She done him wrong

I've just spent much of the last fortnight in the company of what must be one of the wickedest women in literature, the fabulously evil Miss Gwilt, the anti-heroine of Wilkie Collins' Armadale. I do enjoy Wilkie Collins. Yes, he's often over the top, and some of his plotting calls for extreme suspension of the imagination with coincidence piled on coincidence, but he's certainly never boring. I suspect that at the time that Armadale was published it probably caused quite a stir.

The story centres around two men who share a name and an inheritance, one is the rightful heir to the estate, whose father was disinherited, the other the descendant of the man who inherited the estate who was murdered by the other's father. Confused? Well, yes, it is rather like that - although it all seems to make sense when you read it. The two men are intended never to meet, but do so, and end up liking each other and becoming good friends, in spite of the burden of knowledge that encumbers one of the men. Meanwhile into this complicated situation comes Lydia Gwilt, a wicked woman, who has discovered the secret that lies between the friends.

Lydia is beautifully written. She really is evil, and yet there's a warmth and humanity about her that still manages to shine through. She is over the top, but remains resolutely plausible and believable. It's a great piece of writing. What's also great about it is Collins' tongue-in-cheek approach. On a surface level his writing mirrors Victorian attitudes towards a woman such as Gwilt, but he also manages to suggest that this is actually not really what he believes. I loved Lydia, she may be bad, but she's one of the most human of any of the Victorian female creations. And in many senses she's a very modern woman having to make her way alone in the world, and not undivorced, as are so many fictional female Victorians from the physicality of being a woman.

The other villains of the piece are also very well portrayed. Mrs. Oldershaw, the brothel keeper, becomes a reformed woman by the end - in Dickens this would have been a suitable point for a sermon, in Collins the ending is rather more ambiguous, it is clear that Mrs. Oldershaw is making a nice little earner from her apparent reformation, while the deliciously named Dr. Downward, the illegal abortionist, moves quite happily from one shady area of medicine to another - the burgeoning world of the private asylum.

In many ways, not least in the morality, this is not really a Victorian novel, it follows much more in the footsteps of earlier works such as Fanny Hill or Moll Flanders. Both of which interestingly are written by men but are told largely by women, with a very female authentic voice. The best sections of Armadale are those that are told in Miss Gwilt's voice. It's not the best novel ever - there are far too many coincidences, the hero and heroine, the revoltingly smarmy Neelie, are too saccharine, although the second Alan Armadale, Ozias Midwinter, is lovingly and sympathetically portrayed. But you should read this if only to have the pleasure of meeting the wickedest woman in fiction, the clever, beautiful and deadly Lydia Gwilt.


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