Michael Cox’s thriller, The Meaning of Night: A Confession (2006), starts with the narrator’s matter-of-fact report that he murdered a red-haired man before dining on oysters. Inspired by the sensation novels of the nineteenth century, particularly those of Wilkie Collins, the author goes on to employ this kind of deadpan sensationalism, much as Collins himself employs his earlier, more full-blooded variety—to startle and grip the reader, and to unravel, too, the causes of human depravity. Beyond that, however, Cox joins the growing band of those who, in so clearly “doing something with” their Victorian material (Davies 2), establish a “virtual relationship” with the fiction of the age (Kaplan 9). David Barry, for example, is one of the more recent Neo-Victorian novelists to have brought current values to bear on his older source. In a sequel to David Copperfield, enititled Mr. Micawber Down Under (2011), he has created a Micawber with a conscience, showing him in Australia returning money for an item pawned under false pretences.
Cox’s approach is quite different. Creating something closer to the heartless spine-chillers of Patricia Highsmith, he shows no such tendency to right old wrongs. Rather, having once described certain Victorian detective stories as holding up a “cracked, dirty, or distorting” mirror to the age (Introduction xxv), he himself holds up to its fiction a mirror so distorting as to invite correction. That is, by using tropes from it in his highly self-conscious postmodern way, he makes us reconsider that fiction for ourselves. At the same time, by playing subtle mind-games with us, he undercuts our own self-congratulatory assumptions of moral superiority and cultural and social advance. The result is to invite a greater appreciation of Collins—and also, more generally, of an age when “a belief in human power” could co-exist, however uneasily, with “the consciousness of human dependence on some greater order” (Introduction, xxvi).
Cox’s mind-games start on the title page, which gives J. J. Antrobus, Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction, University of Cambridge, as editor. The name might be cunningly concocted from the Latin for “front” and the Italian for “hollow” (see Heilmann and Llewelyn 23), but it is also a real name, that of a contemporary Canadian hillbilly rock group. Cox’s earliest successes were in the rock music world, and this could well be a teasing reference to the group. More appropriately, the name also recalls the young Collins’s unhappy years with Antrobus & Co., tea merchants in the Strand (see Pykett 6-7).The tea-merchant’s initials were E. E. (for Edward Edmund) not J. J., but Cox’s protagonist goes by several versions of the name Edward and finally, at the end of the sequel to this novel, The Glass of Time (2008), Edmund. Supporting a link to Collins here, Cox twice mentions him in the book itself, the first and longer reference being in Antrobus’s footnote quoting Lydia Gwilt on her gratitude to the man who “invented” laudanum (435). Cox also refers to the earlier novelist in an interview printed in the back of the book, when answering the question, “What were your major influences when writing The Meaning of Night?” Here, he lists The Woman in White (1860), Armadale(1866) and The Moonstone (1868) among his favourite Collins novels.
The Meaning of Night indeed revisits the preoccupations of these novels. In The Moonstone, for example, John Herncastle, who first steals the sacred gem, is variously reported as having turned to opium, collecting antiquarian books, and “carousing and amusing himself among the lowest people in the lowest slums of London” (31)—all pastimes in which Cox’s narrator also indulges. But on two counts Armadale must have had a special appeal for Cox. One is Collins’s “surprisingly modern view of fiction as artifice or construct” (Lonoff 108), by no means specific to this novel, but evinced here most compellingly through the device of Lydia Gwilt’s fictional diary. This, which she herself describes as her “customary record of the events of the day” (588), is Collins’s way of taking us right into the mind of his “terrific villain,” as T. S. Eliot calls her (465). Letting down her guard in its pages, she confesses her crimes much as Cox’s Edward does in his own no-holds-barred “Confession.” The other important element is Collins’s focus in Armadale on how one of his two male protagonists feels about the other. The love and protectiveness that are the hallmarks of this relationship turn to bitter jealousy in the equally intense homosocial relationship in the more recent novel. Still, in both cases the relationships are of central importance.
