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Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

on March 11, 2014

There’s always a place in my library for Wilkie Collins. He is, quite simply, one of the best authors I’ve ever read. You’ve already heard me gush about how much I love his books in previous posts so I won’t go too overboard here, but this is yet another favourite of mine 🙂 Armadale will take you a while to get through – it’s a pretty long Sensation novel (with my Penguin copy ending on page 666 – freaky, right?) This fact is a little more scary once you actually read the book and find out more about the actions of the murderous Lydia Gwilt, or as I regard her, the ultimate anti-heroine. Lydia Gwilt is a terrifying character. She is evil through and through. In fact, she is poison. Yes, that seems a little strong to start off with, but trust me, you’ll find out what she’s capable of soon enough! That being said, there is a certain redeeming quality about her, but we are only introduced to this side of her personality at the end of the novel.

Published in 1866 in the midst of the Sensation fiction boom, Collins’s novel shocked and horrified critics through its use of such a malicious female character. The opening chapter or so runs a little slow in my opinion, but I’m assuming this is simply due to its role in setting up the characters and background. As this is a Sensation novel, we already expect certain things from it: murder, bigamy, poison, perhaps an assertive female character. Let’s just say none of these are in short supply! Collins draws on every aspect of the classic Sensation novel in his writing and thank goodness he did! 🙂 Personally, I would like to talk more of Lydia Gwilt than of the actual novel, but I really should give a brief summary to entice you to read it 🙂

Armadale centres around two men both called Allan Armadale. There had been a previous dispute between their fathers where one had murdered the other. One Allan Armadale adopts the name of Ozias Midwinter and runs away from home where *surprise* he runs into the other Allan Armadale and becomes his companion. Here’s where things get a little confusing 🙂 Midwinter eventually learns through a letter from his deceased father exactly who Allan is, but Allan doesn’t know who Midwinter is. Allan inherits the large estate of Thorpe Ambrose from his family, and meets the family living in one of the cottages there, the Milroys (consisting of Major Milroy, his wife, and daughter Eleanor). After many visits to the cottage, Allan falls head over heels in love with Eleanor.

It all seems so perfect, doesn’t it? Enter Lydia Gwilt.

Previously a maid to one of the Allan’s mothers, she hears of the rise in wealth of Allan and, encouraged by her old sinister friend Mrs. Oldershaw, tries to concoct a plan to establish herself as the lady of the manor. Soon she arrives at the front door of Major Milroy, posing with fake references as a governess. There she lies in wait for her prey. Despite her best efforts, and by this I mean that she tries absolutely everything in her power, she realises that there is no chance of her splitting Allan and Eleanor up. Do women like Lydia Gwilt give up? Of course not! Instead she moves her interests to Midwinter, and upon learning that his real name is the same as that of the subject of her foiled efforts, creates a new plan. If she can marry Ozias under his real name, then arrange for the original Allan Armadale to somehow go missing, she can then suddenly appear as Mrs. Armadale and inherit the entire estate. Foolproof, right? WRONG. What Lydia didn’t plan out was the problem of actually falling in love with Midwinter.

[*SPOILERS*] To cut a pretty long story short (trust me, the bits I miss out are really worth reading!), Lydia arranges, with the help of a sanatorium doctor, Dr. Downward, to kill Allan. Midwinter and Allan are lured there and placed in separate rooms. The reason for this is that Downward and Lydia’s plan involves filling Allan’s room with an imperceptible gas which will leave no trace in the body. However, the gassing goes awry when Midwinter insists that he switch rooms with Allan, all because he has a feeling something bad will happen. Here we see the only redeeming quality of Lydia that I mentioned earlier. On realising her husband is in the wrong room, she quickly dashes in and drags him out of harm’s way. She really does love Midwinter, and makes the ultimate sacrifice for him. After making sure he is safe, she writes a confession letter and then takes her own life in the gas-filled room. The novel ends with the death of Lydia, the marriage of Allan and Eleanor, and a final resolution that everything has returned to the way it should be.

Sorry, that was a pretty big brief summary 😛 Now you know everything, I can move on to talk about the character of Lydia Gwilt 🙂 She is a powerful and vindictive woman, leading Henry Chorley to describe her as ‘one of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened literature.’ She is severely lacking in feminine restraint which we see in her diary entries and letters where she says things like: ‘I am in one of my tempers to-night. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something.’ As already explained in earlier reviews, the Victorian domesticated ideal of woman was a creature who was devout and dutiful; what we see here is the complete antithesis. On the outside, she pretends to be sweet in order to avoid suspicion about her character and her intentions, but of course we as the reader can see straight through her disguise.

