Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Edition: Armadale (Penguin Classics)
Wilkie Collins's longest sensation novel Armadale was serialized in Cornhill Magazine from November 1864-June 1866. Cornhill Magazine was begun in 1860 by George Murray Smith (who employed Dickens's rival, Thackeray, as its editor) and aimed to be "safe" and "respectable" in its content. Armadale, then, was perhaps a mistake on Smith's part--its serialization alongside two conservative pieces of domestic realism, Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Trollope's The Claverings indicates its significantly different register. Responses to Armadale, despite Collins's popularity through such previous works as The Woman in White (1859-1860), were generally negative and circulation of Cornhill actually declined significantly during Armadale's serialization. The respectable middle-class reading public particularly felt the character of Lydia Gwilt to be far too radically immoral for detailed depiction; in this later period, Collins's sensational fiction had reached more polemical heights than before. 

Armadale commences with the two travelers arriving at the town of Wildbad in 1832. They are a surly Scotsman by the name of Mr. Neal, and Allan Armadale, a man nearing his deathbed, accompanied by his wife and baby son. Armadale is an Engishman of the West Indies, and his wife a beautiful woman of mixed blood. Armadale is in a state of paralysis when he arrives in Wildbad and needs someone to help him complete a final letter addressed to his son, to be delivered to official representatives and read by his son when he is of age. Because he wants to hide the contents of this letter from his wife, Mr. Neal ends up being the only person around fluent enough in English to complete the task. He begrudgingly agrees, and reads aloud the completed portion of the manuscript first to make sure of any necessary corrections.

This manuscript reveals the story of how Allan Armadale was once Allan Wrentmore until he inherited the Armadale estate in Barbadoes from his godfather. His godfather had thrown off his own son on account of some misdemeanors he had committed. The stipulation attached to the inheritance was that Wrentmore would take the name Armadale. Afterwards, Armadale needed a clerk to manage the estate, and hired Fergus Ingleby, who is later revealed to be the original Allan Armadale. "Fergus" takes revenge by taking Allan "Wrentmore" Armadale's place in a marriage arranged by Allan's mother to the daughter of Mr. Blanchard of the wealthy Thorpe-Ambrose estate in England. When Allan arrived at Madeira where he was to meet his future wife, he finds that Miss Blanchard has already married "Fergus," thinking him to be her arranged lover. A young maid, Lydia Gwilt, helped forge letters from Mrs. Wrentmore in order to bring about the marriage. Allan Armadale challenges "Fergus" to a duel, but "Fergus" is a no-show; he and his new wife sail for Lisbon in a timber-ship called La Grace de Dieu. Armadale engages his services on another vessel which Mr. Blanchard hires to capture the couple. La Grace de Dieu is wrecked during its voyage, and the members of Mr. Blanchard's vessel go on board to make rescues. Armadale locks "Fergus" in his cabin and leaves him there to drown. Armadale was never prosecuted for murder and he went back to the West Indies, taking on his current wife and making his life over again. Here, the letter ends. Armadale enjoins Neal to write the rest of the letter, which tells his son to avoid contact with the son of the true Allan Armadale and his widow, who had been born after his death. As it turns out once again, both boys, Armadale's own son and the widow's, are named Allan Armadale. Armadale's warning exhibits his superstitious belief that no good can come from the second generation of Allan Armadales meeting.

The narrative skips here to focus on the original Allan Armadale's widow and her son. This portion of the narrative is given as memories of Mr. Brock, a bachelor clergyman. As this widow was estranged from her two brothers as a result of her marriage, she took her son with her to Somersetshire, raising him in isolation and allowing Mr. Brock sole responsibility for the education of her son. When her son reached the age of sixteen, Mr. Brock came across a strange advertisement asking for the whereabouts of Allan Armadale (placed by the party responsible for delivering the murderer's letter to his son). The widow knows that the advertisement doesn't refer to her Allan, and begs Brock to destroy the newspaper and keep it from her Allan. Soon after a stressful visit from a mysterious veiled woman (later revealed to by Lydia Gwilt), Mrs. Armadale dies, and makes Brock promise her that he will keep her son away from the other Allan Armadale, the son of his father's murderer, and also Lydia Gwilt, the maid who forged the letter to enable her marriage.

