The abbreviations A and MN in the in-text citations refer to Armadale and The Meaning of Night respectively. Click on the thumbnails for larger pictures and more information about them, including their source.

Narrative Strategies

"The End of the Elopement": Allan is devastated when his plan to elope with "Neelie" Milroy is foiled by her father. Nothing goes smoothly in these novels.

In both Armadale and The Meaning of Night, complexity in the plot is mirrored by subtlety in the narrative. Miss Gwilt's diary entries in Armadale, for example, are constructs in themselves. One includes a copy of a letter from the Reverend Brock to her future husband, Midwinter. The letter encourages Midwinter not to see himself as a threat to his friend Allan, but as "the man whom the providence of God has appointed to save him (A624). Having reproduced the letter in full here, Collins shows Miss Gwilt's response to it. It shakes her "to the soul" (A 624). Despite herself, she has developed tender feelings for the young man, and now dreads harming him. In subsequent entries she brings in and ponders over a partial account of Allan's dream, as taken down by Midwinter (A 682); a letter from Allan to Midwinter urging him and his new wife to join him on his voyage, after the failure of his own elopement (A 693); a newspaper account of the shipwreck in which Allan's boat is involved (A70-03), and so on. As Collins weaves different strands of his plot together, sometimes quite out of their contexts in time and place, he drops in various quick pointers, either backwards or forwards, for the reader: "Such was the result of the stratagem…" (A 339); for example, or "when the time comes, the woman will be here" (A 251). Early reviewers noted and were often irritated by his methods, finding them obtrusive, but Henry James wrote more admiringly of his "massive and elaborate constructions" as "monuments of mosaic work" (743). Certainly, Collins's consciousness and display of his own ingenuity bring him close to the present age of narrative pastiche — bring him close, in fact, to Cox.

Cox, for his part, starts from near the end of Edward's story, goes back in Chapter 4 to his own beginnings (as far as he knows them at this point), then comes in Part II to Phoebus's "rise" from childhood to Lord Tansor's favourite — and so on. Since this narrative is in the form of a first-person confession throughout, the author is able to slot together his clues and manipulate the reader quite naturally, and with more of the leisureliness of a Thackeray or a Trollope: "Here, perhaps, I may give my faculties a rest and quote directly from the recollections compiled by Daunt from the Saturday Review," he might say (127); or, "So I began to write in my new journal, and it is from this source that I have mainly drawn for the remainder of my confession" (440). Calling more attention to themselves, because set off by frames in the text are: an anonymous note, a formal invitation to Edward's first victim's funeral, the flyleaf of one of Phoebus's books, two luggage labels (both Phoebus's), an invitation to Mr Carteret's funeral and the inscription on his real mother's tomb. Together with letters, Carteret's long deposition about the late Lady Tansor (Edward's real mother again) and a sample of Phoebus's feeble poetry, this produces a documentary feel, supported by the many scholarly footnotes added by "Professor Antrobus" (see Part I). This helps to bring the sensational elements down to earth. On the other hand, the inclusion of such items as the two handwritten luggage labels (Phoebus's handwriting? Of course not!) confirms something frivolous, even tongue-in-cheek in the telling.

"The Feeling Heart"

"Miss Gwilt and the Gorgons": Miss Gwilt is gracious in the presence of sanctimonious disapproval.

This brings up the whole question of the novelist's purpose. With its melodramatic scenes, intriguing characters and startling effects, Armadale has fine entertainment value. Like Cox, "Collins liked to play with his readers" — "to involve them in complicated mysteries, to hold them in suspense or make them guess the secrets of his plots" (Lonoff 108). But he does more than all that. Armadale is not shallow. It provokes and merits serious thought. The anonymous Saturday Review reviewer of The Woman in White declared its author to be "not by any means a master of pathos" (Page 83). Yet Collins opens up for the reader the lives of many who have trouble fitting into the social mainstream. His appeal to the reader's sympathies is less blatant than Dickens in, say, Bleak House. But to the sensitive reader at least, it is just as effective, if not more so. To Midwinter, Collins accords the same respect shown to the Indians in The Moonstone. Like Gabriel Betteredge there, and with more justice, this novelist can claim to be "the last person in the world to distrust a person because he happens to be a few shades darker than [himself]" (The Moonstone, 17). Miss Gwilt, described as "fouler than the refuse of the streets" by the Spectator reviewer of the time (Page 150), is now better understood as a damaged person who had been abandoned again and again as a child, "beaten and half-starved" the first time (A 633), and used by others' for their deceptions; later she had been the victim in abusive and then bigamous marriages. Her counsel at the trial for poisoning her first husband maintained with at least some justice that her arraignment then was "the crowning calamity of the many that had already fallen on an innocent woman" (A 643). She escaped the noose on that occasion, and survived a later suicide attempt. "Without money and without friends" (A 637), she had reason to struggle for property and status, and no other means beyond the kind of tricks she had been taught. Miss Gwilt now asks God to forgive her, and turns herself in for a final judgement, at least partially redeemed by her last act (see Oulton 141).

