Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

Photo of Wilkie Collins, probably from 1866, the year of Armadale's publication

[Image source: . Information about the probable date comes from Paul Lewis' excellent site, which includes a chronological list of Collins' many portraits:]

Armadale (1864-1866)

The first thing it came into my head to say about Armadale, I suddenly realized, would utterly deflate the book for someone who hadn’t read it; and this is certainly a book that ought to be read once – which can’t be said of all Collins’ books (see below). And it ought to be read without knowing too much in advance, because (as John Sutherland says in his introduction) manipulation of the reader’s tensions is a principal factor in what the book means.

 [I’m inclined to invite those who have read Armadale to guess what my first thought was.]

In fact I’d now venture it the most interesting of Collins’ books, placing it in front of The Woman in White and The Moonstone. By “now” I’m alluding to the continuously changing way in which nineteenth-century fiction refracts upon us. But one day I might delete these sentences.

This is getting intertextual, but then Armadale is a very intertextual book. Its most central character, Lydia Gwilt, is presented with extraordinary indirectness. She makes no (recognized) appearance at all until the third book, and then we come into contact with her at first through letters. Collins is most reluctant to show her to us in his third person narrative, which is nevertheless increasingly about her. Her very first appearance in the third person (which somewhat paradoxically appears to the reader as the “unmarked case” of presentation), is the climax of Book III Chapter IX:

As he (Allan) came within sight of her face, he stopped in ungovernable astonishment. The sudden revelation of her beauty, as she smiled and looked at him inquiringly, suspended the movement in his limbs and the words on his lips. A vague doubt beset him whether it was the governess, after all.

He roused himself; and, advancing a few paces, mentioned his name. ‘May I ask,’ he added, ‘if I have the pleasure–‘

The lady met him easily and gracefully half way.

‘Major Milroy’s governess,’ she said. ‘Miss Gwilt.’

This is some 260 pages into the novel. Thereafter Lydia Gwilt is “on stage” (i.e. there in the imagined present of the third person narrative) for only 19 pages or so until the final movement of the book at the sanatorium (615-67 in John Sutherland’s edition).  But a great deal of the interim is taken up with her letters and most importantly her diary, a document that Collins admits she has no plain motive for writing.

This highly-worked approach is critically important to the novel itself. In the first half of the book, which is tense with impending doom, evil (at least in the present) is off-stage and ever threatening to appear. In the later part of the book Lydia begins to assume centre-stage, but we see her mainly through her own record. The gigantic fatalism that obsesses Midwinter is replaced by (or transformed into) the self-communing of a complex woman whose own wickedness is something she greatly fears.

Even more elaborately, the story of Lydia’s past is eventually narrated by an obnoxious but condemnatory private detective, representative of official morality, to his weak-minded father (Bashwood), who interrupts with tout pardonner almost without bothering about tout comprendre. Contrary to Collins’ hints earlier in the book, Bashwood’s discoveries do not lead to Lydia’s downfall: they are all about how we react. Bashwood in fact keeps his secret, as Midwinter keeps his, and Lydia goes to her grave with a sort of relieved forgiveness that is also a forgetting, so far as the other characters are concerned. No-one in the book knows half as much about her as we do.

Midwinter, finally emerging as a writer, is troubling in his own right. Collins never lets us know why Midwinter (if there is a simple why) loses affection for his bride soon after his marriage. The hiatus is a potent one. It allows us to reflect that Midwinter’s behaviour matches Lydia’s past experience: she can command adulation effortlessly, but she is mistreated by her husbands and in some sense perhaps is never loved – not, for instance, in the way she loves Midwinter. It also allows us to reflect on our huge respect for Midwinter’s insights, distorted as they are: perhaps his unamiable behaviour makes the final comment on a tawdry and self-centred existence that doesn’t, he discovers, deserve to be loved. Maintaining an unstable equilibrium between those views is one of Armadale’s triumphs.  


Armadale, first edition (clothbound)

[Image source:]

The Chatto & Windus yellowback edition of 1886

[Image source:]

I Say ‘No’ (1884)

A wretched book. I’d kept it lying around on my shelves  (it was a worm-eaten copy of the 1886 yellowback edition shown above) because I was curious to see why, even though I knew that I'd read it, I couldn’t remember a single thing about it.

Curious how the stock of “The Victorian Novel” has fallen in my own mind - the minor novelists seem barely worth exhuming. At one time I quite saw the Novel’s history as a rise into luscious nineteenth-century greatness, culminating in the crisis (itself great) of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake - with all later novelists just ill-mannered guests, persisting in a genre whose significant achievements all lay in the past. This view seems ridiculous now.

[This was a note from 2001. I now understand that I Say ‘No’ was written late in Collins’ life, when chronic ill-health had long since reduced the author’s ambitions to maintaining an output. (It's been suggested that Collins' determination to keep on writing was therapeutic; it gave him a reason not to slip into terminal decline.)

Knowing this doesn’t make the book any better, but it does make voicing the condemnation seem rather pointless; it never set out to be much more than what it is. One of the hardest issues for a completely relativist view of artistic value is how to comprehend the belated efforts of a sick and exhausted professional. MP 2006] 



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