A 900-page tome like this is difficult to sum up, but I will try my best. First, we have the story of the Allan Armadales. Four of them – two fathers locked in a bitter rivalry, and their two sons. Both fathers are dead either before the story starts or within the prologue, and of the sons, one has assumed the name of Ozias Midwinter, so thankfully having four Allan Armadales is never at all confusing! The main person referred to by that name throughout the bulk of the text is the son who hasn’t given himself an assumed name. Second, we have the story of Lydia Gwilt, a woman brought up to a life of crime and who feels like she is owed something from Allan Armadale due to a “service” she provided his mother in her youth. She gets mixed up with both Armadale and Midwinter, and carries the thrust of the last three quarters of the book.
I absolutely adored this book…for the first quarter. I love the prologue, I loved the backstory of the Armadales’ rivalry and the way the two younger Armadales accidentally meet. I especially adored Midwinter’s character. He has suffered so much due to his father’s sins, led a vagabond life, and yet he is still honorable and intelligent and patient and caring. He feels trapped when he finds out what happened between his and Allan’s fathers, and holds in that secret so that Allan will never have to think of his mother badly (her dying wish). He struggles with a conflict of fate versus free will. Can he overcome his father’s sins, or is he destined to hurt his best friend if he stays close? It was a fantastic setup and something I was really interested in seeing explored.
Once Lydia entered the book and took it over, however, it was downhill from there. Lydia comes from the same sort of life as Midwinter. She was brought up among criminals and never had a chance for real education or parental love. Yet, she takes to the life of crime with a relish and behaves like a criminal her whole life. Even when she has chances to go straight, she’d rather stay crooked. She also faces the question of fate versus free will, but sadly in a way that was nowhere near as interesting as Midwinter’s conflict. Once she was in the book, everything about it became unbelievable and unrealistic. Compared to a criminal like Count Fosco from The Woman in White, Lydia seems like a bratty little kid who couldn’t put a mischievous plot together if her life depended on it! Why she got away with things was the big mystery for me!
Here was my big problem with Lydia – she’s completely, ridiculously stupid, and yet everyone around her acts like she’s the most clever, witty, intelligent creature to ever walk the face of the planet. All her schemes are completely transparent, as well as her acting, her dishonesty, and her aims. Anyone – any real person, anyway – would see right through her. And yet, for some unknown reason, every single character in this book, except the lawyer, trusts her implicitly – for no reason at all, and despite all evidence to the contrary! The lawyer has the real measure of her, of course, and is completely exasperated as one by one every character falls under her spell. It made me want to smack them all! When Lydia turns up, they all suddenly have the naivety of a three year old! I could expect that from someone like Armadale, because he really is a naive, simple, trusting sort of person. But Midwinter? The Major? Bashwood? Really?? Sorry, I don’t buy it. Not to mention it’s completely insulting that the reason most of these people believe her is because she’s pretty. Ugh.
It also didn’t help that Lydia was a completely selfish and self-absorbed person, and her entire being was a web of lies. She was dishonest, manipulative, and in no way ever tries to redeem herself. Not even her ending was redemptive in my mind. In some ways, in some parts of the book, she called to mind Eustacia Vye from Return of the Native, who I said I both disliked and loved, because I understood her need to try a few steps down each path to see what was to her best advantage. It’s manipulative, but understandable. Eustacia, though, had redemptive qualities, and while she was selfish and self-absorbed, she was not vengeful and conniving, which is the biggest difference between her and Lydia. It made all the difference in the world to me. While Return of the Native has been one of my favorite books of the year, this one has been one of the worst.
If Collins had continued to explore his fate vs free will theme through the medium of Armadale and Midwinter’s unlikely friendship, I would have loved this book. The change of focus, unfortunately, did me in. Because I read this on my Kindle, I didn’t realize that it was a 900-page book. I plowed through the last 75% of the book in two days, wanting it to be over the entire time. I skimmed the horribly long sections of Lydia’s diary and tried to be patient for when other characters came in charge of the narration again.
Interestingly, after finishing Bleak House, I could see Dickens’ influence here in Armadale. The characters weren’t stereotypes (thank goodness), but they weren’t as fully fleshed out as they were in The Women in White (my favorite Collins). There was far less psychology than I wanted, and much more sensationalism and silly plot manipulation (amazing coincidences, last minute saves, deus ex machina, etc.). It’s unsurprising that these Dickensian elements were unpleasant for me, especially after just coming off Bleak House. I will admit, though, that as far as 900-page tomes go, this one was far easier and more fun to read. I’d choose it over Dickens any day.
I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading any more from Wilkie Collins. I’d wanted to read No Name, but from what I read of Lydia and what my husband told me of the narrator in No Name, I now think I’d hate it and disbelieve everything in that book too. So I’m probably done with Collins, and leave The Woman in White as the one book by him I love.
Strange note, though – all three Collins books I’ve read, I’ve read on my Kindle…and I rarely read anything on the Kindle! How’s that for coincidence?
Note: I wouldn’t take my opinion on Armadale too seriously. From looking at other reviews, it seems most people feel the complete opposite as me, that the beginning was slow and then it became a wonderful thriller with a fascinating criminal mastermind in Lydia, whereas I thought the beginning was fantastic and Lydia was an idiotic twit who killed the book.