No one questions the supremacy of Mr Dickens in the realm of the Victorian novel. Not only was he the most popular novelist, he made sure that ladies could read his stories without wandering outside the boundaries of respectability. Perhaps this is why I almost always mentally refer to him as Mr – there’s something about him that keeps me at a distance. No amount of biographical research has conquered this respectable lack of intimacy. Most of his contemporaries that we still read were not so cautious. Thackeray, for example, once tried to flirt with Charlotte Brontë by talking about the ‘naughty’ books they both wrote [She shut him down, of course, with absolutely no hesitation]. The lack of respectability doesn’t seem to have injured Brontë any, as she was second in popularity, and coming in at third was the fiercely antagonistic Wilkie Collins. He chafed at selling fewer books than a woman, but when all the reviews pan your books for their immorality (despite their commercial success), you have to face the consequences.

Collins’s career falls into three stages: before 1860, 1860-1870, and after 1870. The early novels were a bit shorter than we’re used to from the 1850s (think about the size of Bleak House, or Villette), and they rocked the boat a little. Collins likes to use characters who are traditionally excluded from society, as in Hide and Seek, where the heroine is deaf. That book also ends without a marriage; Collins creates a family without legal ties. The middle stage of his career is by far the most successful, and contains the two books that still get read in college courses. For Collins, 1860 means The Woman in White, the novel that launched his fame. He was so proud of it that he had it etched on his tombstone. Everyone’s favourite character from it, Marian Halcombe, received a number of marriage proposals, and I’ll admit to falling in love with her a little myself. Then there were No Name and Armadale, both fine novels. But everyone gets all het up over The Moonstone, which TSEliot once called the first, best, and longest British detective story. I tend to take issue with all of these superlatives, because there were clearly fictional detectives before 1868, some of them were longer (The Moonstone isn’t that long, compared to other books of its time), and I don’t find that it improves on rereading. Yes, I laugh at Miss Clack, yes, I identify with Ezra Jennings and Mr Murthwaite, but Gabriel Betteredge, Franklin Blake, and Rachel Verinder, the most prominent characters, fail to keep my attention. Once you know the secret, the book loses its interest. In 1870 Collins produced Man and Wife, which is like No Name and Armadale in being a perfectly fine Victorian novel overshadowed by the ones the academy pays more attention to. It marks the turning point in Collins’s career because the plot is obviously politically motivated. In the later part of his career Collins points out the absurdity of the complex marriage laws in the United Kingdom, by writing stories that illustrate the nonsensical points by which unethical men can contest their own marriages to unsuspecting ladies. They’re so painfully allegorical that they stop being believable. There are also some short stories that feel like truncated novels. The bright spot of the later career is The Law and the Lady, which features the first female detective. Valeria is out to clear her husband’s name, and deserves some attention for being a pregnant first-person narrator written in the 1870s. Seriously, sometimes fictional Victorian babies just pop out of nowhere.

Despite gendered comments on his rivalry with Brontë, Collins seems to have had a higher opinion of women than most people of his time.

You say I am driving you on to do what is beyond a woman’s courage. Am I? I might refer you to any collection of Trials, English or foreign, to show that you were utterly wrong. […] The woman was handsome, and the sailor was a good-natured man. He wanted, at first, if the lawyers would have allowed him, to let her off. He said to her, among other things, ‘You didn’t count on the drowned man coming back, alive and hearty, did you, ma’am?’ ‘It’s lucky for you,’ she said, ‘I didn’t count on it. You have escaped the sea, but you wouldn’t have escaped me.’ ‘Why, what would you have done, if you had known I was coming back?’ says the sailor. She looked him steadily in the face, and answered: ‘I would have killed you.’

Can you imagine such a passage in one of Mr Dickens’s? His female murderers, aside from being French, are generally not this chatty. They’ll do it, but they won’t go in front of a judge and affirm their willingness to commit a crime that they have not yet committed. To use a colloquial vulgarity, Collins’s women have balls. Big huge lady-balls. Most of them are in positions that no man of his time would have submitted to, but they survive and find ways to be happy. The efforts are often heroic, and sometimes almost superhuman.

