Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Wilkie Collins, Armadale (1866)

Good lord is this novel ever a hot mess.  Hotter or messier you are unlikely to find.  Intermittently fascinating, too, but it's just bizarre that the sophisticated plotting of The Woman in White and No Name should suddenly give way to this kind of sloppiness.

It opens with a bang, at any rate: a tale of passion, betrayal, and murder on the high seas, desperately told by a dying man!  No arguing with that.  However, it's only the prologue.  Fast forward eighteen years, and we have two protagonists: Allan Armadale, the son of the murdered man, and Other Allan Armadale, the son of the murderer, who goes by the assumed name of Ozias Midwinter (various characters comment on what a hideous name it supposedly is, but I think it's pretty badass).  The two become friends, the only sticking point being that Midwinter is frantic, for somewhat dubious reasons, that Allan not learn his True Identity.  

Through an unlikely series of events, it so happens that Allan inherits a large estate and becomes rich.  He falls in love with a girl, Miss Millroy, who lives with her parents in a cottage on said estate.  But danger looms: a woman who had been tangentially involved in the affair between Armadale's and Midwinter's fathers, Lydia Gwilt, considering herself (with some justification) to have been wronged, is determined to marry Allan to get access to his fortune (so in that sense, it's a sort of reverse No Name; there, the protagonist was trying to do something of that nature; here, it's the antagonist).

So that sounds pretty straightforward, right?  Well, it isn't.  The problem is, the novel is constantly veering off in different directions, such that it's very difficult to get a grip on the damn thing.  Is it about Midwinter's secret?  Yes it is, and it's also about this dream that Allan has that supposedly has prophetic power in some vague way, oh wait, it's really about Miss Gwilt's machinations, wait, no, it's actually about Mrs. Millroy's insane belief that Miss Gwilt is trying to seduce her husband and her efforts to stop him, oh no never mind, now Miss Gwilt is going to marry Midwinter and oh also here are these two lawyers, Pedgifts Sr and Jr, who are fairly extensively characterized but don't do all that much and they displace Allan's estate's previous lawyer which seems like a conflict but then never is and also here's this pathetic Mr. Bashwood, an old man in love with Miss Gwilt and GAH.  Even by Victorian standards, this is a bloated novel (it's the first Collins I've read that tops eight hundred pages), and it never really achieves the kind of focus that I think it needs.  The final chapter is genuinely suspenseful, but beyond that, not really so much.  When I was reading No Name, I would frequently finish a chapter and mentally insert a dramatic chipmunk; here, that rarely seemed necessary.

It also really doesn't help that the novel lacks strong characters.  Allan is relentlessly good-humored, totally ingenuous, and, let's face it, kind of dumb.  He's basically an uninvolving cartoon character, and though he becomes a bit less of a caricature as the novel progresses, he never exactly becomes someone to really care about, and the less said about his barely-detailed romance with Miss Millroy the better.  Meanwhile, Midwinter may be smarter, but his frantic concern that his friend never learn The Terrible Truth is far out of proportion, and it's only exacerbated after Allan has the above-mentioned dream.  His character, too, improves somewhat, but again, not really enough.  It is sort of interesting the way, from a contemporary perspective, the two of them look very much like a gay couple.  That's as far as I'll go, though, and it isn't that far.

The most interesting character in the book by a wide margin--and, one could convincingly argue, the protagonist as well as the antagonist--is Lydia Gwilt, a remorseless manipulator who, in spite of initial appearance, is nonetheless prey to fits of genuine sentiment.  Also, addicted to laudanum.  She basically devours the entire back half of the novel; with her around, the other characters look even more attenuated.  Her moral struggles with herself are the most compelling thing here; she's effectively tragic.  One could easily do a feminist reading of the novel with her at the center: she really is who she is due to circumstances forced upon her by society, and the fact that Midwinter, coming from a similarly adverse situation, makes out okay, demonstrates, if demonstration was needed, that there is definitely a gendered aspect to this (and Midwinter himself, for reasons never adequately explained, behaves in a way that leads to her downfall, which kind of makes me hate him, though it may just be due to a clumsy effort on Collins' part to make what he wanted to happen happen).  She's a good character, but not really in the same category as the better characters from The Woman in White and No Name--your Counts Fosco and Captains Wragge.  She's more raw, and ultimately more depressing than exhilarating.  Which may appeal to you more, of course, but for myself, I mostly missed the thrills of the other Collinses I've read.


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