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Armadale, Page 2

Wilkie Collins

  Collins has his primary fame in literary history as the ‘inventor’ of detective fiction, particularly on the strength of his next work, The Moonstone (1868) – the first fully formed roman-policier in English. Fiction’s love-affair with detection can be traced back to Oedipus and his fatally rigorous investigations into who murdered Laius. But as a genre with its well-defined rules and conventions, the detective novel pioneered by Wilkie Collins was formed by three main influences: the memoirs of the French detective E. F. Vidocq (and the imitations produced by bandwagon-following Scotland Yard detectives); the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act which legitimized divorce on the production of the necessary ‘evidence’ (for which an army of private detectives was recruited); and the growing sophistication of criminals which in turn demanded a cleverer police force. Criminals, as Collins declared through the grandiose conception of Count Fosco in The Woman in White, were becoming very clever indeed – so clever that the old Dogberries and flatfoots of the traditional British law had no hope of catching them. What was needed was a new brand of criminal investigator – as resourceful and intelligent as the new artists in crime.

  There are three kinds of detective encountered in Collins’s fiction. First (and most prominent in the novels from The Woman in White to Armadale) are the amateur sleuths – intrepid individuals like Walter Hartright, Marian Halcombe, or the Reverend Decimus Brock who dedicate themselves to uncovering crime (Brock, even at death’s door, is prepared to risk his professional reputation by trailing beautiful women round the streets of London). A second category – which only makes its appearance with Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone – is the CID officer, the professional detective (oddly, not a single police officer, of any kind, appears at any point in Armadale). The last category is the private investigator (or ‘confidential agent’). These ‘spies’ nauseated Collins, particularly at the time of writing Armadale – where the ‘private eye’ is represented by the obnoxious James Bashwood, with his army of hired snoopers. In the seventeenth number there is a denunciation of the private detective, whose rhetoric casts the genus into an even deeper pit of moral distaste than husband-poisoners like Miss Gwilt:

  No ordinary observation, applying the ordinary rules of analysis, would have detected the character of Bashwood the younger in his face. His youthful look, aided by his light hair, and his plump beardless cheeks; his easy manner, and his ever ready smile; his eyes which met unshrinkingly the eyes of every one whom he addressed, all combined to make the impression of him a favourable impression in the general mind. No eye for reading character, but such an eye as belongs to one person, perhaps, in ten thousand, could have penetrated the smoothly-deceptive surface of this man, and have seen him for what he really was – the vile creature whom the viler need of Society has fashioned for its own use. There he sat – the Confidential Spy of modern times, whose business is steadily enlarging, whose Private Inquiry Offices are steadily on the increase. There he sat – the necessary Detective attendant on the progress of our national civilization; a man who was in this instance at least, the legitimate and intelligible product of the vocation that employed him; a man professionally ready on the merest suspicion (if the merest suspicion paid him) to get under our beds, and to look through gimlet-holes in our doors, (pp. 516–17)

  So much for Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Magnum PI. Why is Collins so angry? Because he despised the divorce work which had brought these professional Peeping Toms into being after 1857. Collins’s distaste was not impersonal: his own sexual life was highly irregular (he had two live-in mistresses in the 1860s, one of whom had a husband in the background). He was a fornicator, an adulterer and (probably) a consorter with ladies of the night. He was certainly sympathetic with Dickens who, in his fifties, had abandoned his wife and taken up with a young actress in her twenties, Ellen Ternan. Both novelists were probably targets of gimlet-boring peepers like James Bashwood – or feared they might be with all the hideous publicity that would ensue. In the event, Collins covered his tracks remarkably efficiently (as did Dickens) and – despite a huge expenditure of biographical effort – little is known of his secret life. But there certainly was an area of his life that he was determined to keep out of the public gaze.

