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 sources.
Left: "Allan's Neighbour": Allan reaches out to "Neelie" Milroy when he find her picking flowers in the grounds of Thorpe-Ambrose. Right: "Miss Gwilt": Midwinter looks discomfited on his first encounter with the ravishing Miss Gwilt.
Lacking any revenge motive, Armadale's momentum derives from two external sources, subtly intertwined. The first is Allan's ominous dream in Book 1, Chapter 5, featuring shipwreck, the shadows of a man and woman, and a deadly potion. Dr Hawbury explains it away, but Midwinter, the more intelligent, sensitive and indeed neurotic of the two, is haunted by it, and strives to prevent any harm from coming to Allan. The second is the infamous Miss Gwilt herself, seemingly the female figure in the dream. She is first introduced to us, in the most negative manner, in a confessional letter from Midwinter's father to his son: "No creature more innately deceitful and more innately pitiless ever walked this earth" (A 39). This is because it was her forgery, as a twelve-year-old maid at Thorpe-Ambrose, that had enabled Jane Blanchard to marry Allan's father instead of him. Now, under the direction of the disreputable Maria Oldershaw of the "Ladies' Toilette Repository," Miss Gwilt reappears as the new governess to Allan's tenant's daughter, Eleanor ("Neelie") Milroy. A dazzling red-haired beauty, the "governess" attempts to trap first Allan and then Midwinter into making her "Mrs Armadale, of Thorpe-Ambrose" (A 192). Allan's heart settles on Neelie instead, a young person as open and impulsive as he is. Miss Gwilt therefore applies herself to winning Midwinter, whom she succeeds in marrying under his real name. Now she needs to dispose of Allan. Again, her first attempt, by engineering his death at sea, fails. But she is nothing if not persistent. Her second plot is more elaborate, and involves luring him to a sanatorium for "nervous invalids" (A 709), and spreading noxious fumes in his room. This is all typically melodramatic, setting and props included.. But what happens next is not so typical. The plan is foiled by a watchful and anxious Midwinter, who changes rooms with Allan and is almost killed in his stead. Realising the substitution, Miss Gwilt revives him. Long dependent for "the blessing of oblivion" from laudanum (A 619), she now resorts to the deadly Purple Flask herself, and leaves the narrative to end hopefully — not at an altar, since Allan has yet to marry Neelie, and Midwinter is now widowed — but with the two young men looking to the future: "the darkness had passed" (A 816). Not everything is resolved here. Indeed "little is resolved," claims Philip O'Neill, noting that Collins has deliberately left his readers to make up their own minds about the significance of Allan's dream (19). But it is a happy ending all the same, insofar as the pair's "brotherly love" has always been the central relationship of the novel (see Dever 118-20).
There can be no such conclusion in The Meaning of the Night. Edward's later discovery that Phoebus stands in the way of his next "great enterprise" MN 196) — his installation at Evenwood with its "faery splendour" (MN 248) — only intensifies his already pathological hatred of him. He sees Phoebus as his "enemy" from start (MN 23) to finish (MN 683), his animosity reaching almost ludicrous heights: "at times Glyver's loathing seems overly reactive, almost implausible, sometimes verging on the comical," writes Tom Adair (6). Tension mounts as Edward continues to unravel his past and prepares to press his claim to the estate, just when Lord Tansor is proceeding to adopt Phoebus formally as his legal heir. Then he finds that Phoebus is to cement his position by marrying Emily Carteret, the daughter of Lord Tansor's cousin and secretary, with whom he himself has become infatuated. She has encouraged this infatuation in order to extract from him whatever evidence he has gathered about his right to Evenwood. The betrayal stuns him, his last-ditch attempt to convince Lord Tansor fails, and he has recourse to his usual solace — opium. There is no resolution here. The narrative concludes as it began, melodramatically, with a sordid, cold-blooded murder. Edward and Phoebus come face to face again at last, as Edward, rigged out in powdered wig and footman's livery, stabs his rival twice with a heavy, ivory-handled, freshly sharpened carving knife purloined from the Wellington in Piccadilly. The final flourish of this piece of stage villainy, with its preposterous details, is Edward's reiterating into the dying man's ear the exact words he claims to have whispered to him on leaving Eton: "Revenge has a long memory" (MN 678). Besides the fulfilment of this warning, nothing has been achieved. Edward is now a wanted man, further than ever from claiming his inheritance. He clearly pities himself when he writes in the pretentiously entitled "Post Scriptum" to his confession, "I long for sleep, and for soft English rain. But they do not come" (MN 695). But it is impossible to pity a man so governed and twisted by hatred — especially one who has looked like a pantomime figure ("white stockings and silver-buckled pumps; blue-plush knee breeches; a claret-coloured swallow-tailed coat, with silver buttons and a matching waist-coat," MN 671) in his climactic act.