Prior to Mrs. Armadale's death, a swarthy young man stricken by fever arrives to Somersetshire, and he is taken in. Allan Armadale, because he has grown up in such isolation, is open to new acquaintances to a fault, generously paying the young man's medical bills. When the young man comes to his senses, he says his name is Ozias Midwinter, and it turns out he has enough money to pay his own bills. Nonetheless, Ozias feels great gratitute towards Allan, and a sort of friendship blossoms between the two young men. Ozias leaves for London after recovering, though at Allan's prompting, leaves Allan his London address.

After Allan's mother's death, Mr. Brock writes to see if her brothers will take up friendly relations with her son. One of the brothers refuses, and the other has died, but the son of this deceased brother agrees to let bygones be bygones. Allan, however, has very little interest renewing contact with relatives that had shunned his mother, and instead goes with Brock on some travels which Brock hoped would help the grieving young man. They begin their travels in Paris, and Allan insists on seeing Ozias in London. Ozias is away on business when Allan calls on him in London; later when they meet up, it is revealed that Ozias has inherited some estate from relatives. Almost simultaneously, Allan learns that he is the owner of the Blanchard estate of Thorpe-Ambrose because of three unexpected deaths in the family. In order to give the ladies at Thorpe-Ambrose some time to grieve and to get their things in order, Allan decides to go on a yachting-cruise (his passion was building his own yachts) for two months. Ozias and Brock accompany Allan on this trip, during which time Ozias receives the letter intended for him from his father--he confesses to Brock that he is in fact Allan Armadale, but had thought nothing of staying away from his new friend until this letter came into his hands. Indeed, Ozias has had a hard life: after the death of his father, his mother married Mr. Neal, and the two of them shunned him and treated him badly. He eventually ran away, taking a bunch of odd jobs here and there, receiving his new name from a gipsy man who took him in. For most of his life thus far, Ozias had been shunned and shown no pity or kindness; eventually he wound up in a bookshop, where he spent many an hour finding solace in books. The kindness of Allan Armadale, then, was one of the first he had experienced. Brock, though initially mistrustful of Ozias, accepts Ozias's confession to him as a sign of his goodness, and tells Ozias that he believes he will break the spell of his father's superstitious letter and be a friend to Allan, provided he didn't reveal his true identity. Meanwhile, Brock is called away for clergyman duties, and the two young men are left alone together for the remainder of the yachting cruise. In an incident during a moonlit night, the two of them wander out to check out a wreck, which turns out to be none other than La Grace de Dieu. Ominously, their own boat slips away and the two men are stuck on the same vessel where Ozias's father had murdered Allan's father. During the night that the two men spend on the wreck,  Allan has a frightening dream involving the following episodes: himself before a sunset and the "shadow of a woman," before a room with a "shadow of a man" where the man causes the shattering of a statuette, and finally before the "shadow of a woman" passing a glass to him via the "shadow of a man" and himself falling to the ground after holding the glass up to his lips. Ozias fears that this is a dream of the future, and that he himself is the "shadow of the man" and decides to write an account of Allan's dream down. Their friend, a Doctor Hawbury, puts Allan at ease by coming up with a "scientific" explanation for his dream consisting of linking elements of his dream to various everyday happenings Allan encountered in the last few days.

Coming upon his new estate, Allan decides to engage Ozias as his steward, not accepting a refusal. They learn that members of the town have contrived to throw a grand public reception on the occasion of Allan's arrival; Allan, wanting to avoid the ostentation goes to his new estate in secret. This turns out to be a bad idea, because the members of the town feel snubbed by him and he has much difficulty making amends. At his estate, Allan makes the acquaintance of Major Milroy, whom he has chosen to live as his cottage tenant over an old lawyer who has served his family for years--Allan peremptorily made his decision with the flip of a coin, without thinking he might offend the lawyer. Milroy has an invalid wife, and a young daughter, with whom Allan immediately begins a kind of flirtatious relationship. Meanwhile, Lydia Gwilt has been exchanging letters with an old woman named Oldershaw--these letters show a rather strained relationship between the two, but nevertheless, between them a plan to install Lydia as the governess for Milroy's daughter in order that Lydia might eventually win her way to becoming the new Mrs. Armadale is agreed upon. After all, Lydia looks young and charming for her age despite being thirty-five. When Mr. Brock sees Oldershaw and Lydia (recognizing Lydia in her veil from her visit to Mrs. Armadale in Somersetshire) in London speaking of Allan, he warns Midwinter that the veiled woman may be coming to Thorpe-Ambrose. Oldershaw sees Mr. Brock surveying them, and boldly comes up with a plan to waylay Brock: Lydia should dress up her Oldershaw's housemaid as herself in the veil, and this housemaid should pretend to get on steamer to Brazil. Oldershaw has a story for Mr. Brock: that her mistress was going back to Brazil to meet her husband, and that she was indeed the woman who had seen Mrs. Armadale and felt sorry for extracting money from her on her deathbed.

