Thursday, June 24, 2010


Armadale. Wilkie Collins. 1866. (My edition. Oxford World's Classics.) 880 pages.

On a warm May night, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-one, the Reverend Decimus Brock--at that time a visitor to the Isle of Man--retired to his bedroom, at Castletown, with a serious personal responsibility in close pursuit of him, and with no distinct idea of the means by which he might relieve himself from the pressure of his present circumstances.

Is it possible to summarize Armadale in a sentence or two? In a paragraph or two? Probably not. Wilkie Collins is all about layers. Who else besides Collins would premise a novel with fifty-eight pages of prologue? A prologue that establishes the background of three of his main characters. A foreshadowing prologue that shapes and reshapes the novel. Two men. One name. One dark secret.

Armadale centers around three characters: Allan Armadale, Ozias Midwinter, and Lydia Gwilt. Armadale and Midwinter are best friends. But this friendship is strained at times because Midwinter knows things Armadale doesn't. He knows the dark connection they share. Midwinter learned these secrets through a letter he received when he came of age. His father warned him to never ever have anything to do with Allan Armadale. His father's letter also warned him of a dangerous woman.

Lydia Gwilt, one of our narrators, also enters into the drama. Both Midwinter and Armadale (not to mention the elderly Bashwood) fall in love with Miss Gwilt. But Gwilt is incapable of honesty, and her lies may spin everything out of control.

Armadale is about the struggle of the human soul between good and evil. A novel that asks the question--should children suffer for the sins of their fathers? A novel that explores the idea of Fate and free will.

This is my second Wilkie Collins novel. Last year, I read and reviewed Man and Wife. Armadale is a stronger novel, a better novel. (But it doesn't have a Sir Patrick.) Did I love Armadale? I certainly enjoyed it. I found it difficult to put down. I found myself smiling at Collins descriptions. He could definitely be witty when he wanted to be! I found Armadale to be complex. The characters are drawn from human nature; each of the main characters is flawed. I liked the multiple narrators as well. I was surprised at how much of this story is told from Gwilt's perspective--through letters and diary entries mainly. I thought the pacing was suspenseful, and the last two hundred pages were intense. I would definitely recommend the novel.

'Excuse me,' said the impenetrable Scotchman. 'I beg to suggest that you are losing the thread of the narrative.'
'Nothing more likely,' returned the doctor, recovering his good humour. 'It is in the habit of my nation to be perpetually losing the thread--and it is evidently in the habit of yours, sir, to be perpetually finding it. What an example here of the order of the universe, and the everlasting fitness of things!' (17)

The object of Allan's humane caution was corpulent elderly woman of the type called 'motherly.' Fourteen stairs were all that separated her from the master of the house: she ascended them with fourteen stoppages and fourteen sighs. Nature, various in all things, is infinitely various in the female sex. There are some women whose personal qualities reveal the Loves and the Graces; and there are other women whose personal qualities suggest the Perquisites and the Grease Pot. This was one of the other women. (203)

A young man who plays his part in society by looking on in green spectacles, and listening with a sickly smile, may be a prodigy of intellect and a mine of virtue, but he is hardly, perhaps, the right sort of man to have at a picnic. An old lady afflicted with deafness, whose one inexhaustible subject of interest is the subject of her son, and who (on the happily rare occasions when that son opens his lips) asks everybody eagerly, 'What does my boy say?' is a person to be pitied in respect of her infirmities, and a person to be admired in respect of her maternal devotedness, but not a person, if the thing could possibly be avoided, to take to a picnic. Such a man, nevertheless, was the Reverend Samuel Pentecost, and such a woman was the Reverend Samuel's mother; and in the dearth of any other producible guests, there they were, engaged to eat, drink, and be merry for the day at Mr. Armadale's pleasure-party to the Norfolk Broads. (292)
The age we live in is an age which finds no human creature inexcusable. (374)
'When you say no to a woman, sir,' remarked Pedgift Senior, 'always say it in one word. If you give her your reasons, she invariably believes that you mean Yes.' (439)
The plain fact was, that the music-master attached to the establishment fell in love with Miss Gwilt. He was a respectable middle-aged man, with a wife and family--and finding the circumstances entirely hopeless, he took a pistol, and rashly assuming that he had brains in his head, tried to blow them out. The doctors saved his life, but not his reason--he ended, where he had better have begun, in an asylum. (635)

Other reviews: Shelf Love, Novel Insights, The Curious Reader, Bibliolatry, Savidge Reads,

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Anonymous said...

I do appreciate reviews of Sensation novels!

Collins is a master at developing subtle situations; he also trusted his reader to follow things without spelling them out completely. I loved 'Armadale'. I've read quite a few Sensation novels and this one doesn't meld into another at all. Lydia's a joy (and terror) to read about and there are two scenes that just stick in my head time after time - the boat scene and the final scene.

Only Collins would have me yelling at characters in a book!

Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

I love reading reviews on Collins's work. The only novels of his I am familiar with is The Woman in White and The Moonstone--I have only read the former. I do want to read more of his works though so I definitely keep an eye out for reviews of his books.