"The Moth and the Candle": Miss Gwilt encourages Midwinter to confess his love.
The title of Book II, Chapter 7 of Armadale is "The Plot Thickens," and the plots do thicken in both these novels. Catherine Peters says that Collins "takes his practiced used of duplication, disguise, coincidence, substitution, and confusion of identity, the stock properties of melodrama, to bewildering lengths in this book" (xv; emphasis added); while Judith Flanders with equal justice complains about getting "bogged down" in the ramifications of The Meaning of Night (23). As for Armadale, suspicions are raised about Miss Gwilt by Neelie's jealous invalid mother. She instigates enquiries in which many other characters are then involved. The spies include Mr Brock; both Allan and Midwinter themselves; and Allan's lawyer Mr Pedgift Senior and his smart, resourceful son Pedgift Junior. Notable among these is Pedgift Senior, whose habit of asking one last question ("Pedgift's Post-script," A 445) marks him as an inspiration for the present-day television detective Columbo. For her part, Miss Gwilt uses Allan's elderly steward Mr Bashwood, who has become ridiculously besotted with her, to report on events at Thorpe-Ambrose, while she gets to work on Midwinter. Mr Bashwood in turn humbles himself by confessing his love-lorn plight to his unpleasant son, and hiring him to spy on her. Later, this pathetic, cringing figure plays an important part in the denouement by failing to report to her on Midwinter's exchange of rooms with Allan.
In Cox's novel too the narrative is crowded with "the stock properties of melodrama," especially spies. Edward himself is the chief one, indeed, a professional one. Employed by Mr Tredgold, Lord Tansor's lawyer, he supports himself by gathering incriminating evidence in difficult cases — as a result of one such assignment, securing the freedom of the hefty, reptilian-eyed, scarfaced Josiah Pluckrose. This former butcher comes back to haunt him, tailing him even in a boat on the Thames, whilst now apparently, and ironically, in Phoebus's pay. Much of the time, however, Edward works on his own behalf. In between casual whoring, and dallying with the delectable Bella Gallini at the upmarket brothel called Blithe Lodge, he seeks out the solid proof he needs to establish his claim to the Tansor estate. There are a few instances in which he is seen to be less self-involved. He is most gushingly praised by the earnest fiancé of Dorrie Grainger, a young prostitute he has helped. But there is always the suspicion that he is manipulating the reader, "controlling the representation of both himself and others" as fictional detectives always do (see Thoms 8), to make the most of what little virtue he has displayed. Mostly he is ferreting away deviously in his own interests. This culminates in his delving into his real mother's tomb in the Tansor mausoleum. The whole impulse of this plot, with all its twists and turns and shadowy watchers, may be described in his words on this occasion: "I extended my hand behind the rear of the coffin and began to pull" (MN 595).
- Part I ("Inheritance Issues" and "Freinds and Foes")
- Part III ("Narrative Strategies" and "The Feeling Heart")
- Part IV ("The All-Merciful" and Conclusion)
- The Victorian Sensation Novel, 1860-1880 — "preaching to the nerves instead of the judgment"
- Madame Rachel's Costly Arabian Preparations (Madame Rachel was the original of Collins's Mrs Oldershaw)
Adair, Tom. "Murder to Make a Killing": Review of The Meaning of Night. Scotland on Sunday, 24 Sept. 2006, review section, p.6.
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.
Dever, Carolyn. "The Marriage Plot and Its Alternatives." The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins. Ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 112-24.
Flanders, Judith. "Off to Quinn's": Review of The Meaning of Night. Times Literary Supplement, 15 Sept. 2006, p. 23.
O'Neill, Philip. Wilkie Collins: Women, Property & Propriety. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Peters, Catherine. Introduction. Armadale. Ed. Peters. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics), reissued 2008. vii-xxiii.
Thoms, Peter. Detection & Its Designs: Narrative & Power in Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1998.
Last modified 5 April 2012