“Good heavens, what business has she with a conscience, after such a life as hers has been!”
The story begins in 1832, with the dying Allan Armadale’s written confession to his son, a confession of murder, but also an entreaty to stay away from the son of the man he had killed, and/or from a certain servant girl.
Years have passed. Unknown to both of them, the son of the murdered and the son of the murderer accidentally meet and become fast friends. When the former inherits and estate, he even insists that his friend come live with him and be his stewart. The friend, who lives under the assumed name Ozias Midwinter, by now knows the back history — what his father did, and what his last request was, but despite it he cannot tear himself away from the one he sees as his saviour in his time of need.
And then the servant girl, now grown-up, shows up with a thirst for money and revenge. She is so very beautiful that everyone falls in love with her, Ozias included, so at first it seems her plan simply cannot fail. But then…
The book has five parts, but to me it felt like it could be better split into three: “Life before Lydia”, “Lydia’s first plan”, “Lydia’s second plan”. Each of these was for me more interesting than the one before: the first one, where we meet the Allan Armadales, felt to me like simple exposition, even though it has taken about 40% of the book or more. After Lydia first showed up, I thought the story picked up, as I was intrigued about her schemes and was looking forward to see someone thwart her. Then, sometime between parts two and three, Lydia became the narrator and I started caring for her. She then risked everything to set her second plan in motion and by then I couldn’t put the book down :)
As an aside, the one thing I wasn’t very fond of was the foreshadowing dream that Allan had. Ozias was almost obsessed with it, and I grew a bit tired to hear it mentioned over and over again. This being said I liked how the author has offered both a perfectly reasonable explanation (my favorite kind, the one involving elements encountered in the dreamer’s real life), and a superstitious/supernatural one, leaving it up to the reader to choose the one to believe in.
There are no less than four characters named Allan Armadale in this novel (two fathers and two sons). While there are a bunch of improbable coincidences in the book, I liked that this particular detail had a very logical explanation: one of the original Armadales was born with the name, but was disinherited and the other one inherited the family fortune, on the condition to also adopt the name. And then each of these two had a son who shared the father’s name, and voila, there are four :)1
One thing I can say with absolute certainty after reading this book: Mr. Collins can write very compelling villains. Up until now I have admired him for giving life to Count Fosco, the eccentric evil genius always surrounded by small animals and with a weakness for his truly capable foe. With Fosco, one of course cannot but want him to fail, while at the same time admiring his resourcefulness. With the villain in Armadale however, Mr. Collins has outdone himself. The red-haired Lydia Gwilt is both a terrible villain and a hapless victim (of society, of circumstances, of other people). While I knew I should dislike her and want her to fail, I couldn’t help feeling compassion for her, and almost, almost wanted her to succeed. I did like her more than both Allan Armadales, and, while of course one cannot approve of her schemes, I would have rather sacrificed them than her (although of course that would have been unthinkable in a Victorian novel). If that is not the mark of a well-written villain I really don’t know what is2.
I do not mean, of course, that I fully approve Lydia’s choices. Her life to date has been anything but easy (not only she has never known her parents, she only has a vague idea of her origins), and the environments she lived in have all been rather on the wrong side of the law. Now, she clearly doesn’t possess a strong moral fiber, as her first misdeed (forging her mistress’ letters) has taken place when she was just a child — or perhaps she just didn’t know better at the time? — but her life has not offered a real opportunity for redemption either. Not even when she marries Midwinter and thinks she will give up her schemes does she find happiness at last. I was rooting for her (despite the fact that, since she was the villain, it was obvious that she will re-take her plan sooner or later), but sadly her new husband started neglecting her, and she ended up unhappy again. A thing that in turn made her let her temper loose and try to kill Allan not once but three times. And I was sorry to see that (and by now I sort of disliked Midwinter for treating her so coldly).
Speaking of Midwinter, he’s an interesting character too. His early life has been just a tad easier than Lydia’s (at least he knows who his parents are, or were, as his father is dead), but only just barely. He has spent some of his childhood travelling through villages together with an old Gypsy and a pair of circus dogs. After the Gypsy died and the dogs were lost (one shot, one stolen), little Midwinter has been able to find all sorts of menial jobs, in places where he was not treated kindly. Unlike Lydia however, Midwinter’s moral compass is strong, and keeps pointing in the right direction regardless of other temptations. This becomes even more obvious after he meets Allan, whom Midwinter sees as his savior because he’s the first person who has ever treated him well. I liked that about Midwinter, his loyalty, his selflessness when his friend was involved. What I was less than crazy about was his insistence of believing in supernatural, and in the Dream (although to be fair those things really did seem to have come true, so no wonder his nerves were shaken when it came to that). Other than that however, he was a perfectly fine character. If only his feelings for Lynda hadn’t changed…
Allan is… a piece of fluff. He had grown up sheltered by her mother and his tutor, and as such I believe he doesn’t have a fully correct idea of the world. He is however a guy with a huge heart (as seen in the very first moment of his acquaintance with Midwinter), though he is very much lacking social skills or any kind of refinement. This last is most obvious whenever he sits down to write a letter, as his manner is rather brusque and he rarely stops to consider things. His letters are always terse, and he’s actually proud of this skill he thinks he has — always being able to churn out letters in the blink of an eye. He is not very bright, as evidenced in a very funny scene where he and his beloved Neelie are trying to make sense of the marriage law, but he is nice and generally likable (at least until the last pages, where the POV changes to Lydia’s and she finds him dreadfully aggravating).
My favorite characters where actually some of the secondary cast ones — the lawyers, Misters Pedgift Senior and Junior. At a time when Lydia Gwilt’s beauty fooled people left and right (basically every man in her path falls in love with her, with the exception of Neelie’s father, who was probably too attached to his clock), Pedgift Senior is the only one who realizes there’s more to her than what it seems, and that she’s actually planning some mischief. Sadly, this attitude of his sets him at odds with Allan (who insists in acting like he thinks a gentleman is obliged to, even as he knows that the old lawyer is right) and so Mr. Pedgift resigns his position and leaves the pages of the book until the epilogue. Too bad, I thought; he would have been a worthy adversary.
Thoughts on the ending
Well, it was only to be expected I guess.
A few quotes that I liked
The book opens in Germany, with the inhabitants of a small city are expecting two English visitors to arrive. They cannot pronounce either of their names, so they refer to each of them by the number of the letters:
“His excellency of the eight letters writes to me (by his servant) in French; his excellency of the four letters writes to me in German.”
An observation of the author’s:
“[T]he way that leads to reformation is remarkably ill-lighted for so respectable a thoroughfare.”
Advice to Lydia from her partner in crime:
“Don’t encourage poetical feelings by looking at the stars; and don’t talk about the night being awfully quiet. There are people (in observatories) paid to look at the stars for you; leave it to them. And as for the night, do what Providence intended you to do with the night when Providence provided you with eyelids–go to sleep in it.”
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- actually, now that I think about it, there may have been five, as the father of the original Allan Armadale may have been named Allan A. too [↩]
- it is perhaps worth noting that the critics of the day do not share my opinion, as one has called her “a woman fouler than the refuse of the streets” and another “one of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction“ [↩]