Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review : Armadale by Wilkie Collins (Penguin 2004)

Now listen carefully, I will say this only once...

In Barbados, Allan Armadale disowns his son Allan Armadale and passes his fortune to his cousin Allan Wentmore on condition he takes the surname Armadale. Armadale-Wentmore hires Fergus Ingleby as his clerk, and sails to Madeira where he has been promised his relative Miss Blanchard in marriage - however, Ingleby, who is of course the disowned son Allan Armadale in disguise, has got there first and married Miss Blanchard. Armadale-Ingleby sails for England with Armadale-Wentmore in hot pursuit. Twenty-one years later, and young Allan Armadale is being brought up by his widowed mother in England. He befriends a young man of similar age named Ozias Midwinter - but that is not his real name.

Wilkie Collins is the master of the convoluted plot, but the explication in this novel is of a Byzantine complexity that completely outdoes all others. The above is only for starters - when the devious Lydia Gwilt discovers Ozias' secret, she embarks on a scheme of her own which is even more bewildering, which culminates in a denouement which presages all these films where the baddie has devised a long-drawn out end for the hero, when a quick shot to the temple may have been less elegant but much more practical.

That is not to say this is not a good book - it is. It takes time to develop, but once it gets going it is compelling. In the young Allan Armadale Collins created an engaging if infuriating hero, charming but impetuous, who needs Ozias Midwinter and the Reverend Brock to keep him out of trouble. Armadale has fallen for Eleanor, the daughter of his tenant, Major Milroy. But Lydia Gwilt has her eyes on Allan, has obtained a role as Neelie's Governess, and Jane Eyre she isn't.

Lydia Gwilt is a masterly creation, an attractive lady of dubious background but well-educated, few morals but a talented pianist and much more cultured than the oafish Armadale. She has no compunction in using her looks to influence the men around her, especially the pathetically besotted Bashwood. A creature of pure will, yet she wavers when confronted by the forcefield for good that is Ozias Midwinter. Collins implies that Gwilt's immorality is a product of her ambiguous background, how she was badly treated as a child and as an adult. But Midwinter has an equally ambiguous background and has been equally badly treated, yet is innately good.

This is a deeply subversive novel about the ambiguity of surface appearance, of superficial morality. Few characters are exactly who they appear to be - young Armadale has to be instructed how to behave as a gentleman, the villagers of Thorpe-Ambrose shun him accordingly yet welcome Lydia Gwilt. Mother Oldershaw is superficially respectable and Doctor Downward's sanitorium is reviewed approvingly by his fellow Hampstead residents. Yet interestingly given that the novel was written in the 1860's, Collins makes little of the possibility of any perceived discrepancy between Midwinter's creole skin and his gentle nature.

In the end, the weight of Collins' plot weighs the novel down. That is unfortunate, since the novel contains some of Wilkie Collins' most finely drawn characterisations in Bashwood and Lydia Gwilt, and offers much sharp social satire. He makes a telling critique on the weaknesses of Victorian matrimonial law whilst never failing to entertain. Yet the complex plots of The Woman in White or The Moonstone have a lightness which Armadale lacks and it is this over-earnest explication which keeps it from attaining the heights of the other great Wilkie Collins novels of the 1860s.

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