Antrobus’s designation is as thought-provoking as his name. At the same time as (possibly) alerting us to the link with Collins and using the link to mock the publishing world, Cox gives spurious provenance to the text by making the editor a university teacher with a bogus title. “Post-authentic” suggests phoniness in general, and academic pretention in particular. Of the various terms used in critical theory, the prefix “post-” (“postcolonial,” “post-structuralist,” “post-modernist”) perhaps makes the largest claim, suggesting an approach that takes into account but supersedes what has gone before. Piling layer upon layer of suspect non-fictionality, this Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction then claims in his preface that what follows is “one of the lost curiosities of nineteenth-century literature,” found among the “Duport papers in the Cambridge University Library with the annotation ‘(Fiction?)’” (11). Everything must be queried here and nothing taken at face value, giving plenty of scope for the scholarly apparatus that follows, including footnotes and an Appendix. The footnotes themselves are accurate where not fictional, sometimes parodying officious footnoting in scholarly editions prepared, it seems, for readers with no prior knowledge of British culture—for example, Rotten-row is identified as “[A roadway for saddle-horses on the south side of Hyde Park…. Ed.]” (264). In this way, Cox’s thriller continually teases his more academically oriented readers.
Yet The Meaning of Night, like Armadale, appeals to a much wider audience. Just as the earlier work revived the fortunes of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine when it first appeared in serial form (see Mott 393; Davis 246) and is still a popular classic, the more recent novel was famously the subject of a publishers’ bidding war, and later a best-seller and a finalist for the Costa Book Award of 2006. Their appeal is largely due to the way both novelists breach the gap between past and present. Collins all-unknowingly achieved this through his enlightened compassion for his mixed-race protagonist Midwinter, and his handling of his complex female villain. Cox does so, in large part, by cleverly recreating the atmosphere of Victorian London, where the Thames flows with “stinking water” (88), the backstreets are “slimy with mud and grease” (540), and gentlemen rove from staid clubs to smart or sleazy brothels and dim opium dens. It is only when we look more deeply, and consider how the two novelists explore the competing claims of Fate, Chance and Providence to influence human life, that we see how fundamentally they reflect the change in our cultural climate.
A Sense of Entitlement
Both Armadale and The Meaning of Night deal with inheritance issues, in an age of great country estates, the owners of which were often funded by colonial trade. The source of the money is not, for Collins, simply part of the plot mechanism. The first of several important Allan Armadales is not just a wealthy man; he is a wealthy man with large estates in Barbados. Despotic and manipulative, he disowns his feckless son and namesake, and selects a cousin’s son as an alternative, stipulating that he adopts his name in full. In the rivalry that ensues, one poisons the other, only for the victim to recover. This victim is himself tainted by a colonial upbringing, confessing that “My boyhood and youth were passed in idleness and self-indulgence, among people—slaves and half-castes mostly—to whom my will was law” (31). Not unexpectedly, he exacts a fatal revenge on his would-be murderer. Turning Victorian fear of the specifically racial “other” on its head, the first appealing character to emerge from this unsavoury background is the beautiful and tender-hearted West Indian woman whom the surviving Allan marries. Loveless on his side, the marriage nevertheless produces what Collins calls a Creole son, a new Allan Armadale. This introduces an entirely new note. The child, with his “bright brown eyes,” is first seen in a “little white frock” (25) playing artlessly in the sunlight on his father’s death-bed while his father both confesses his crime, and lays bare the colonial greed that drove it. Meanwhile, the dead rival’s wife, Jane Armadale née Blanchard, has also produced an heir, and one as fair as her maiden name promises. The two boys, “Allan the dark” (already associated with light) and “Allan the fair,” stand out against this grim backdrop, holding out hope that the deadly rivalry has played itself out. But references to the “plantation” at Thorpe-Ambrose (210, 213), which the “fair” Allan inherits, indicate that it still impacts on the new generation.