But I don’t complain; I only mourn over the frailty of our common human nature. Let us expect as little of each other as possible, my dear; we are both women, and we can’t help it. I declare, when I reflect on the origin of our unfortunate sex – when I remember that we were all originally made of no better material than the rib of a man (and that rib of so little importance to its possessor that he never appears to have missed it afterwards), I am quite astonished at our virtues, and not in the least surprised at our faults.

Collins just can’t stand conventional people. His disdain of them is rather apparent in most of his novels; they have so few characters because his protagonists have to hate the run-of-the-mill as much as he does.

What had Allan seen in him to take such a fancy to? Allan had seen in him – what he didn’t see in people in general. He wasn’t like all the other fellows in the neighbourhood. All the other fellows were cut out on the same pattern. Every man of them was equally healthy, muscular, loud, hard-headed, clean-skinned, and rough; every man of them drank the same draughts of beer, smoked the same short pipes all day long, rode the best horse, shot over the best dog, and put the best bottle of wine in England on his table at night; every man of them sponged himself every morning in the same sort of tub of cold water, and bragged about it in frosty weather in the same sort of way; every man of them thought getting into debt a capital joke, and betting on horse-races one of the most meritorious actions that a human being can perform. They were no doubt excellent fellows in their way; but the worst of them was, they were all exactly alike. It was a perfect godsend to meet with a man like Midwinter – a man who was not cut out on the regular local pattern, and whose way in the world had the one great merit (in those parts) of being a way of his own.

Of course, such a man must fall in love with an unusual woman. Instead of the customary beautiful teenager full of airs and graces, Allan takes to Miss Milroy:

She was pretty; she was not pretty – she charmed, she disappointed, she charmed again. Tried by recognized line and rule, she was too short, and too well-developed for her age. And yet few men’s eyes would have wished her figure other than it was. Her hands were so prettily plump and dimpled, that it was hard to see how red they were with the blessed exuberance of youth and health. Her feet apologized gracefully for her old and ill-fitting shoes; and her shoulders made ample amends for the misdemeanor in muslin which covered them in the shape of a dress. Her dark grey eyes were lovely in their clear softness of colour, in their spirit, tenderness, and sweet good humour of expression; and her hair (where a shabby old garden hat allowed it to be seen) was of just that lighter shade of brown which gave value by contrast to the darker beauty of her eyes. But these attractions passed, the little attendant blemishes and imperfections of this self-contradictory girl began again. Her nose was too short, her mouth was too large, her face was too round, and too rosy. The dreadful justice of photography would have had no mercy on her, and the sculptors of classical Greece would have bowed her regretfully out of their studios. Admitting all this, and more, the girdle round Miss Milroy’s waist was the girdle of Venus, nevertheless – and the pass-key that opens the general heart was the key she carried, if ever a girl possessed it yet.

After all, Marian Halcombe, of the numerous marriage proposals above, is first introduced like this:

The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

But Marian is so completely badass that you forget her physical defects because Collins shows you the person she really is. Her beautiful sister is rather empty-headed, even before the amnesia. Miss Milroy is unfortunately no Marian Halcombe. She can’t even support the name Eleanor; everyone calls her Neelie.

All that female badassery is concentrated in Lydia Gwilt. The novel may be titled Armadale, but it’s about her. The critics called her

One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction

and she may deserve it.