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, she is a source of poison throughout Armadale, not only manipulating others, but physically poisoning characters. She uses her looks to get exactly where she wants, and where looks fail, violence prevails. Her schemes are constrained to her diary; just like Lucy Audley, it is vital that she maintains the angelic front. She will not let anyone stand in her way, threatening many characters throughout the novel. On writing of Allan Armadale, she describes him as:

‘a rattle-pated young fool – one of those noisy, rosy, light-haired, good-tempered men, whom I particularly detest… I really never saw a man whom I could use so ill, if I had the opportunity.’

She shows just how vindictive she can be when Allan ignores her in the street later in the novel. She states:

‘no man living ever yet treated me as if I was plague-struck… as if the very air about me was infected by my presence!… When he walked away from me down that lane, he walked to his death.’

Lydia is almost like an evil chameleon. She changes the way she acts depending on who is present, and this is how she manages to avoid suspicion for so long. She is the supreme anti-heroine, choosing to try and shape her own destiny through vengeance and violence. She plans all of her wicked schemes by herself, showing to the reader that she is in fact not just another woman doomed to sit in the shadows for eternity. She only recruits people and asks for their help when she truly needs to, choosing instead to be assertive and independent in all of her plans. The acts she performs are sinister in the sense that they can be imagined by any reader. The act of poisoning is not at all far-fetched and we read of Lydia:

‘measuring the doses with my eye, and calculating how many of them would be enough to take a living creature over the border-land between sleep and death.’

As I mentioned in the review of Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, hair colour was regarded as symbolic in the Victorian period. Here we have a woman with flame-red hair which suggested associations with evil and the devil (rather fitting here!) Galia Ofek writes that this previously unsightly hair colour corresponds with Lydia’s ‘aggressive, bloody femininity… and flaming sexuality.’ We see many examples of this throughout the novel. When her attempts on Armadale’s life fail, she doesn’t waste time thinking about what might have been or whether what she is doing is right or not; she instantly tries to plan out the next best way to kill him.

Then we have the ending, and I think it’s safe to say it’s a bit of a shock. Lydia becomes almost dictated to by her husband, and ultimately sacrifices herself for him, a complete alteration from the character we have seen previously. She concludes that:

‘the one atonement I can make for all the wrong I have done you is the atonement of my death. It is not hard for me to die, now I know you will live.’

It could be considered that this is the only possibility in which Lydia is trying to redeem herself for all of her past actions. Collins perhaps chooses this ending in order to show that such ruthless behaviour cannot survive in the world.

I’d have to say that this is a wonderful read – as you can probably tell from this review, there’s plenty of stuff going on! If you’re wanting to have a look at other pieces of Collins’s Sensation fiction which doesn’t include The Woman in White, then I suggest you try to read this novel 🙂 There’s intrigue, murder, poison, and evil deeds galore, and I guarantee you’ll never get bored!

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8 responses to “Armadale by Wilkie Collins

  1. heavenali says:

    Wonderful! I need to read this again. Wilkie Collins does do villainous characters so well.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Oooh, I love the sound of this – definitely need to explore Collins further!

  3. I’ve started re-reading Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White and The Moonstone to date – and I really need to pick this one up, Lydia Gwilt is one of those names that always makes me catch my breath.

  4. Plethora says:

    I have only read two Wilkie so far, The Woman in White and The Law and The Lady. Of the two, I loved The Law and The Lady. So torn as to what next to read of his when I get to squeeze in another Wilkie read.

  5. Helen says:

    I love Wilkie Collins and Armadale is one of my favourites – Lydia Gwilt is so fascinating! Collins gives his characters such wonderful names too – Ozias Midwinter, Mother Oldershaw, Doctor Downward… I must read this book again soon!

  6. This sounds so great! I’ve only ever read the two most famous Wilkie Collins books — The Woman in White and The Moonstone — and loved them both. Armadale will be next on up though! I adore a good villain.

  7. […] that one’s respectable-looking neighbours concealed some awful secret.’ (See Lydia Gwilt from Armadale, and Lucy Audley from Lady Audley’s Secret for excellent examples of this […]

  8. Marcin says:

    Lydia Gwilt is simply a marvel! Wilkie Collins is easily one of my favourite wirters, it’s such a shame his name – let alone his works are largely unknown to reading audience. I have 6 of his novels so far, and what I can tell is that the man was simlply brilliant at creating female characters. And Lydia may very well be his finest creation.

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