In The Meaning of Night, the colonial past lies more hidden. Rivalry grows primarily from a soured marriage. Resentful of her husband Lord Tansor’s unkindness to her father, his wife Laura hides her first pregnancy from him, and has the boy brought up by her best friend under the name we know him by, Edward Glyver (or “Little E,” Eddie, or Ned). This strange revenge wounds her more profoundly than it does her husband. He suffers only a general sense of deprivation, but when she later decides to give him an heir after all, she can hardly bear to look at the infant. Having denied one boy his mother, she cannot then mother the next. Unable to fulfil the “natural” role, she falls victim to depression, and eventually becomes demented, dying little more than a year later. Cox then complicates the issue again: the two rivals are not these two blood-heirs. Long before the second-born can inherit his father’s idyllic Evenwood estate, he dies in an accident. Only then does the bane of Edward’s life, the object of his pathological hatred, arrive on the scene: the dead child is gradually replaced in Tansor’s affections by Phoebus Daunt, the son of the Rector of Evenwood. While grooming this new “rising son” for the inheritance, Tansor does take him out with his second wife on an extended visit to their West Indian estates. Coming close to the end, the purpose of the trip seems simply to remove Phoebus from the scene while other developments take place. Evenwood Park has a “Plantation” as well; but Cox implicates the colonial past only fleetingly. Here, inhumanity grows more insidiously from the disturbed soil of individual psyches.
Self and the Other
In “The Two Allan Armadales,” an illustration for the first edition of Armadale,the artist George Housman Thomas shows the fair Allan gazing with loving concern at the dark one, now known as Midwinter. The latter is feverish and outcast, and the reader’s sympathies go out to him too. This is where Collins neatly reverses the revenge theme, confounding both parental expectations and the reader’s by making his two young Allans the best of friends. Their meeting is engineered: the “dark” one, whose early years were blighted by cruelty, and who has adopted the strange name of Ozias Midwinter from a gipsy companion, is rescued by the “fair” one at his lowest point. But, from then on, events spring from character. Midwinter has been denied any “merciful human respect for human weakness” (122), and suffers from a “savage shyness” (74). His gratitude to Allan, who is incorrigibly boyish, impulsive and generous, without taint of class or racial prejudice, is profound. Bound by such ties of sympathy and gratitude, the two quickly become inseparable. Nothing could be more natural than that Allan, having inherited Thorpe-Ambrose after a chain of accidents, should take Midwinter there with him. He is to be trained up as steward, not to serve him but to be his companion. Social distinctions mean no more to Allan than social conventions and graces. Midwinter for his part lacks any sense of entitlement and would gladly serve Allan. This comes less from his part-Caribbean heritage than from his own early history: Collins understands perfectly the scars left by a difficult childhood, the curious “self-suppression” of the outsider whose identity is never clear (122). But it comes from somewhere deeper than that, too. Like another of Collins’s sympathetic mixed-race characters who has “suffered as few men suffer,” Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone (373), Midwinter is selfless by nature—even, in the narrator’s own judgment, “great” (371). Thus, when he discovers the story behind his real name, he refuses to jeopardise his friend’s happiness by revealing it. He is willing to bear the burden of the past, with its context of colonial oppression, alone.1
While Allan instinctively realises Midwinter’s worth, his mentor, the Reverend Decimus Brock, is at first more representative of Victorian attitudes. Suspicious of the brown-skinned stranger, he wishes he could be removed from their midst—for which he says, “God forgive me!” (73-4). But he catches up with his protégé and develops the same sympathy for the mixed-race youth. Eventually he calls Midwinter his “poor suffering brother” and, more remarkably for this period, his “hardly-tried, … well-loved friend” (623). Although both Allan and Midwinter fall in love with women—both, for a while, with Lydia Gwilt—their relationship with each other, as blessed by Brock himself, is the strongest in the novel. It is not at all a parody of the conventional marriage plot but, as Carolyn Dever has said, in its profound “emotional intimacy,” the marriage plot itself (120).
