The abbreviations A and MN in the in-text citations refer to Armadale and The Meaning of Night respectively. Click on the thumbnail for a larger picture and more information, including its source.
"One Too Many": Miss Gwilt's plot is foiled when Midwinter meets Allan from the "tidal train" and accompanies him to the sanatorium, where he nearly loses his life in protecting his friend.
The most fundamental contrast between these two novels lies in their different visions of life. T. S. Eliot recognised long ago that Armadale has an "air of spurious fatality" (468) about it. It is easy to overlook the word "spurious" here. True, whatever the sensible Dr Hawbury says by way of rational explanation, Allan's dream visions do appear to be realised one by one, and for much of the time Midwinter reels under their compelling force. In the end even the treacherously manipulative Miss Gwilt feels trammelled in them: after hearing about Midwinter's "mad superstition" (A 683), she quickly comes to see herself as playing a part in it: "If I am the Woman in the Dream, there will be another temptation put in my way before long" (A 684). But in the final outcome, the air of fatality is spurious. The Reverend Brock's trust in Providence is fully vindicated. It works, of course, through the agency of human love. Instead of proving a threat to Allan, Midwinter becomes, in Brock's prophetic words, "the man whom the providence of God has appointed to save him," proving that "No evil exists, out of which, in obedience to his laws, Good may not come" (A 624, 623). Miss Gwilt herself, having been prevented from fulfilling her final role in Allan's dream sequence, succumbs to the power of love. She had foreseen that she "would end in getting fond of" Midwinter (A 531), and she does. After her plan to poison Allan redounds on him instead, she makes every effort to revive him; and, as he catches his breath again, her face changes: "There was something softly radiant in her eyes, which lit her whole countenance as with an inner light, and made her womanly and lovely once more" (A 805). It is completely unfair to say that she "saves Midwinter from death because her sins have made her not so much repentant as weary" (Marshall 73). While not a "martyr" (Oulton 141) in the narrowest definition of the word, when she employs the "purple flask" on herself. she does give up her life in an effort at atonement. She also wants to set Midwinter free: "All your life is before you," she murmurs before leaving him, "a happy life and an honoured life if you are freed from me!" (806).
There is nothing like this in Cox's novel. Beyond its "poetical power," and the resonance of John Donne's sermons, Christianity has no hold on Edward at all: "I had already lost whatever allegiance I might have had to that faith" (MN 215). As far as he can see, Fate has the upper hand throughout. Hard as he tries to regain his birthright, he feels himself to be in the grip of the "Iron Master's hands" (MN 363). The important dream here, said to have been pasted into the confession, is about this forbidding figure. The links of fate, it seems, "come together in a random dance, and then conjoin into adamantine permanence" (MN 125). And this view is not effectively combated — not proved to be "spurious." While the Reverend Brock's voice is important in Armadale, the one important clergyman here, Phoebus's father, the Rector of Evenwood, hardly has a voice at all. He seems utterly powerless. He can gainsay neither Lord Tansor himself, nor his own second wife, Phoebus's step-mother. Both, governed by their own worldly ambitions, ride roughshod over his wishes with regard to his son's upbringing. The boy is to be sent to Eton even though the rector himself fears, with some justice, that he might be corrupted there. Both Lord Tansor and the rector's wife therefore help to forge links in the chain that leads to Phoebus's dubious friendships and deeds in later life, and his death by Edward's hand. Edward himself sees such links as "unbreakable" (MN 440). No, there is nothing "spurious" about the sense of fatality here.
The important point is not that Collins has one belief system and Cox another — or none. Collins was a freethinker, who had rebelled against an Evangelical upbringing during which, says one of his biographers, Sunday "cast a blight over the week" (Peters 29). He no longer attended church. Nor, according to the same biographer, is there any "hint in his later correspondence of religious belief in the customary sense in which his parents and brother would have understood it" (Peters 108-09). Carolyn Oulton goes so far as to suggest that in foregrounding Providence, he was "taking one of the evangelicals' choicest weapons and using it to subvert their judgemental version of Christian morality" (17). This subversion evidently consisted in promoting the basic human values available to those of any and every creed, engendering loving-kindness and forgiveness.
The unsatisfactory ending to The Meaning of Night is partly remedied in Cox's sequel to it, The Glass of Time (2008). Here, Edward acquires a few more names: Edward Gorst, Basil Thornhaugh and finally, at a guess, Edmund Grendon of Grendon & Co., Booksellers and Publishers in the Strand, mentioned at the end as being helpful but "somewhat reclusive by nature, and often absent on business" (528). He has lived several lives, eluding either punishment for his crimes or the reader's sympathy. Emily Carteret, who became Lady Tansor, has, as Edward once foresaw, lost more than she ever gained (see MN 694). She suffers from guilt, but not badly enough to prevent her from becoming involved in another murder. Only when the net closes in on her does she ask for forgiveness. The inheritance issue is resolved by Edward's daughter (born in one of those other lives) by dint of subterfuge and detection worthy of her father. She manages to secure her personal happiness as well, in such a way as to lay the old rivalry to rest at last. But it is hard to rejoice with characters whose identities shift so often and so completely, and who focus primarily on worldly ambitions. Well researched, cleverly plotted, with fine entertainment value too, Cox's two-volume saga of the Evenwood inheritance comes to a close here and can be put back where it belongs, in the "thriller" section of bookshops and libraries.
T. S. Eliot famously remarked that "there is no contemporary novelist who could not learn something from Collins in the art of interesting and exciting the reader" (469), and Cox has obviously learnt much. But he has not learnt all there is to be learnt. Eliot also said that Armadale is a fine example of melodrama but "has no merit beyond melodrama" (468; emphasis added). He too was missing much — making him, as some critics have already complained, "really a poor ally of Collins" (O'Neill 2). There is, after all, far more to this novel than an exciting plot peppered with melodramatic incidents. In his later work, Collins would take up specific social problems — fallen women in The New Magdalen (1873), for instance, and issues surrounding divorce and child custody in The Evil Genius: A Domestic Story (1886). In the latter, heeding the advice that "forgiveness of injuries" is "the first of Christian virtues" (309), the divorced wife manages to forgive her husband for his "sexual frailty" (308) and the couple duly remarry and go off on a second honeymoon with their little girl. But this was twenty years later, close to the end of Collins's writing career. For all its sensationalism, in Armadale the novelist projects his views more subtly. It is left to the reader to deduce how people can best face, and help each other face, life's sometimes quite extraordinary challenges.
- Part I ("Inheritance Issues" and "Friends or Foes")
- Part II ("Complications and "Contrivances")
- Part III ("Narrative Strategies" and "The Feeling Heart")
Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. 1866. Ed. Catherine Peters. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics), reissued 2008.
_____. The Evil Genius: A Domestic Story. 1886. London: Chatto & Windus, 1899. Internet Archive. 26 Nov. 2011.
Cox, Michael. The Glass of Time: The Secret Life of Miss Esperanza Gorst, Narrated by Herself. London: John Murray, 2009.
_____. The Meaning of Night: A Confession. New York & London: Norton, 2006.
Eliot, T. S. "Wilkie Collins and Dickens" (1927). Selected Essays. 3rd ed. London: Faber, 1951. 460-70.
Marshall, William H. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1970.
O'Neill, Philip. Wilkie Collins: Women, Property & Propriety. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Oulton, Carolyn W. de la L. Literature and Religion in Mid-Victorian England. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Peters, Catherine. The King of Invention: The Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.
Last modified 26 November 2011