comes his way. I have to give Wilkie Collins credit for taking melodramatic characters, such as were necessary for his plot, and adding some depth to the ones that matter, even that sleazeball Bashwood Jr, the private investigator, who is one of the first P.I.'s ever shown in fiction. Bashwood is totally competent, in fact expert, in his profession, but lacks any of the morality of later P.I.'s such as Chandler's Marlowe; those sections involving his investigation of Lydia Gwilt deserve attention for private eye fans, and her cleverness in spotting 'tails' and sneaking out back entrances of stores and changing residence overnight in a way only somebody who is used to doing that could do it, and don't forget that this took place in 1851! In fact there were lots of good characters in this book, but they were thrown away in the process of its lengthy publication: Brock, the Pedgifts, Major Milway, for example. Others, like the flighty teenager Neelie, were brought in then put spinning on a plate (you've seen those jugglers who get a lot of plates spinning on flexible sticks), tapped down when necessary, otherwise left spinning up there, occasionally stroked. You have to admire Collins for his skill at that. On the other hand you know it's just a fine performance, little more than that in the long run.


It is Lydia Gwilt who outranks them all, an adventuress who has learned her stuff, but is more victim than villain. Her cynical opinions of everybody she encounters is a delight, yet when it comes to her plotting for personal aggrandisement you feel sorry for her ineptness - she will exploit any ass like Bashwood Sr or Mrs Overshaw to achieve her aims, but one gets the impression that she would much rather be a 'nice' person. Her life story, as revealed by Bashwood Jr, is briefly presented and shows a person who has learned to be hard - assed through awful adversities, not by basic nature. Starting from when she was suborned as a 12 - year - old child to be a go - between in an undercover romance, actually before that when as an orphan girl she was a shill for a snake - oil doctor pushing cosmetic creams. It was actually an act of justice for the Home Secretary to pardon her death sentence for the murder of her first husband, on what would now be called wife - beating grounds, and totally perverse that she should then spend two years in jail for stealing his jewels when she'd been told she was being disinherited of all but a pittance. With a little pruning, this would be an even better book. Some of the characters, especially Lydia Gwilt, are wonderfully described - even 'throwaway' types such as the Pedgifts and Mrs Oldershaw.


Still, it is very important in the history of mystery novels, and it is surprising undated to read, even though it takes place in 1851. The lack of consistency - what is this novel trying to prove? - is its biggest flaw, along with its long - windedness. What was most famous about it when it came out was the elaborate dream, with all its points, which comes true bit by bit. That is really just a sideline in the novel, and becomes something like Collins's personal plot outline to keep him from diverging too much. I should prune this essay too, since I said that already. Still this was all written in sections, as I proceeded through the book, so we will leave it as is.


Wyatt James

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