Early on in The Meaning of Night, the two Allans’ intimacy is echoed when Edward meets and befriends Phoebus 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” (136-37). The choice of words bodes ill, hinting now at unacknowledged wrongs. The moment Edward makes new friends, the relationship implodes. Phoebus becomes clinging and resentful, and Edward is irked: “I was forced to tell him to his face that I found his company wearisome” (139). Soon after this, by Edward’s account, Phoebus gets him expelled on the trumped-up charge of stealing a rare book. But in a later essay on his “Memories of Eton,” Phoebus declares that he had been “bewildered” by Edward’s unexpected departure from Eton (131). This may be what Edward says it is: “memory scrubbed and dressed up for public consumption” (132); but his own version of the episode, coloured now by knowing that Phoebus is the obstacle to his inheriting Evenwood, is probably less trustworthy. Either way, Edward’s academic prospects wither, while Phoebus’s flourish and lead to a successful career as a man of letters. In stark contrast to Armadale, The Meaning of Night focuses on the ferocious, implacable hatred that Edward now not only feels but nurtures for his rival.
Having left behind the revenge motive, Armadale‘s momentum derives from two external sources, and from resistance to them. 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. There may be a rational explanation, as Dr Hawbury suggests, but Midwinter, as the more intelligent and sensitive of the two young men, is haunted by it, and strives to prevent any harm from coming to Allan. The second is Lydia herself, seemingly the female figure in the dream. Bitter at her earlier forgery, since it had robbed him of the bride on whom he had originally set his heart, Midwinter’s father thoroughly blackens her in his confession: “No creature more innately deceitful and more innately pitiless ever walked this earth” (39). But she was a child then. We meet her now as an attractive but already mature woman “without prospects, hopes or friends of any kind” (523), in the unexceptional role of marriage schemer. Her attempts to capitalise on what she knows of the Armadales’ history, and become Mrs Armadale of Thorpe-Ambrose, drive the plot. Allan would have been the easier target, had it not been for the suspicions of his tenant’s jealous invalid wife, Mrs Milroy, and his lawyers, the Pedgifts. But the equally inexperienced Midwinter, typically reluctant to think ill of her, falls prey instead. Under pressure herself from her mentor, the disreputable Maria Oldershaw of the “Ladies’ Toilette Repository,” Lydia even manoeuvres him into marrying her under his real name. But when she then attempts to dislodge Allan from Thorpe-Ambrose, this necessarily pits Midwinter, as Allan’s protector, against her. It is skilfully done, and far less mechanistically than it sounds in summary. The “resistance” works on two levels. First, Midwinter’s influence operates indirectly on her: she had foreseen that she “would end in getting fond of him” (531), and, despite herself, she does: “Was there ever such an infatuated fool as I am?” she upbraids herself in her diary (726). Then, she is outwitted by direct action when Midwinter substitutes himself for Allan and almost dies in his stead.
By now, of course, Lydia has become a more complex character. Her hurt feelings when Midwinter continues to prioritise Allan, as well as the complete candour of her diary entries, have rendered her at least a shade of grey.2 “Reader,” wrote the real-life mid-nineteenth-century diarist Isabella Robinson in one of the entries read by the husband she had cheated on, “you see my inmost soul. You must despise and hate me. Do you also pause to pity?” (qtd. in Summerscale 226). But when Lydia revives her young husband, and resorts to the deadly Purple Flask herself, neither of the main complications are resolved: the significance of Allan’s dream, and how far she has really redeemed herself, are both left in doubt. Moreover, Allan has yet to marry young Eleanor (“Neelie”) Milroy, and Midwinter is now widowed. Nevertheless, Lydia is at peace, and the dangerous impulses she embodied have finally been removed: “the darkness had passed” (816). Both the friends can look to the future, their brotherly attachment, still the emotional matrix of the novel3 and therefore more important than those unresolved issues, reinforced.
