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?