Midwinter meets with an old man named Bashwood, who has come for the purpose of coaching him in his stewardship duties. He seems unaccountably sneaky and obsequious, and Allan doesn't much like him. Allan soon decides to throw a picnic, inviting the Milroys, two of their friends, a widow and her curate son, and also the new governess since she is due to arrive on the day of his picnic. With the aid of Pedgift Jr., the son of the lawyer that Allan has taken into his service, the picnic is a great success, despite the somewhat unpleasant company provided by the widow and her son. Lydia Gwilt arrives during sunset, and Midwinter reminds him that the sunset and the "shadow of a woman" was part of his dream. Allan manages to maintain his levity, and is soon taken in by Lydia's great beauty. Midwinter has received a letter from Brock describing the features of the housemaid as Miss Gwilt's, and as a result, manages to allay Midwinter's anxieties because the Miss Gwilt he has met does not look like the woman of Brock's description.  Lydia Gwilt, meanwhile, manages to enchant both Allan and Midwinter (and Bashwood, who soon becomes a kind of pawn for her). After Allan confesses to Midwinter that he is in love with Lydia and wants to marry her, Midwinter decides to leave for a time, citing his own anxious composition as an excuse. After he leaves, the invalid Mrs. Milroy's jealousy of Lydia Gwilt grows, and she comes up with a plan to check her reference "Mrs. Mandeville" (really Mrs. Oldenshaw), hoping to dig up some dirt on Lydia. Having found out from her daughter that Allan seems interested in Lydia as well, Mrs. Milroy dispatches Allan to travel to London to try to speak with Mrs. Mandeville; because Mrs. Oldenshaw has reverted to her old name, Allan has a hard time finding her. Pedgift Jr., savvier than Allan, manages to suggest a connection between Lydia and a certain house of Pimlico, an unsavory establishment connected to a "beauty doctor." Wishing to save face for Lydia, Allan refuses to admit his findings to Mrs. Milroy, who then gets her husband involved.

Soon, Allan finds himself with a bad name as far as the estimation of everyone else in the town goes, between the Milroy's anger over his refusal to reveal what he has found, and everyone else finding his secret digging into a woman's past to be highly inappropriate. Lydia herself decides to discontinue her service with the Milroys, cunningly underscoring her own respectability even though she is unable to answer unspecified charges against her. Pedgift Sr. writes to Allan, who has remained in London during all of this, strongly suggesting that he come back and show his face so people don't think he's trying to avoid the situation. In London, Pedgift tells Allan that he does not trust Lydia, and as a result of his great experience as a defense lawyer working for the most hardened criminals, can say with no small degree of certainty that she is no innocent woman. Using the safety of Miss Milroy as pretense, Pedgift manages to convince Allan that they need to dispatch a spy to watch Lydia's movements. Allan is reluctant, but wanting to be chivalrous to the poor Miss Milroy, agrees. When Midwinter returns from his leave, he runs into Lydia, who tells him that Allan has sent a spy to watch her. Midwinter, because he is in love with her, is furious on her behalf and can't control himself when he meets with Allan who tells him she tells the truth. Despite Midwinter's remarkable amount of self-control thus far, the two men's tense disagreement over Lydia Gwilt leads to the shattering of the statuette in the drawing room, just as Allan had dreamed.

The next section is told primarily through Lydia's letters to Mrs. Oldershaw and her diary. Horrified at the statuette incident, Midwinter runs away, but still, he seems fatally drawn to Miss Gwilt, and the two acknowledge their love for one another. He also decides to tell her who he truly is and the entire story. Miss Gwilt, however, likes to Midwinter about her own identity, refusing to acknowledge that she was the former maid of Mrs. Armadale. Midwinter departs to London to get a job as a journalist, and alone and pushed to the wall with debts, Lydia comes upon an old letter from a man ("a villain") with whom she was once associated telling her about a resolute woman who once impersonated someone's widow. This sets the wheels turning in Lydia's head: she might marry Midwinter and take the name Mrs. Armadale since that is who he really is, do away with Allan, and then come back to Thorpe-Ambrose with the marriage certificate saying that she is Mrs. Allan Armadale. These nefarious plans Lydia Gwilt hatches all on her own, and for the time being, she withholds these plans from Mrs. Oldershaw.