There is neither resolution nor hope in the ending of the The Meaning of Night. Now fully aware that the hated Phoebus stands in the way of his “great enterprise” (196)—his installation at Evenwood—the self-absorbed Edward allows his hatred to possess him entirely. It is not so much “overly reactive” (Adair 6) as obsessive. He needs no stimulus from outside, although pressure does mount as Lord Tansor prepares to adopt Phoebus formally as his heir. The climax comes when Edward finds that Phoebus is to cement his position by marrying Emily, the daughter of Paul Carteret, Lord Tansor’s cousin and secretary, the young woman with whom he himself has become infatuated. During Phoebus’s absence in the West Indies, Emily has encouraged this infatuation in order to find out what he knows about his right to Evenwood. Her duplicity, when Edward discovers it, stuns him. His last-minute attempt to convince Lord Tansor of his superior claim to the estate fails, and almost in a parody of the Purple Flask episode in Armadale, he turns to his usual and only solace—opium.
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 stolen 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 whispered to him on leaving Eton: “Revenge has a long memory” (678). There is no reprieve for the victim, no kind of penance from, or release for, the perpetrator. Besides the fulfilment of this boyhood warning, nothing has been achieved. Edward is now a wanted man, further than ever from claiming his inheritance. In a self-pitying “Post Scriptum” he writes, “I long for sleep, and for soft English rain. But they do not come” (695). But it is impossible to sympathise with someone whose long-nursed resentment and over-riding sense of entitlement have resulted in two murders—and who looked like a pantomime figure in his climactic act, with “white stockings and silver-buckled pumps; blue-plush knee breeches; a claret-coloured swallow-tailed coat, with silver buttons and a matching waist-coat” (671).
The title of Book II, Chapter 7 of Armadale is “The Plot Thickens,” and the plots do thicken quite fantastically in both these novels. 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,” admits Catherine Peters (xv); Judith Flanders with equal justice complains about getting “bogged down” in the ramifications of Cox’s plot (23).
As for Armadale, Mrs Milroy instigates enquiries in which many other characters are then involved, from a variety of motives. The spies include Brock; both Allan and Midwinter themselves; Pedgift Senior (now recognised to be a prototype of the television detective, Columbo) and his smart, resourceful son Pedgift Junior. These want to establish the truth about Lydia’s background. Working in her own interests, Lydia uses Allan’s elderly steward Mr Bashwood, who has become ridiculously besotted with her, to report on events at Thorpe-Ambrose, while she sets to work on Midwinter. 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 a crucial 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, he is a professional one, employed by Mr Tredgold, Lord Tansor’s lawyer, to gather 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 is doing the unsavoury prying. 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. Occasionally he is shown to be less self-involved. He is gushingly praised by the earnest fiancé of Dorrie Grainger, a young prostitute he has helped. But there is always the suspicion that he is still manipulating the reader, “controlling the representation of both himself and others” as early fictional detectives tend to do (Thoms 8), to make the most of what little virtue he has displayed.4 Mostly he is ferreting away deviously in his own interests, to find out only the truth that will benefit him. This culminates in his delving into his real mother’s tomb in the Tansor mausoleum, reported in terms that echo the whole impulse of this tortuous and macabre plot: “I extended my hand behind the rear of the coffin and began to pull” (595).
In both Armadale and The Meaning of Night, the narrative is as complex as the plot. Lydia speaks to herself through her diary as to a confidante and adviser: “I tell no lies to my Diary,” she says (688), asking it at one point, “How much longer will my patience last?” (669). The reader is an eavesdropper here—and hears not one story but many. The diary entries are constructs in themselves. One includes a copy of a letter from Brock to Midwinter, encouraging him not to see himself as a threat to Allan, but as “the man whom the providence of God has appointed to save him.” Having reproduced the letter in full, Collins then shows Lydia’s response to it. Significantly, it moves her, shaking her “to the soul” (624). In subsequent entries she brings in and ponders over a partial account of Allan’s dream, as taken down by Midwinter; sets out a letter from Allan to Midwinter urging the two of them to join him on his voyage; copies a newspaper account of the shipwreck in which Allan’s boat is involved, 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” (339), for example, or “when the time comes, the woman will be here” (251). Early reviewers were sometimes irritated by his methods, but Henry James wrote more admiringly of his “massive and elaborate constructions” as “monuments of mosaic work” (743). Collins’s consciousness and display of his own ingenuity bring him close to postmodern narrative pastiche.