  Armadale depicts a world saturated in espionage. During the central section of the narrative Allan has set a man to spy on Lydia, who on her part is eavesdropping on Allan’s love conversations with Miss Milroy in Thorpe-Ambrose Park. Meanwhile, bedridden Mrs Milroy has bribed her nurse to steam open her governess’s letters. Lydia, on another front, has persuaded the love-besotted Felix Bashwood to spy on his employer, Allan, and report back to her. Bashwood has his son, James, investigate Miss Gwilt and report back to him (he feebly hopes to blackmail her into marriage). Bashwood has stationed men and women all round the capital. Pedgift is elsewhere investigating the mysterious Maria Older-shaw and her London aliases. Even Brock (the most easily deluded of these spies) is following suspicious women round the streets of London. It is, as Catherine Peters puts it, ‘a nightmare world, in which even thoughts cease to be private, a picture of English society as a claustrophobic prison’.9

  It is sometimes claimed that Collins is at his best with minor characters. Armadale certainly has a full cast of memorable ficelles and vignettes: the eccentric clockmaker Major Milroy (a variation on Dickens’s maniac hobbyist Monsieur Manette); the ‘no fool like an old fool’, Felix Bashwood, parading like some seedy peacock in his finery to catch the eye of the deadly woman he loves (it is hard not to think that aspects of the Dickens–Ternan affair did not cross Collins’s mind in this subplot); the garrulous gardener Abel Sage, who briefly and hilariously lightens the gloomy world of Thorpe-Ambrose, as does the ineffably wet Reverend Pentecost, who proves himself capable of getting seasick on a Norfolk Broad. The Pedgifts, father and son, are among Collins’s finest lawyer creations – men so thoroughly conditioned by their profession that one suspects they have ink not blood in their veins.

  For all this wealth of incidental characterization (it is a very populous novel), Armadale is dominated by its three Napoleons of crime: Dr Downward – the ladies’ doctor who specializes in sinister anti-hysteria treatments; the painter of women, Maria Oldershaw (Collins has a misogynistic hatred of cosmetic art, associating it with moral corruption); and the Luciferian Lydia Gwilt. Each is a powerful creation, but as he tinkered with the plot in later life for stage adaptations, Wilkie distilled his creation down to a single portrait – ‘Miss Gwilt’. The apotheosis of Lydia was logical. She is an extraordinarily complex creation. As allusions suggest, Lady Macbeth was in Collins’s mind. Lydia’s closer literary pedigree is easily traced. The good and bad governess had been stock types in the English novel for a quarter of a century. The dualism was set up by Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp (gold-digger seductress, adulteress, adventuress, whore, poisoner) and – on the other side – plucky little Jane Eyre and her virtuous Brontean colleagues, Agnes Grey and Lucy Snowe.

  The governess type changed melodramatically in the 1860s with three highly successful novels that twisted the characterization in start-lingly new ways, blending good and bad inextricably. In Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne (1861) the guilty wife, Isabel Vane (vain by nature as well as name), pays the price of her adulteries by losing her beauty in a catastrophic train crash. She returns – a shattered but chastened woman – to become the unrecognized governess (‘Madame Vine’) to the children she earlier abandoned. (One dies without knowing who she is, provoking the immortal ‘dead! dead! and never called me mother!’) In Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) the governess Lucy Graham – a stunning Pre-Raphaelite beauty – catches the eye of rich old Sir Michael Audley of Audley Court. He marries and ennobles her. But there is a secret in Lucy’s past. A husband returns; she murderously pushes him down a well. Tracked down by a resourceful private detective (whom she attempts to kill by arson) Lady Audley is finally unmasked as the uxoricidal bigamist she is. She goes mad, and dies. In Joseph Le Fanu’s intr
icately plotted Uncle Silas (1864), the horrific French governess Madame de la Rougierre specializes in killing her sleeping victims (a spiked hammer figures in the bloody climax). Wilkie Collins had himself complicated the stereotype with his sexually ambiguous Marian Halcombe – the resolute and ‘manly’ young governess who takes and vanquishes Count Fosco (winning his corrupt Italianate heart in the process).

  This was fiction. Real life (as reflected in the newspapers) was dominated by another sexually ambiguous image – that of the domestic poisoner: the woman (bound by oath to love, honour, cherish and obey) who slips packets of arsenic into her unsuspecting husband’s food and drink. ‘There is probably no form of guilt’, the Annual Register wrote in 1862, ‘that strikes the mind of society with a deeper sense of disgust than that of secret poisoning’.10 Poisoning by women, it principally meant. There was an epidemic of such crimes in the middle of the nineteenth century, as Mary Hartman records in Victorian Murderesses.11 And there was the ineradicable suspicion (bolstered by the acquittal of clearly guilty women like Madeleine Smith in 1857) that innumerable other cases were never detected by the authorities.

