The abbreviations A and MN in the in-text citations refer to Armadale and The Meaning of Night respectively.

Inheritance Issues

Armadale and The Meaning of Night are both set in a lost age of great country estates, when the landed gentry were funded at least in part by money from colonial plantations. The plots revolve around two young men, one of whom has been deprived of his inheritance because of an act or acts of revenge preceding his birth. Armadale features several important Allan Armadales. The first is a wealthy older man who owns large estates in the West Indies. Having disowned his own son and namesake for misconduct, he selects a cousin's son as an alternative. The youth is already called Allan in his honour, but he requires him to adopt his surname as well. Inevitably the supplanted son is resentful. He takes his revenge by poisoning the new heir, and snatching away his intended bride, Jane Blanchard of the grand estate of Thorpe-Ambrose in Norfolk, currently staying with her sick father on the island of Madeira. The victim recovers, pursues the couple, and secretly causes his rival's death by locking him in the cabin of his sinking ship. He subsequently marries a beautiful West Indian woman. The marriage is loveless on his side, but produces what Collins calls a Creole son, yet another Allan Armadale. Meanwhile, the murdered man's widow has also produced an infant bearing this name. The two boys, "Allan the dark" and "Allan the fair" are the main male protagonists of the novel (A 511).

In The Meaning of the Night, two heirs to the idyllic estate of Evenwood in Northamptonshire are thrown up in the course of only one generation. The cause is harder to credit on psychological grounds. Laura Duport is so grieved at her husband Lord Tansor's unkindness to her father that she hides her first pregnancy from him, taking herself off to France and denying him all knowledge of the birth of a son. She then has the boy brought up by her best friend under the name of Edward Glyver (or "Little E," Eddie, Ned). This is a strange sort of revenge, which hurts her more than it hurts her husband, since he knows nothing of it. Little more convincing is her later decision to relent and produce an heir for him after all. When this second son is born, she can hardly bear to look at him, withdraws into herself and eventually becomes demented, dying little more than a year later. There is more madness than evil about all this. No good comes of it. Long before the second son can inherit the beautiful estate of Evenwood, he too dies in an accident, to his father's huge distress. However, the gap is later filled when Lord Tansor takes a liking to promising young Phoebus Daunt, the son of the Rector of Evenwood, and begins to groom this "rising son" for the inheritance. Later (in Chapter 39), He even accompanies Lord Tansor and his second wife on their extended visit to their West Indian estates. Despite his hopeful name, Phoebus remains a shadowy figure while Edward (later known also as Edward Glapthorn, Grafton or Geddington), takes centre stage as the anti-hero. But since all Edward's thoughts turn on Phoebus, the latter still has a strong presence in the narrative .

Confused and hidden identities; rival heirs; bitter revenge; elopement/hidden pregnancy; signs of madness and obsession; dastardly murder/fatal accident: the parallels are numerous and the scene seems set for two typical works of genre fiction, the one very much modelled on the other, and on similar works of the period.

Friends and Foes

"The Two Allan Armadales," by George Housman Thomas. Allan gazes with loving concern at the feverish and outcast Midwinter. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger picture and more information about it, including its source.]

As the plots unfold, major differences emerge. In particular, Collins neatly reverses the revenge theme by making his two young Allans, contrary to both their parents' and the reader's expectations, the best of friends. The "dark" one, whose early years were blighted by cruelty, adopts the strange name of Ozias Midwinter from a gipsy companion, and is rescued by the "fair" one at his lowest point. Brought together by chance and bound by ties of sympathy and gratitude, these sons of rival heirs are soon inseparable. When, after a chain of accidents, the one who still goes by the name of Allan inherits Thorpe-Ambrose, he brings Midwinter to the house to be trained as his steward. Incorrigibly boyish, impulsive and generous, Allan is uninfected by either class or racial prejudice. He is also quite unpractised in the niceties of social intercourse, and would far rather be out yachting than playing the local squire. Midwinter is equally lacking in worldly ambition and the social graces. These are individuals, not stock figures, with Midwinter's part-Caribbean heritage making him particularly distinctive. Collins understands perfectly the curious "self-suppression" of the outsider whose identity is never clear (A 74). In this case, when Midwinter discovers the story behind his real name, he can never jeopardise Allan's happiness by revealing it, and feels more than ever the burden of the past (see Young-Zouk 236-37; Salih 158). Collins shines too in understanding the scars left by a difficult childhood. Having been denied any "merciful human respect for human weakness" (A 122), Midwinter suffers also from a "savage shyness" (A 74). By nature, though, he is good, even, in the narrator's own judgment, "great" (A 371). Allan's mentor, the Reverend Decimus Brock, comes to realise this himself. He is suspicious of the brown-skinned stranger at first, and wishes he could be removed from their midst — for which he says, "God forgive me!" A 73-74). But he catches up with his protégé and develops the same sympathy for the mixed-race youth. Eventually he calls him his "poor suffering brother" and, more tellingly and remarkably for this period, his "hardly-tried, . . . well-loved friend" (A 623). Although both Allan and Midwinter fall in love with women — both, for a while, with the scheming Miss Gwilt — their relationship with each other, as blessed by the rector himself, is the strongest in the novel, and central to it.

The alternative heirs' relationship in The Meaning of Night is equally intense and central, but more what the reader might expect. Early on, it is true, the two Allans' intimacy is echoed when Edward Glyver, as he is still known, and Phoebus Daunt are first thrown in each other's way. Edward, still unaware of his true parentage, meets and befriends the other boy at Eton, becoming "his only friend and ally indeed, for he showed no inclination to seek out any other…. it was a strange kind of slavery in which no submission was asked of the enslaved" (MN 136-37). This emotional "slavery" goes sour for both when Edward makes new friends. He rebuffs Phoebus, who in turn becomes clinging and resentful. There is a showdown: "I was forced to tell him to his face that I found his company wearisome" (MN139). Soon after this, by Edward's account, Phoebus gets him expelled on the trumped-up charge of stealing a rare book from the library. Significantly enough, this is Nicholas Udall's mid-sixteenth century farce, Ralph Roister Doister, which hinges on "false surmises" (Act 5, sc.1). Perhaps, out of jealousy and resentment at his new friendships, Phoebus did frame Edward for the theft. But perhaps Edward, a thoroughly unreliable narrator who always presents his own case, did take the book. In an essay on his schooldays, Phoebus declares that their relationship changed only after he had invited Edward to Evenwood, and that he had been "bewildered" by Edward's sudden departure from Eton (MN 131). But Edward dismisses the account as "memory scrubbed and dressed for public consumption" ((MN 132); the issue is never resolved. Either way, Edward's academic prospects wither, while Phoebus's flourish and lead to a successful career as a poet. In stark contrast to Armadale, The Meaning of Night focuses on the ferocious, implacable hatred that Edward now feels for his rival.

Related Material

Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. Ed. Catherine Peters. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics), reissued 2008.

Cox, Michael. The Meaning of Night: A Confession. New York & London: Norton, 2006.

Salih, Sarah. Representing Mixed Race in Jamaica and England from the Abolition Era to the Present . London: Routledge, 2011.

Udall, Nichols. Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1556). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1907. Internet Archive. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.

Young-Zouk, Monica M. "Wlkie Collins's Gwilt-y Conscience: Gender and Colonialism in Armadale." Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre. Ed. Kimberly Harrison and Richard Fantina. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006. 234-45.

Last modified 26 November 2011