Allan and Neelie have reached a point where they have regained such an interest in one another that they plot to get married. Lydia overhears them while they consult volumes of law to see if they might get married. They determine, finally, that Allan should go to London to consult someone for help. Lydia takes this opportunity to also go to London, and at the train station, she contrives to make Allan her travel companion, leading to rumors that she and Allan Armadale went away together to get married. Before leaving for London, Lydia sends an anonymous letter to Major Milroy warning Miss Milroy against Allan Armadale, suggesting that his affections may be elsewhere. The result is that Major Milroy stipulates that Miss Milroy will go to school for six months and cut off contact with Allan; if the two of them should still wish to marry at the time, he would condone it. Lydia suggests that in order to kill time, Allan should take his yacht and meet herself and Midwinter after they have married in Naples, where he will be working for a while as a foreign correspondent. 

Bashwood has happened to see Allan and Lydia at the train station and becomes extremely jealous and angry that Lydia has deceived him since he had thought he was on her side against Allan. Furious and yet still madly in love with her, he decides to consult his son who is in the spying business to uncover Miss Gwilt's past to him. Jemmy, Bashwood's son, learns that Miss Gwilt had in the past poisoned a husband, and gotten off with just the minor charges of robbery. Subsequently, she had married a Captain Manuel (who already had a first wife) but he ditched her. It was at this point that she had tried to drown herself (an incident which precipitated the deaths of Allan Armadale's relatives and his coming to own Thorpe-Ambrose). 

By the time Jemmy tracks Lydia down, she has already married Midwinter, but Bashwood and Jemmy don't know it is Midwinter because the wedding registry reads Miss Lydia Gwilt and Allan Armadale, Midwinter's true name. After the two of them are married, things aren't great between them because Midwinter ends up being a kind of workaholic at his journalism. He also becomes extremely nervous, renewing his fears about Allan's prophetic dream. Soon after their marriage, Mr. Brock dies, and leaves a letter for Midwinter encouraging him to stick by Allan because he believes in him, and his faith leads him to believe that all will be well should the two of them remain close friends. Thus, Midwinter is torn between needing to stay away from Allan because of the superstition and his father's letter, and sticking with Allan because of Mr. Brock's encouraging words. 

Allan's yacht actually does get wrecked on his way to Naples, but he survives. He then engages an old yacht, but has some trouble securing a crew for a cruise he wanted to take. It happens that at Naples, Lydia encounters her second husband, Captain Manuel, who has become an impoverished chorus singer. When he asks her for money, she lets him know that Armadale is a rich man, naive, and in need of a crew. When Manuel asks her what her interests as far as the Englishman Armadale goes are, she refuses to give him any more information. Luckily for Lydia, Midwinter's superstition has been at a high due to the third scene in Allan's dream playing out recently when Lydia mixed a glass of lemonade, handing it over to Allan via Midwinter (she doesn't quite confess in her diary that she has slipped something into the drink but it is strongly suggested--Allan doesn't drink, though, because he smells brandy, which he avoids). Because of his superstition, Midwinter thinks that he and Lydia should not going on the cruise with Allan lest they inadvertently harm him. Allan Armadale's fate indeed seems sealed as he sails off with Manuel and his band of cutthroats. 

During a storm, the crew nailed Allan below the decks and shattered the sea with the ship's wreckage, themselves taking off. News was borne that the yacht had been wrecked with all on board, and Lydia sets off for London intending to claim herself to be the widow of the late Allan Armadale. Despite some misgivings because of her true love of Midwinter, she still decides to act in her own self interest. In London, she finds Dr. Downward (of the house of Pimlico) involved with opening a sanitarium. Lydia manages to get him to sign that he had witnessed the marriage of Lydia and Allan, but as the lawyers were considering her claim, Allan Armadale wrote a letter declaring that he was alive, having escaped from the wreck with the aid of one man in his crew. He is recovering abroad, and will return soon to London. When Midwinter returns to London, Lydia repudiates him and declares herself the widow of Allan Armadale. Her last resort is to get Allan into the sanitarium the doctor has started--she sense someone to tell Allan at the station that Neelie was in the sanitarium. Since Midwinter also waits for Allan at the station, he too decides to go to the sanitarium with his friend. The men are each assigned to a room and Lydia's plan is to pump carbon dioxide into the room Allan is staying in. Things go awry when Midwinter has switched rooms with Allan, again because of Midwinter's superstitious forebodings. Lydia nearly kills Midwinter, rescuing him just in time. In despair for her evil acts, she actually closes herself into the room after pumping it full of the poisonous gas. Lydia dies, and in the end, Midwinter becomes a  successful writer, and Allan and Neelie get married and take up their place at Thorpe-Ambrose.