  There had been a whole series of highly publicized spousal poisonings in the 1850s. Sarah Chesham in 1851 (the year in which Armadale is set) was tried for no fewer than three murders before the law caught up with her. On being sentenced to hang she betrayed no emotion to watching eyes and ‘walked with a firm step from the dock’ to execution – a fate she met with equal impassivity. Constance Wilson, another career poisoner who was executed in 1862, was similarly inscrutable. She heard her sentence with ‘an air of callous indifference’ and was hanged at Newgate on 20 October 1862, before a crowd of 20,000 onlookers. What, most of them must have wondered, motivated this fiend in woman’s shape? Many of those 20,000 spectators must have brought the same question to Armadale a few months later. Collins set out to give them an answer in his depiction of Lydia Gwilt, a mass poisoner seen from the inside.12

  As Collins portrays her (and as she portrays herself in her journal) Miss Gwilt is an enigmatic figure. Her career has to be assembled from indirect (and occasionally deceptive) comments in the narrative, corroborated against James Bashwood’s detective testimony (but even he, indefatigable though he is, cannot penetrate all her mysteries). It seems that Lydia Gwilt (strange name) came from nowhere. The first record we have is of her being the foster-child of Mrs Oldershaw (Mother Jezebel), in the early days when she and her apothecary husband sold potions from a horse and cart. The Oldershaws claim – wholly unconvincingly – to be Lydia’s uncle and aunt. Until the age of eight Lydia was supported by payments, which then mysteriously stopped. She may be the daughter of a count, or a streetwalker, or both. She has a magnificent head of red hair (as Richard Altick reminds us, this colour of hair was profoundly disturbing to Victorians, see Book the Third, Chapter X, note 3). At twelve, Lydia catches the eye of rich young Jane Blanchard, who captiously decides she wants the flame-haired child as her maid. In the easygoing and morally lax Thorpe-Ambrose household Lydia is ‘petted and made a plaything’. In an ingenious but unconvincing turn of plot, the pre-pubescent Lydia (‘barely twelve years old’) is persuaded by the most amoral of the novel’s Allan Armadales (alias Ingleby) to forge a letter. The pretext is that he does not have Lydia’s ‘wicked dexterity’ with the pen – but the real reason must be that forgery in 1832 is a capital offence, and Armadale-Ingleby is no fool. Reading between the lines, we assume that he sexually seduced the young maid. How else explain the curses heaped on her by the paternal Allan Armadale, as he lies dying. She is a more than leprous thing: ‘I saw the girl afterwards – and my blood curdled at the sight of her. If she is alive now, woe to the people who trust her! No creature more innately deceitful and more innately pitiless ever walked this earth’ (p. 34–5). (This, remind ourselves, is a twelve-year-old girl who did nothing more than imitate one adult’s handwriting at the instigation of another adult.)

  After the bloody consequence of her forgery, Lydia is bundled off to France. She is pensioned on condition that she never return to England. ‘Unpleasantness’ follows wherever she goes. A respectably married music teacher attempts suicide and goes mad. The still under-age Lydia has, apparently, seduced and ruined him. To protect the male sex, the young she-devil is confined to a religious establishment. Extreme in all things, she decides to take the veil. Better for the male sex had Lydia Gwilt been mewed up, as in earlier days. The nineteenth-century convent cannot reform or hold her, and Lydia Gwilt – now a dangerous woman – is loosed on the world to do her mischief. Already she has had an eventful enough life to fill several novels (some of them unpublishable in nineteenth-century England).