As Catherine Peters writes so tellingly, in another context, "It is clear from everything Wilkie Collins wrote that he was always intrigued by, and sympathetic to, outsiders and outcasts, those branded as inferior by reason of class, race, gender, physical handicap, or unusual appearance" (xxii). Amongst the minor characters who reveal Collins's compassion here are Mrs Milroy, eaten up with jealousy now but a happy and kindly wife before she became an invalid; Major Milroy, her long-suffering husband, who takes refuge from his unhappy domestic situation in the unpredictable workings of his model clock; and Mr Bashwood, "a slow old gentleman" (563), knocked sideways by the passion awakened in him by Miss Gwilt, and the butt of "merciless raillery" (577) at the Pedgifts' office. Mr Bashwood's treatment by his callous, greedy son would pierce a heart of stone. The worst villains here are, in fact, those with no hearts to be touched: the manipulative Mother Oldershaw, her accomplice Dr Downward (or le Doux), even the dreadful Gorgons who see themselves as pillars of the church, and try "with insufferable impudence" to enforce the proprieties on the community (A 524).

In The Meaning of Night, it is hard to find any character to warm to, least of all Edward himself. At the end of his "confession," Edward claims to weep for "the innocent red-haired stranger" whom he killed at the beginning, a good Christian soul who would now "never again send Bibles and boots to the Africans" (MN 683). But even this sounds mocking. Edward had wasted no sympathy on the man immediately after the murder, nor had he worried that another equally innocent person might be hanged for his crime. Despite having diligently washed blood from his collar, he has suffered none of Lady Macbeth's mental tortures. His quest to prove his claim on Evenwood has taken precedence over all other considerations. The main female protagonist, Emily Carteret, might seem to be a more sympathetic character than either Edward himself, or Miss Gwilt in Armadale. Yet she is not. With nothing in her background to mitigate her crime, she is implicated in the killing of her own father, because he has evidence that might deprive her future husband of his inheritance. She pretends to reciprocate Edward's passion for the same purpose. Here, no one feels what they profess to feel, except Edward, and what he feels is better not felt. Even the fatherly Mr Tredgold has his secrets: he has always known far more than he lets on. Edward's kindly schoolmaster Tom Grexby and his ne remaining school chum "dear old Le Grice" are both uncomplicated figures (MN 44), recipients of Edward's stories and funds of common-sense advice, but unfortunately, like other minor figures in the narrative, they have little identity beyond their roles in his drama. "While we are guided through a dense thicket of historical detail," complains Judith Flanders, "characters remain as unreal as their names" (23).

Related Material

Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. 1866. 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.

Flanders, Judith. "Off to Quinn's." Review of The Meaning of Night. Times Literary Supplement, 15 Sept. 2006, p. 23.

James, Henry. "Mary Elizabeth Braddon." Literary Criticism Vol. I: Essays on Literature. American Writers, English Writers. Eds. Leon Edel and Mark Wilson. New York: Library of America, 1999. 741-46.

Lonoff, Sue. Wilkie Collins and His Victorian Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of Authorship. New York: AMS Press, 1982.

Oulton, Carolyn W. de la L. Literature and Religion in Mid-Victorian England. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Page, Norman, ed. Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1974.

Peters, Catherine. Introduction. The Moonstone. New York: Knopf (Everyman Library), 1992. ix-xxvi.

Last modified 26 November 2011