“The only hope I have left for you hangs on a great doubt - the doubt whether we are, or are not, the masters of our own destinies. It may be that mortal free-will can conquer mortal fate; and that going, as we all do, inevitably to death, we go inevitably to nothing that is before death.” ― Wilkie Collins, Armadale
In 1832, Allan Armadale confesses on his deathbed to murder: his clerk, Fergus Ingleby, stole his name and married Jane Blanchard, the woman Allan loved. Pursuing the couple on board a ship, Allan locked Fergus in a cabin and left him to drown when the ship was wrecked. Allan later travelled to the West Indies where he married a creole woman and had a son.
After this opening the story moves to 1851, and the murderer’s son has adopted the name Ozias Midwinter, while the drowned Fergus Ingleby’s has been brought up under the name Allan Armadale – and with it, has inherited Fergus’ property, the estate of Thorpe Ambrose. Ozias learns the truth about his father’s crime – that he murdered his friend’s father – while on a sailing trip with Fergus and Jane’s son, Allan Armadale. He destroys the letter containing Allan Armadale Senior’s confession, and vows to keep the secret from his friend.
Lydia Gwilt, the former maid to Jane Blanchard (Allan’s father), sets her sights on marrying Allan for his money. Both Ozias Midwinter and Allan Armadale end up falling for Lydia, but her plan to marry Armadale is scuppered when her cynical motives are uncovered. However the resourceful Lydia, having learned the secret that Midwinter’s real name is also Allan Armadale, plans to marry him under his real name, get the other Allan Armadale out of the way, and then use the marriage certificate as legal proof of her entitlement to the Armadale estate. This complex plot continues as Lydia marries Midwinter, concealing her checkered past from him but the denouement will have to await your reading pleasure for this reader must vow not to spoil that delight.
Armadale is unusual among Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels because it demonstrates a detailed interest in human psychology, with dreams cropping up at numerous points in the novel, and Collins taking time to explore what John Sutherland, in The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, calls ‘the psychology of crime’. Granted, the dreams are used as plot devices rather than as a sort of proto-stream-of-consciousness designed to shed light on Allan Armadale’s character; but Collins’s use of the dreams, and Midwinter’s analysis of their significance as premonitions, adds another psychological layer to this complex novel. The real triumph of Armadale is Collins’s portrayal of Lydia Gwilt, whose surname suggests ‘guilt’ (and ‘gilt’, evoking her gold-digging ambitions), but also, through a twist, ‘will’, foregrounding her own independent agency and, it must be said, her perseverance and cunning. This is a great read which I would recommend to lovers of Dickens or Thackeray.