What a labyrinth you have built for us, Wilkie Collins; and, how deftly you grab the imagination and lead us through it. When we finally reach the end, we are a little rattled by where we've been and blink at how bright the sun is. Armadale is an experience.
For a Wilkie Collins book Armadale is hefty. His longest novel, it is also one of the most intricately woven and complex. For all that, it was not well received when first published. Most critics hated it, and it was not enthusiastically accepted by the reading public. Certainly, it shocked the morality of the day dabbling as it did in murder, revenge, drug addiction, lust (for both love and money), and wives who tend to poison their husbands. But old taboos give way, and what was once considered mere melodrama - at its worse - is now viewed with a more favorable eye.
The book begins in Switzerland, where a dying Allan Armadale lays in a hotel room desiring to bare his soul. The only other person in the small town who speaks English is another guest in the hotel...a stranger who agrees to pen the confession. After extracting a promise that the document would be sealed and put in the hands of his lawyer, who would in turn reveal the contents only to Armadale's son when he became of age, he anxiously began to reveal his terrible secret.
How can I explain the background of this novel? First, you must understand there are really four Allan Armadales. Their history, and keeping it straight, was one of the pitfalls I encountered in the early part of the novel, and is why I had to keep going back to re-read sections of the book. Well, hang on...here goes.
The first Armadale we meet, i.e. the dying Armadale, had a godfather who possessed a vast fortune. Godfather Armadale had a son named Allan, who he disinherited for being a veritible lout. When godfather Armadale died, he left his considerable fortune to his godson, with the stipulation that he change his name to Allan Armadale. The disinherited Allan Armadale disappears, godson changes his name, and confusion beings.
After taking possession of his inheritance, Allan Armadale falls in love with the portrait of Jane Blancard, the daughter of family friends living in Madeira, and is determined to marry her. They exchange letters and promises. However, just before he is to board a ship to Madeira, Allan becomes mysteriously and deathly ill, having had been poisoned by his clerk, known to Allan as Fergus Ingleby. Ingleby takes Armadale's place on board the ship bound for Madeira. Of course, I am certain you can figure out who Fergus Ingleby really is, and you are right. He is none other than the disinherited Allan Armadale, who was determined to seek revenge for the loss of his inheritance.
Once the wealthy Allan Armadale is well enough to travel, he wastes no time sailing for Madeira to collect his bride, only to find upon his arrival that Jane had married Ingleby, under his true name of Allan Armadale, and was fleeing on a timber ship called - a bit ironically - Le Grace de Dieu. Ingleby has informed Jane of his true identity, but she is in love, so it doesn't matter. However, knowing her father would disinherit her if he learned the true identity of Ingleby-Armadale, Jane seeks the assistance of her young maid, Lydia Gwilt, to forge a letter in the handwriting of the wealthy Armadale, thereby keeping her father ignorant of the facts.
Learning the young couple was preparing to set sail from Madeira, wealthy Armadale signs on for the journey disguised as a crew member. He goes unnoticed by Jane and her husband. He has every intention of doing harm to the impostor who robbed him of his bride. And so, he plots. Fate intervenes (as it does continually throughout the novel) and a hurricane scuttles the ship. Allan saves Jane, but follows Ingleby-Armadale below deck. And as Le Grace de Dieu takes on water, Armadale confronts his rival and locks the door of the cabin where Ingleby is standing, leaving him to drown in panic.
Although she cannot prove Allan is responsible for her husband's death, her heart is lost to him forever in any event. Allan travels to Trinidad, guilt his all-consuming and constant companion. There he marries a half-cast woman, who endeavors (unsuccessfully) to provide him with love, and does (successfully) provide him with a son, which she named Allan Armadale. But Armadale lives with a haunted conscience that depletes his life of any happiness.
Flash forward to Allan Armadale now dying in Switzerland. He had only recently discovered that Jane Blanchard was pregnant when her husband drowned, and had given birth to a son who was one year older than his own son, and who she named, obviously, Allan Armadale. (By the way, that Allan Armadale inherits a vast fortune from the Blancard side of his family tree, whereas the dying Armadale's son will grow up poor and orphaned). Superstitious, and afraid that the inevitable conclusion to his crime was evil stalking his son, he dictates his shocking confession and includes the proviso that the young man never cross paths with anyone involved with the events disclosed in the document. The novel is unrelenting in its fatalistic approach, so it is inevitable that the young Armadale will cross paths with everyone involved.
So far, my narrative has covered only the background story which populates the first one-fourth of the novel. If you can believe it, the plot only thickens.
Fatally intertwined with all four Allan Armadales stands Lydia Gwilt - a beautiful femme-fatale with long, flame-colored hair and porcelain complexion. Gwilt is a forger, an addict, a bigamist and has a bad habit of poisoning her husbands. Despite these flaws in her moral compass - or more likely because of them - she is the most complex and intriguing of all the characters in the book. One contemporary critic called Gwilt "one of the most hardened villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction." Well, perhaps that was true in 1866. Female villains have come a long way since then. She remains, nevertheless, a female character who is the antithesis of a heroine. Her plotting, scheming, murderously cold-heart makes her all the more interesting. Certainly more interesting than the sweet, gentle, almost simple-minded Ms. Milroy who vies with Gwilt for the love and affection of Jane Blanchard's son, Allan Armadale. In fact, there were moments when I felt a sympathetic affection for the unrepentant gold digger. She possessed a lovely wickedness which was the product of a hard life. But if Collins was trying to craft a completely debased and utterly unlikeable personage in Lydia, I think he overplayed his hand. A little too much grief, suffered at too young an age, files down her rough edges just enough to make her redeemable.
And then, of course, there's the other young Allan Armadale...the son of the Allan Armadale who died in Switzerland. Disavowing his real name, he calls himself Ozias Midwinter. If I tell you he and Allan Armadale not only meet but become as close as brothers, or that he also falls in love with Lydia Gwilt, would you be at all surprised?
There are a number of fascinating supporting characters which Collins has drawn with a very fine brush: Gwilt's conniving accomplice in crime Mrs. Oldershaw; the old and pitifully love-starved Mr. Bashwood; the smarmy abortionist-turned-sanatorium director Dr. Downward; the precise and stringently ethical lawyer Mr. Pedgrift. They add depth and flavor to a well-boiled pot.
Armadale was not an easy read...at least not the first 250 pages. The intricate plot requires the reader to stay fully engaged, or be resigned to go back and re-read sections. But, just as going up an incline takes more muscle than going down the other side, the last third of Armadale picks up pace enormously and the reader has to hold on to his (or her) hat as it spirals to a suspense-filled conclusion.
I admit, the plot in Armadale relies on frank melodrama and unbelievable coincidence. It requires the reader to place some faith in a supernatural engine that drives the train of the story. But the ride is splendid, the passengers are fascinating, and the journey, though a bit long, is never tedious.