Wilkie Collins’ Armadale is the most recent addition to my mental list of favorite books. I read it for the first time in college, in my first Victorian literature class. I think my obsession with the British Victorians is so strong because of how recognizable they are. They’re so much like us! Just the way we are now! Only trapped in a completely different world. I find it hard to think that way about people from other periods of the past. I read these books and think of the Victorians, at the peak of their country’s empire, in a world changing so rapidly that many felt forced to cling to worn-out class and gender roles just to have some sense of who they were. And I think of the United States as it is now, with the glimmer of the end of its empire on the horizon, and how we are so caught up in what role religion should play in politics, preserving the “sanctity” of marriage and the nuclear family, and how we still seem to be confused about what role women should play in families and whether women should even have the right to say no to having a family.
These were all issues in Victorian England as well, in a slightly altered context. The difference is that the struggle against prevailing norms and expectations had a smaller scope for expression then than it does now. One of the few acceptable modes of expression was the novel, and I love Wilkie Collins for his sustained dedication, over the course of his oeuvre, to holding up outcasts and transgressors as protagonists and even as sympathetic villains. This last he does particularly well in Armadale.
Here’s the review I posted on my Goodreads page:
I’m going to start this review with a seemingly random quote from “The Simpsons.” Milhouse, Bart’s best friend, is listing the many mean pranks Bart has played on him over the years. One such prank involved lying to Milhouse after Bart’s dog eats his goldfish. Bart tries to convince Milhouse that he never had a goldfish to begin with. To this, Milhouse replies, “But then why did I have the bowl, Bart? WHY DID I HAVE THE BOWL?”
Critics of the time protested that Armadale’s Lydia Gwilt was unwomanly, unrealistic, and too wicked to be English. However, Collins took his accounts of (the fictional) Lydia’s doings from real articles in newspapers of the time. If it was impossible for any English woman to be jealous, murderous, bigamous, deceptive, intelligent, and sympathetic all at the same time, then WHY DID I HAVE THE BOWL?
Having said all this, the book kicks ass. There are five people in it named Allan Armadale. One of those Allan Armadales goes by the alias of– get this– Ozias Midwinter. There is a sexy lady villain named Lydia Gwilt, who is a bigamist, murderer, and drug addict. There are prophetic dreams and cryptic warnings. If you want to put on your Intellectual Hat (mine is a gray tweed fedora), there are “scathing indictments” of Victorian society and morals. I can’t think of anything else to say to make you read this book.