There are five men in this novel named Allan Armadale. It works like this: AA1, a wealthy landowner with plantations in the Caribbean, had a son, AA2. AA2 was rather a disappointment, so he was disinherited in favor of a distant cousin, Allan Wrentmore. Wrentmore got everything, provided that he change his name to AA3. Of course he changed his name. He was really young, so when AA2 showed up under the name Fergus Ingleby, he gave him a position of trust despite all the warnings. Wrentmore’s mother wanted to separate them, so she wrote to one of her old admirers and proposed marrying her son to his daughter. Fergus used a nonlethal poison to keep Wrentmore out of the way long enough for him to take his place on the ship back to Europe and marry Miss Blanchard with his real name. Wrentmore figures out the identity theft and goes after them. He kills Fergus in the confusion of a shipwreck, but the guilt eats at him for the rest of his short life. The former Miss Blanchard gave birth to a son, AA4, and Wrentmore married a Creole woman who also gave birth to a son, AA5. As he’s dying, Wrentmore writes his son a letter warning him to stay clear of AA4 (Allan hereafter). AA5 has a terrible childhood with his stepfather, so he runs off and starts going by Ozias Midwinter. Midwinter knows the story, but Allan doesn’t. The secret of Midwinter’s real name is revealed only to Mr Brock, the clergyman who helped raise Allan, and Miss Gwilt.

Miss Gwilt seems to have been abandoned as a baby. She was picked up by a couple of con artists as an advertisement for their supposed hair tonics, but when the Blanchards showed some interest in her, the cons dumped her on their hands. When she was twelve, she was working as Miss Blanchard’s maid. There was some difficulty to be overcome when Miss B was marrying Fergus Ingleby/Allan Armadale, so the happy couple forced her to forge some letters for them. After the forgery and the marriage, they hid her in a French convent to keep her quiet. When she was seventeen, her music teacher committed suicide for love of her, so she was moved to another convent in Belgium. She nearly took the veil herself, but decided against it. She got involved with a different set of cons, and married one of their marks when the police busted their gig. He was abusive, and she fell in love with another guy, so she poisoned him. There was a well-publicized trial, and she was convicted. The public rose up in outrage, though, a beautiful woman who had been mistreated and all that Roxie Hart stuff, so she wasn’t punished. Celebrity trials worked pretty much the same then as they do now. Journalists can have as much influence on justice as the judges themselves. So she tries to hook up with her Cuban lover, but their marriage is invalid because he’s already married. He takes her money and leaves; she tries to kill herself, but one of the Blanchard men was (coincidentally) on the same ship she jumped out of, so he saves her. He gets a cold and dies – his other male relatives are in an avalanche on their way back for the funeral, so the Blanchard estate goes to Allan. Midwinter was briefly an usher in a school, but when he got sick he was fired, and wandered away until he turns up in Allan’s town, again by coincidence, and they become best friends.

For a while the novel is taken up with the struggle over fate or coincidence. How can all of these things have happened by accident? Then, Allan and Midwinter go for a boat ride one night (Allan was drunk and unmanageable), and they end up onboard the wreck of the ship where Wrentmore killed Fergus Ingleby. Allan has a series of prophetic dreams that may or may not warn him against getting close to Midwinter and Miss Gwilt. Midwinter becomes convinced that there’s a malevolent Fate that has brought Allan and him together to recreate the murder, even though they love each other. My gay heart leaps up when I read casual details, like Allan giving Midwinter a set of gold studs (do straight men give each other expensive jewelry? Not in my experience), or Midwinter’s closing affirmation on the last page of the book,

Your love and mine will never be divided again

So yeah, you could read them as gay before that existed as a cultural concept. They do fall in love with women, but that’s secondary to their interest in each other. The middle of the novel gets mired in the circumstantial evidence necessary to debate the existence of accidental coincidences – the introduction of Mrs Milroy perks things up for a while, but they slow down again, until halfway through Book Four we start reading Miss Gwilt’s diary and the character of the novel changes.

Miss Gwilt initially schemes to marry Allan, but she hates him. She falls in love with his friend instead. Her love for Midwinter changes her in some significant ways.

I have seen handsomer men by hundreds, cleverer men by hundreds. What can this man have roused in me? Is it Love? I thought I had loved, never to love again. Does a woman not love, when the man’s hardness to her drives her to drown herself? A man drove me to that last despair in days gone by. Did all my misery at that time come from something which was not Love? Have I lived to be five and thirty, and am I only feeling now, what Love really is? – now, when it is too late?