Cox’s narrative is just such a pastiche. It starts from near the end of Edward’s story, goes back in Chapter 4 to what he so far knows of his own beginnings, comes in Part II to Phoebus’s “rise” to being Lord Tansor’s favourite—and so on. Since it takes the form of a confession throughout, the author can slot together his clues and manipulate the record quite naturally, with the apparent candour of a Thackeray or Trollope. “Here, perhaps, I may give my faculties a rest and quote directly from the recollections compiled by Daunt for 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). His unreliability as narrator is almost forgotten in a welter of documentary “evidence,” such as Paul Carteret’s long deposition about the late Lady Tansor, and a sample of Phoebus’s feeble poetry.
Yet texts of any kind are of doubtful authority. Whether for writer, reader or collector, or as signifiers, they are problematic throughout. Edward’s foster-mother hunches desperately over a tiny square of space, surrounded by mountains of paper, to produce “romances” for her publisher, and dies starting “yet another” (149). Her death allows Edward to cover up his expulsion in lying letters to his schoolfriends “that no one questioned” (150). Phoebus’s success as a writer exacerbates Edward’s hatred of him. The long list of his “published works” in the appendix is not just a part of Antrobus’s scholarly paraphernalia. It shows what Edward’s enemy has achieved while he himself has been engaged in the futile pursuit of Evenwood. We know from Edward’s expulsion from school that books can trigger life-changing events; later, as Edward tucks an excerpt from one of Phoebus’s own poems into his stiffening hand, we see that they can be implicated in murder, too. Books not only play an ambivalent role in The Meaning of Night. They suggest how we should “read” it. The book Edward either purloined or was falsely accused of purloining from Eton was Nicholas Udall’s mid-sixteenth century farce, Ralph Roister Doister, which hinges on “false surmises” (Act 5, sc.1). The reader is forewarned.
Certain discrete texts are set off by frames, and appear in different fonts: 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 Carteret’s funeral and the inscription on Lady Tansor’s tomb. On the one hand, these, together with Antrobus’s footnotes, help to bring the sensational elements down to earth. On the other, the inclusion of such items as the two luggage labels (in cursive script—Phoebus’s handwriting? Of course not!) confirms the author’s frivolous, tongue-in-cheek attitude to the reader, making such insertions as suspect as Edward’s account itself. In his deposition, Carteret describes sifting through “a little iron-bound chest” containing Lady Tansor’s bafflingly disordered papers (483), and we seem to be confronted with just such a box ourselves.
“The Feeling Heart”
Noting its elaborate mix of intertextuality and metafictional layering, one reviewer suggested that Cox was labouring under the “anxiety of influence” (Foden 15); but surely he is enjoying rather than groaning under his models here, and challenging us to make sense of how he uses them. One way to approach this task is to note how Armadale values and validates what William James termed “the feeling heart” (190), while The Meaning of Night reveals the effect of its absence.
Although Collins “liked to play with his readers,” and “make them guess the secrets of his plots” (Lonoff 108), he played fair, as Cox himself noted with reference to The Moonstone (Introduction xvi). He gives us clues about why things happen as well as how they happen. His “complications” help complicate Lydia’s character, for instance, and in this way prepare for her last action. His characters draw us in rather than keep us at a distance. A contemporary reviewer of The Woman in White declared its author to be “not by any means a master of pathos” (Page 83). But in that novel Marian Halcombe’s “courageous self-control” (562) and devotion to her cousin Laura must touch any heart. Collins always elicits sympathy for those on the margins, including the psychologically disturbed Anne Catherick in that novel. His appeal to the reader’s sympathies in Armadale is less blatant than, say, Dickens’s in Bleak House on behalf of the crossing-sweeper, Jo. But the appeal is there all the same. Like Gabriel Betteredge in The Moonstone, Collins 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]” (17), and for Midwinter he shows and inspires both sympathy and respect. In the case of Lydia again, Collins’s subtlety is such that some earlier readers misread her completely: famously, the Spectatorreviewer described her as “fouler than the refuse of the streets” (Page 150). But Collins reveals her long history of abuse, both in childhood and early womanhood, to the extent that when she is brought to trial for poisoning her first husband, the counsel can argue that her arraignment is “the crowning calamity of the many that had already fallen on an innocent woman” (643), and the public, and eventually the Home Secretary, agree. Recent critics fully recognise the interplay between what was inflicted on her in earlier years, and what drives her now; the extraordinary effort that would be required to exit this vicious cycle; and Collins’s careful presentation of all this for the reader’s consideration (e.g., see Braun 91).