  Lydia has only her red hair, her beauty, her musical talent and her unscrupulosity with which to make her way. Ever resourceful, she becomes a pianist in a ‘low concert room in Brussels’ where she is taken up by a Baroness who needs a beautiful young woman as bait for her card-sharping business. Five years pass. In Naples, Lydia entraps one of the Baroness’s dupes, a rich young Englishman, into marriage. She returns to his home on the Yorkshire moors as a respectable lady, Mrs Waldron. But, corrupt to the core, she takes a Cuban lover – the magnificently disreputable Captain Manuel. Her cuckolded husband beats her with a horse whip; in return she poisons him. At this stage still inexpert in the murderer’s skills she is apprehended, convicted, and – after furious (and sentimentally wrong-headed) protest from the papers – pardoned by the Home Secretary (for Collins’s allusions to current events here, see Book the Fourth, Chapter XV, note 6). Spared the rope, Lydia is none the less obliged to serve two years in prison for theft. On her release, she makes an irregular ‘Scotch marriage’ with Manuel. But since he is already married, as she later discovers, the union is void. She blackmails her old employer, Mrs Armadale née Blanchard, and is in turn robbed and abandoned by the faithless Manuel. At this low point in her life she attempts a very public suicide, and in so doing sets off the series of deaths (but not her own) that lead to blue-eyed Allan Armadale inheriting Thorpe-Ambrose. The stage is set for the events of May to December 1851 which make up the body of the narrative.

  However carefully we read Armadale, there remain tantalizing gaps in Lydia’s history. Who were her parents? Did Collins keep this in reserve, and never get round to filling in the missing information? When – veiled, and with her distinctive red Paisley shawl flying – she threw herself from the first-class deck of the Thames steamer did she know that Arthur Blanchard, heir to Thorpe-Ambrose, was on board the vessel? Was it an attempt to lure him into a marriage trap, as she had other men? Or was she genuinely bent on self-destruction? At many points in the novel Lydia is baffling to the reader. She is also baffling to herself. Why, she wonders (as the reader might well wonder), does she keep a journal – something that may send her to the gallows:

  Why do I keep a diary at all? Why did the clever thief the other day (in the English newspapers) keep the very thing to convict him, in the shape of a record of every thing he stole? Why are we not perfectly reasonable in all that we do? Why am I not always on my guard and never inconsistent with myself, like a wicked character in a novel? Why? why? why? (p. 559)

  Lydia is similarly perplexed by her uncontrollable love for her victim, Midwinter. At other points in the narrative, she actually fears herself and wishes that – to spare the human race – she might be locked up. Why, she wonders, does she so hate Allan? Or does she hate him? Is it love gone wrong that makes her so vindictive? Do women love the men they poison? The ‘Why? why? why?’ is never satisfactorily answered.

  Lydia’s inability to fathom her own motives, her irrationalism and her fatal inability to control her temper (the typical weakness of redheads) leads her to commit a string of blunders – leaving her employment at Thorpe-Ambrose in a tantrum of rage against Neelie, for instance. Banished from the household, she has no hope of entrapping Allan in marriage. Steeping herself in laudanum is another inexplicable stupidity in one so calculating. Her strange
refusal to shed her name for the purpose of disguise, which leads her into the absurdity of pretending to be ‘the other Miss Gwilt’, is bizarre. One of the most interesting and experimental sections of the novel is that in which Collins offers us a double perspective on the same crucial days in late July 1851: in the form of Lydia’s confidential (but actually very guarded) letters to Mother Jezebel, and in the form of her more candid journal entries for the same days. But even with this binocular insight, Lydia remains invincibly mysterious.

  The reviewers of Armadale hated Lydia Gwilt, and she was probably one of the reasons for the novel selling badly when it came out in volume form in May 1866. Mrs Oliphant (an inveterate foe to sensation fiction) had complained that in Gollins’s previous novel, No Name, the criminal heroine had been allowed to live. Collins would not make that mistake in Armadale (and his epigraph on the title page made it clear that Miss Gwilt was not to profit from her wrongdoing). None the less, his critics were unmollified. The Spectator foamed with rage at a novel which ‘gives us for its heroine a woman fouler than the refuse of the streets’. Collins had overstepped the limits of decency and ‘revolted every human sentiment’. This reviewer and others were particularly indignant that Lydia remained beautiful to the end – despite her evil ways. She would have been acceptable if, like Isabel Vane in East Lynne, she had been providentially disfigured (perhaps a rotted nose, or loss of teeth, or premature whitening of her red hair would have sufficed). In the Athenaeum, Collins’s erstwhile friend Henry Chorley was, if anything, even more apoplectic in his denunciation of Lydia: ‘one of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened literature’. Wilkie, one suspects, was unrepentant (although he would doubtless have liked good sales). And most modern readers will have a more generous and thoughtful reaction to the fascinating Miss Gwilt than the affronted moral guardians of 1866.