Hardly the monologue of a hardened villain, but Miss Gwilt is more complex than that. One of my frustrations with Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is that it’s the classic Gothic story told from the point of view of the villain, but Thackeray’s villain is no more nuanced than those of Ann Radcliffe. Miss Gwilt is not your average villain, and I don’t mean that because she’s more evil than the rest, but because she’s a lot more subtly drawn than they are. There’s no motiveless malice; she’s abused and depressed, and her society has left her with very few alternatives.

Poor dear Midwinter! Yes, ‘dear’. I don’t care. I’m lonely and helpless. I want somebody who is gentle and loving, to make much of me; I wish I had his head on my bosom again; I have a good mind to go to London, and marry him. Am I mad? Yes; all people who are as miserable as I am, are mad. 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.

I know that I’ve been going on for quite a while now, but Victorian novels lead me into tangled wildernesses of thought from which it is difficult to extricate myself. I just have one more thing to talk about, so hang on just a little longer.

This novel gives a close look at a marriage, and it’s rather similar to what mine became. The ex was like a lot of conservative Christians:

In the miserable monotony of the lives led by a large section of the middle classes of England, anything is welcome to the women which offers them any sort of harmless refuge from the established tyranny of the principle that all human happiness begins and ends at home.

She saw her job, her mission in life, as taking care of her children. Just that. She got out of the house when we had only one, but after the second came, she only left the house when necessary. She had a couple of friends whom she could neglect for months at a time without offending, but she confined her daily life to her family. She ended up centering all her hope of adult interaction on me. I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a shy person who doesn’t like spending all of his time interacting with people. But as a teacher, that’s my job, so I’d talk to people all day long, and then I’d look forward to coming home where I could just be quiet. We had very different ideas about how I’d spend my time.

It is not in his nature to inflict suffering on others. Not a hard word, not a hard look, escapes him. It is only at night, when I hear him sighing in his sleep; and sometimes when I see him dreaming, in the morning hours, that I know how hopelessly I am losing the love he once felt for me. He hides, or tries to hide it, in the day, for my sake. He is all gentleness, all kindness – but his heart is not on his lips, when he kisses me now; his hand tells me nothing when it touches mine. Day after day, the hours that he gives to his hateful writing grow longer and longer; day after day, he becomes more and more silent, in the hours that he gives to Me.

The ex used to say that while I could make any sort of sacrifice of money and possessions for her and the boys, I was extremely selfish with my time. Maybe she was right, but I find that I need time alone in order to be able to handle being around people, even people I love. I get too much alone time now, but back then I never got any. I’d get home from work after the kids were in bed, and she’d want to spend time with me. All I wanted to do was eat my cold dinner and go to sleep. It may have been the introversion, or it may have been the homosexuality, but at the end of our time together I couldn’t stand her touching me. I just wanted to be left alone. Then the baby would lie between us perpendicularly and kick me in the face half the night, and the middle boy would wake himself up at 4:30 so that he could see me before I left for work in the morning. I didn’t leave until 6:45, so having another hour to sleep would have been really nice, but not going to happen when a two-year-old wants his breakfast.

These days I feel like Lydia Gwilt. I want someone gentle and loving to make much of me; I want to rediscover what it feels like to fall in love when I’m thirty-five. However, I’ve been in a relationship where I’m everything to the other person, and I don’t want that again. I want to be with someone who has interests outside of me – other friends, hobbies I’m not interested in, activities to pursue that leave me time to be alone. I’m finding the ability to set boundaries extremely sexy.

One last thing, and then I promise to stop. The last chapter, the one with The Purple Flask, is one of the most emotionally intense reading experiences I’ve ever had. The effect is not diminished with time or repetition. You see, Midwinter’s idea of fate is always negative, and coincidence is neutral. The novelist seems out to prove that you can interpret the events of your life to mean that there is a positive supernatural force guiding our lives, one that’s interested in using Midwinter to save Allan’s life, and ultimately, even in redeeming Lydia Gwilt. Christianity might be full of hypocrisy (evangelical churches and theatres blend into each other in this book), but that doesn’t mean that atheism is the only alternative.

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