A whole panoply of minor characters also reveals Collins’s compassion here. Mrs Milroy, eaten up with jealousy now, was a happy and kindly wife before she became an invalid; Major Milroy, her long-suffering husband, can only take refuge from his unhappy situation in the unpredictable workings of his model clock, itself an allegory for the vagaries of this life in general, and his own domestic upsets in particular; and Bashwood, “a slow old gentleman” (563), is knocked sideways by the passion awakened in him by Lydia, and becomes the butt of “merciless raillery” (577) at the Pedgifts’ office. Bashwood’s treatment by his callous, greedy son would pierce a heart of stone. As Peters writes tellingly in a different context, Collins was free of the prejudices of so many of his contemporaries, and “always intrigued by, and sympathetic to, outsiders and outcasts, those branded as inferior by reason of class, race, gender, physical handicap, or unusual appearance” (Introduction, The Moonstone, xxii).
Those for whom no compassion is shown are those who lack it themselves. The worst villains are, in fact, those with no hearts to be touched: the manipulative Mother Oldershaw, her accomplice Dr Downward (or, ironically, le Doux), even the Gorgons who see themselves as pillars of the church, and try “with insufferable impudence” to enforce the proprieties on the community (524). These are the self-important and the self-absorbed, who use others for their own ends, even if those ends (as in the case of the sanctimonious Gorgons) are only to reinforce a sense of superiority.
In The Meaning of Night almost everyone falls into this category. One exception is Edward’s novelist mother. However, her early death soon removes her from the stage. As for Edward himself, even though he confides in us directly, he is so devious that we cannot be sure of our status as confidants, and often do not wish to be involved. When, for example, he explains how he begins “to reel … in” Phoebus’s father through their shared bibliophilia (322), we feel more like accessories after the fact, helpless to prevent his deceptions. At the end of his “confession” Edward claims to weep for “the innocent red-haired stranger” he killed at the beginning, a good Christian soul who would now “never again send Bibles and boots to the Africans” (683). But even this sounds mocking. He had wasted no sympathy on the man immediately after the murder, nor had he worried that another equally innocent person might hang for his crime. Despite having diligently washed blood from his collar, he has suffered none of Lady Macbeth’s mental torment. His quest to prove his claim on Evenwood has taken precedence over all other considerations. The main female protagonist, Emily Carteret, might seem a more sympathetic character than either Edward himself, or Lydia in Armadale. Yet, with nothing in her background to mitigate her crime, she is implicated in the killing of her own father, because he had 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 Tredgold has his secrets: he has always known far more than he admits. Edward’s kindly schoolmaster Tom Grexby and his remaining school chum “dear old Le Grice” are both uncomplicated figures (44), recipients of Edward’s stories and funds of common-sense advice, but unfortunately they have little identity beyond their roles in his drama. In his introduction to Victorian Detective Stories, Cox lists the “emphasis on plot rather than character” as one of the “key elements” of Victorian sensation fiction within which the detective story developed (xv). Collins’s characters, however, are often as complex as his plots. In not emulating him in this respect, Cox leaves us to assume their shallowness, if not hollowness—we might even say, their post-authenticity.