Armadale is told through a mixture of an unnamed narrator and letters. Beginning with the March 1865 installment (entitled, "Lurking Mischief") there is a marked switch of focus as Lydia Gwilt takes center stage: her exchange of letters to Mrs. Oldershaw and her own diary take over the telling of the story. Lydia's diary, which she says she begins in order to keep track of all her lies so that she won't mess up, is the perfect substitute for the semi-omniscient, unnamed narrator. Her diary does in fact become a kind of substitution for the narrator, who all but falls out of the second half of the novel. From the March installment onwards, it is Lydia Gwilt who controls the narrative more than any other character: she eventually even writes out Mrs. Oldershaw when she decides to withhold information about her plan to impersonate Allan Armadale's widow. With great skill, she maneuvers herself so that she has more information on others than she has on them, listening in on Allan and Neelie's plans, gaining Midwinter's confidence, and even reading Brock's final letter to Midwinter. Even the Bashwood episodes in the second half of the novel are just a kind of distraction, in which Bashwood's temporary ascendancy to privileged information about her is quickly neutralized by a few sweet words she doles out to him.
Lydia's scandalization of contemporary audiences may have been exacerbated by the omniscience which Collins allows her because of the way in which her omniscience changes the reader's relationship to her and to other characters. Through Lydia's eyes, for example, Allan Armadale seems more and more incompetent and vapid; her accounts of his inability to talk about anything except for yachts and love (for Neelie) are cutting and humorous, tending to seduce readers to sympathize with her. This seems to be Collins's project the whole way through, as Allan naivete is given from the start, but nowhere is it as negative of a trait as it is from Lydia Gwilt's perspective. More broadly, Collins's novel is scandalous because it perpetuates complicated reversals in the alignment between how sympathetic a character is and traditionally respectable social identities. Those of the most "respectable" backgrounds--Allan Armadale and Neelie Milroy--are highly unsympathetic: they are boring, they can barely understand books, they can't manage everyday affairs, they lack social graces, and they talk and think of nothing beyond conventional topics (leisure travel and marriage) for gentlemen and ladies (marriage). In contrast, those of more questionable backgrounds--Midwinter (whose racial otherness is another strike against him) and Lydia, find joy in books and writing, feel moved to depths by great music (Lydia listens to Beethoven) and works of art, and deftly manage their everyday affairs. Though these alignments explode conventional associations with respectability, in the end, Midwinter's capacity to turn his "smarts" towards good and Lydia's inability to do the same seems to return the novel to a more conservative middle-class myth of social upward mobility: though cast about by the world, the individual might triumph and win, through righteous means and his own ingenuity, a respectable place in the social hierarchy. Cornhill's readership, indeed, was all about classes of people who aspired to social advancement through honorable pursuits like education and industry. Yet, the very end, no consideration of Midwinter versus Lydia can cast aside the question of gender: in allowing readers access to Lydia's first person account via her diary, the reader gains insight into many instances where Lydia considers avoiding the evil act of doing away with Allan Armadale but then ends up sees no other way out of the miseries heaped upon her by her place as a woman. After her marriage to Midwinter, he has his career to focus on and she feels neglected and crushed by the abandonment--she really has nothing else to occupy her mind than to plot and plan in her diary. She confesses that there were times when she thought Midwinter's love might be enough to convince her to leave off her plans, but Midwinter's love fails because he does not prove to be a lively companion to her. A good marriage is the one thing that might save a woman, and having no other alternatives, she turns her unused "smarts" to something else, and in this way joins the ranks of many other smart Victorian female characters like Vanity Fair's Becky Sharpe, Middlemarch's Dorothea, or Miss Marjoribanks's Lucilla, who all manage to find different ways to spend their talents and intellectual energies within the constraints of their social position as women.

1 comment:

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