Wilkie Collins’ Armadale – Simply Sensational

ArmadaleArmadale first came to my attention through Savidge Reads’ Sensation Season. At 750- odd pages, it is a pretty chunky book, but after reading the synopsis I was raring to go;

When the elderly Allan Armadale makes a terrible confession on his death-bed, he has little idea of the repercussions to come, for the secret he reveals involves the mysterious Lydia Gwilt: flame-haired temptress, bigamist, laudanum addict and husband-poisoner. Her malicious intrigues fuel the plot of this gripping melodrama: a tale of confused identities, inherited curses, romantic rivalries, espionage, money – and murder. The character of Lydia Gwilt horrified contemporary critics, with one reviewer describing her as ‘One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction’. She remains among the most enigmatic and fascinating women in nineteenth-century literature and the dark heart of this most sensational of Victorian ‘sensation novels’.

The novel centres around two distant cousins, both named Allan Armadale whose lives are tied together by the terrible secret which the elder Alan Armadale confesses on his death bed. Both Armadales meet again at the ages of 21 and 22 respectively and become friends (one of them under an assumed name). The curiosity of their shared names, the secret and a premonition leads them on a path that leads the reader to question whether they are simply hapless victims of fate. The books femme-fatale, Lydia Gwilt appears on the scene halfway through the book intent upon becoming the heiress to one of the Alan’s fortunes and turns everyone’s lives upside-down.

I don’t want to give much away about Armadale, except to say that I absolutely loved it. Collins uses letters and diaries throughout the novel to give the reader an intimate insight into the characters’ unique personalities. Lydia Gwilt is just the most fantastic villainess who I secretly wanted to be successful in her wicked plans. From a female point of view I find it funny because Collins often makes sweeping statements about womanly traits that are at first slightly offensive, but in reality he writes such strong and complex female characters who can surely only come from the mind of a writer who was forward thinking. I can’t get over how skilfully, Collins creates entertaining characters that are also very human. His writing is witty and absorbing in a way that makes you feel happy that the story is so long. I also love the fact that I couldn’t predict what would happen at the end.

If you’ve never read sensation fiction or thought that a book from this era would be dry and boring, I would urge you to pick up Armadale or another Wilkie Collins, and allow yourself to be swept away in a brilliant plot.

I just wanted to finish with a quick quote which made me giggle, where Lydia considers why jumping out of the window would be a bad idea:

“I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner’s inquest lets so many people see it.”

Have you read any / many sensation novels? What do you like about this genre and if you haven’t read any what puts you off?

17 responses to “Wilkie Collins’ Armadale – Simply Sensational

  1. Hahahahaha brilliant review and a brilliant and very Lydia quote at the end! I could read Armadale again and again! I must redo my favourite books!

  2. What a fabulous review. Makes me really want to buy this title. thanks

  3. I love sensation fiction and gothic fiction. I’m actually planning to read this next month, and Jenny and I are going to review it for a Wilkie Collins blog tour. I was already looking forward to it, but your review makes me even more excited!

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  5. I love sensation novels. I wrote my thesis on Armadale and Lady Audley’s Secret so it was a lot of fun reading and re-reading again! They’ve been criticism against Armadale, that it is too contrived compared to the rest of Collins’ books but I don’t think so. It certainly has a more ‘mature’ element to it though.

    • What an interesting topic for a thesis. I’d like to read Lady Audley’s secret too. I don’t worry too much about whether it’s contrived as I think the wonderful thing about Collins is that he just sweeps you away. I wonder if the contrived bit was related to having such an over the top femme fatale?

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  8. Armadale was a great read, but I had two qualms. First, Collin’s view of Lydia Quilt seems deeply ambiguous, so that I was never sure how to take her. It’s not just a matter of her being complex, with both good and evil tendencies, but that Collins veers back and forth between making her an out-and-out femme fatale that we can enjoy as such, or a deeply troubled woman who uses the role of femme fatale as a way to cope, but really wants to be different.

    My second qualm is that the whole business about the unfolding of fate is never explained. Why does the dream come true? It’s just thrown in as a typical supernatural motif with no real connection to the rest of the plot.

    • I wonder if Wilkie Collins couldn’t make his mind up about Lydia 🙂 Perceptive point about the unfolding of fate, although I have never been one to be put off by plot inconsistencies. My other half always points them out after films and I never notice!! Thanks for your thoughts!

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