Monday, May 14, 2007

Armadale: a review

I've finally finished another Chunkster! Armadale is the most enjoyable Collins I've read so far. The story flings itself along, full of action and suspense. The theme is one of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons. Two Allan Armadales have two sons - both also named Allan Armadale. Deception, betrayal and murder between the fathers leads to a warning to one son never to associate with his namesake for fear of terrible things occuring. Despite this warning , the younger Allans meet by chance, and continue on with their friendship, although the poorer & forewarned Allan has by now taken the name of Ozias Midwinter.

Much drama ensues: Allan unexpectedly comes into a fortune, falls in love with his young neighbour Miss Milroy, and yet is distracted from his attentions through the interference of her very attractive governess, Miss Gwilt. Midwinter falls in love with Miss Gwilt himself, and marries her, with her secret ambition being to kill off both Armadales and pose as Allan's widow to inherit his fortune.

All of these ups and downs are told through straightforward narrative as well as Collins' favoured devices of letters and diary entries. The action stays strong for the entirety of this lengthy novel, and I could not guess how he was going to conclude it until a few pages from the end -- it could have gone a number of ways, and his skillful setup made any of them equally likely. I loved this book for the cleverness of the story, yet also as much for the wonderful characters. The two Allans are very different, but become close friends, like brothers to one another. Ozias Midwinter (here Collins almost reaches Dickens' genius of nomenclature) is a fascinating, complex individual who I was eager to learn more about.

But the star of this story, for me, is Miss Lydia Gwilt. This woman has been led down the wrong path since childhood, when she was implicated in the trouble between the two original Armadales. As a grown woman, she is now angling to destroy the younger Armadales as well, who are ignorant of her connection to them. She is a marvellous character, described as startlingly beautiful - masses of red hair, clear pale skin, enormous personal charm (even at the advanced age of 35!) - and utterly ruthless. She quite logically and calmly comes up with her plan to murder both Allans so that she will come off the winner, and she is so fully described and presented that I wasn't quite certain whether I should be siding with the Allans or with this cold murderess. Collins gives us her background and her motives, and even if he had first thought of making her the stock Villainess, she seems to have taken over his sympathies. She becomes almost the second narrator of this story, and it is because of this that I was not sure who would prevail in the end. Collins keeps you guessing until the very end, and the pace of the novel keeps you reading. It's just too bad that Collins was constrained by societal expectations in his choice of endings.

I really enjoyed this one.

A very useful quote from this book:
"No is the strongest word in the English language, in the mouth of any man who has the courage to repeat it often enough."

(I think this would be a useful inspirational quote in any political action; though it may not be as inspiring in reference to the toddler you may be dealing with who has taken this as his mantra.)


  1. I've loved The Woman in White and The Moonstone for years. I re-read The Woman in White last fall and found it every bit as entertaining as the first time. I've never read Armadale, however, and now realize that I will have to find time for it.

  2. Jenclair - I have to admit I haven't read The Woman in White yet! But I liked Armadale even more than The Moonstone.

  3. Ah! Armadale is still my favourite Wilkie Collins - over Moonstone and Woman in White. If for nothing else, I love it just for Lydia Gwilt.

    Maybe it's the flaming red-hair, the audacity, tortured, passionate soul. If she was a man, she would be the hero of the book. But alas, she is woman, and so she must be the villainess.

    I hate it that Wilkie Collins was forced to give the "moralistic" ending to Armadale.

  4. Dark Orpheus - yes, that is exactly it; if she was a man she would have prevailed. I think Collins was putting off having her lose out for as long as possible!


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