Have you been noticing a lot of chatter about Wilkie Collins around the blogosphere lately? If so, you’ve probably stumbled across the Classics Circuit, a blog tour program that seeks to encourage the reading of classic literature. Every weekday from November 2 to December 11, a different book blog is featuring Wilkie Collins. (See the schedule here.) Jenny and I have both been wanting to read more Collins, so we were delighted to join the tour by reviewing Armadale. Published in 1866, Armadale features lots of the sensational elements one would expect of a Wilkie Collins novel. There’s a stolen identity, a shipwreck, a deathbed confession—and that’s all in the first three chapters, where we get the origin story of the two men who will be the focus of the action in the book. We learn how these two young men came to share the same name, Allan Armadale, and why the father of one of the young men is convinced they must never meet. On his deathbed, the worried father writes,
Avoid the man who bears the same name as your own. Offend your best benefactor, if that benefactor’s influence has connected you one with the other. Desert the woman who loves you, if that woman is a link between you and him. Hide yourself from him under an assumed name. Put the mountains and the seas between you; be ungrateful, be unforgiving; be all that is most repellant to your own gentler nature, rather than live under the same roof, and breathe air with that same man. Never let the two Allan Armadales meet in this world: never, never, never!
Of course, the two young men do meet. One of the men, the poorer one and the recipient of the letter quoted above, is going by the assumed name of Ozias Midwinter, and he quickly discovers that it’s difficult to disentangle himself from the amiable Allan Armadale who, unaware of their connection, has decided that he and Ozias are meant to be great friends. Ozias, however, sees doom around every corner—both because of his father’s deathbed plea and because of a possibly prophetic dream that Allan has when the two are left overnight on a wrecked ship.
Doom eventually comes in the form of Lydia Gwilt, one of the most villainous villainesses in literature. Her malicious plots, revealed in letters and diary entries, center on acquiring the Armadale fortune for herself.
And now for our thoughts on the book:
Teresa: I read The Moonstone and The Woman in White well over 10 years ago, and I enjoyed them (particularly The Woman in White), but it didn’t occur to me to read more Collins until I started to see other bloggers mention his less well-known works. Once I was just a few pages into Armadale, I was kicking myself for letting Collins slip my attention for so long. I was immediately drawn into the story. I knew the two Allans had to meet, but I was on tenterhooks regarding how they would meet and what would happen when they did. Collins knows how to build suspense.
Jenny: The book is crammed with suspense, and with incredibly dramatic events! It’s the way the characters interact with each other that gave me the most pleasure, though. The two Allan Armadales — or, as we should call them, Armadale and Midwinter — are really two sides of the same person. One is open as the day, while the other is closed and suspicious. One is blunt and rather thick-headed, while the other is so sensitive that he is unstrung by tiny incidents. One is careless of all social niceties, while the other is watchful of every detail of them. Their parents may never have wanted them to meet, but it’s clear that they complete each other.
Teresa: Yes, together the two Armadales make a more complete person (and it will probably be no surprise to you that I liked Ozias best). But of course, the character who steals the show is Miss Gwilt. Collins is well-known for writing great villains and great women, and here we have both in a single person. I can’t recall a literary villain I loved reading about so much. Once she’s on the scene, the book is hers.
Jenny: Yes, almost literally. I was surprised at how much of the book was written in Miss Gwilt’s own voice, via her diary. No one else gets that privilege, which made me wonder who we’re really supposed to sympathize with. To be honest, I found both Armadales almost equally irritating at times, the one for his blundering carelessness and the other for his morbid sensitivity and superstition, and I wasn’t enraptured with the young and foolish heroine, Neelie, either. Miss Gwilt, however, has a dark and complex background, mixed motives, and a tiny remnant of real love in her heart despite her determination to win every game she plays. I never really knew whether to root her on or be appalled. Now that’s a character!
Teresa: I have a sneaking suspicion that once Collins started writing Miss Gwilt, he realized she was the most interesting character of all. Look at how she gradually takes over the story. Collins starts out just with her letters, and just a few of them. But then there are more letters. Soon, the letters aren’t enough. She wouldn’t reveal enough of herself, even to a fellow conspirator, so Collins moves on to journal entries. Eventually, most of the book comes from Miss Gwilt’s pen! I was a bit worried that when we started learning some of her back story, Collins was looking to redeem her or justify her actions, but he doesn’t. He helps us understand her, but she’s never anything other than a villain. Personally, I never felt inclined to root for her, but I wanted more of her. I laughed out loud at some of her more outrageous statements: “I am in one of my tempers to-night. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something of that sort.” It’s so over the top, but I love that she just is who she is, without apology.
Jenny: Over the top is right. She’s by far the most engaging character (though I loved both the lawyers, Pedgift senior and junior) and I had some sneaking sympathy for her, myself!
What did you think of the supernatural element Collins introduced with the prophetic dream Allan Armadale narrates to his friend? Collins goes out of his way to provide three complete explanations for the dream: one scientific, one supernatural, and one religious (that is to say, even if the dream is prophetic, it doesn’t matter because God will provide.) The dream not only crops up several times in the novel, but influences events. What are we supposed to think, as readers?
Teresa: I’m not sure what to make of the supernatural element. To be truthful, it felt sort of out of place to me. The book is so much about how people respond to one another and to their circumstances, and the prophesy felt thrown in. I suppose that he could by trying to get at something about how different people respond to the idea of the supernatural. Ozias takes it very seriously, and Allan laughs it off. But the way they respond does influence what happens. That whole thread didn’t quite gel for me. I am glad, though, that Collins left the “solution” ambiguous.
Jenny: I agree. For me, ambiguity in its most literal sense — doubleness — was what the book was essentially all about. The two Allan Armadales. The two shipwrecks. The double nature of women: one a flighty, inexperienced, tender-hearted virgin; the other a wicked, twice-married, sensual villainess. In the end, it seems to come down to choices between those doubles. Wilkie Collins clearly believes in free will and in some kind of Providence, both of which are stronger than superstition and evil. It made for a really interesting book, and what’s more, a completely rip-snorting story!
For more on Wilkie Collins, be sure to visit the other stops on the Classics Circuit. Watch the Classics Circuit blog for information on upcoming tours and opportunities to suggest and vote on future featured authors and themes. Upcoming tours will feature Elizabeth Gaskell and Edith Wharton. (Sign-ups for the Wharton tour close November 14.)