Behind these different kinds of characters lie fundamentally different visions of life. T. S. Eliot recognised long ago that Armadale has an “air of spurious fatality” about it (468). The key word here is “spurious.” True, whatever the sensible Dr Hawbury says by way of rational explanation, Allan’s dream visions do appear to be realised one by one, and for much of the time Midwinter reels under their compelling force. In the end even the manipulative Lydia feels trammelled in them: after hearing about Midwinter’s “mad superstition” (683), she quickly comes to see herself as playing a part in it: “If I am the Woman pointed at in the Dream, there will be another temptation put in my way before long” (684). But this sense of fatality is spurious. Contrary to Robin Gilmour’s opinion (111), this is not a cynical novel. Brock’s trust in Providence is fully vindicated. It works, of course, through the agency of human love. Instead of proving a threat to Allan, Midwinter becomes, in Brock’s prophetic words, “the man whom the providence of God has appointed to save him,” proving that “No evil exists, out of which, in obedience to his laws, Good may not come” (624, 623). Lydia herself, unable to fulfil the role foretold for her (it seems) in the dream, succumbs to the power of love. When her attempt to murder Allan redounds on her young husband instead, and she succeeds in reviving him, her face changes: “There was something softly radiant in her eyes, which lit her whole countenance as with an inner light, and made her womanly and lovely once more” (805). It is patently unfair to say that she saves Midwinter only “because her sins have made her not so much repentant as weary” (Marshall 73). She wants to release Midwinter: “All your life is before you,” she murmurs before leaving him, “a happy life and an honoured life if you are freed from me!” (806).
Collins was not a devout man. He was a freethinker, who had rebelled against an Evangelical upbringing, and no longer attended church. There is no hint in the later letters “of religious belief in the customary sense in which his parents and brother would have understood it” (Peters, The King of Invention, 108-9). One of the times when Lydia is most admirable (and amusing) is when she behaves mock-graciously towards the Gorgons. Indeed, in foregrounding Providence, Collins may well have been “taking one of the evangelicals’ choicest weapons and using it to subvert their judgemental version of Christian morality” (Oulton 17). But foreground it he does, displaying a personal faith in some higher order; and in the service of that faith he promotes, instead of that “judgemental version of Christianity,” loving-kindness and forgiveness, virtues available to those of any and every creed.
There is no counterpart to this in Cox’s novel. The difference is not simply that, beyond its “poetical power” and the resonance of John Donne’s sermons, Christianity has no hold on Edward: as he says, “I had already lost whatever allegiance I might have had to that faith” (215). Rather, it is his conviction that he is in the grip of the “Iron Master’s hands” (363). The important dream here, reportedly pasted into the confession, is about this forbidding figure. To Collins, Providence is a guide; but here the links of fate “come together in a random dance, and then conjoin into adamantine permanence” (125). There is no possibility of resisting it. While Brock’s voice is important in Armadale, the one important clergyman in The Meaning of Night, Phoebus’s father, hardly has a voice at all. He seems utterly powerless. He can gainsay neither Lord Tansor himself, nor his own second wife, Phoebus’s step-mother, both of whom, governed by their own worldly ambitions, ride roughshod over his wishes with regard to his son’s upbringing. The boy is to be sent to Eton even though the rector fears, with some justice, that he might be corrupted there. Together, therefore, Lord Tansor and the rector’s wife help to forge the chain that leads to Phoebus’s dubious friendships and, according to Edward’s account, discreditable deeds in later life—not to mention his death by Edward’s hand. Edward himself sees such links as “unbreakable” (440). There is nothing “spurious” about the sense of fatality here, then—except that when he is left at the end with “a one-eyed cat, of superlative hideousness” (694), straight out of Poe, as his sole companion, this seems to turn the whole thing into an elaborate joke on the reader. Thus Cox deploys similar props to Collins’s around characters who absolve themselves from personal responsibility for their actions, and whose actions themselves suggest an authorial stance of sly, constant and very black humour. This author can offer only one alternative to Collins’s “feeling heart”: the dissociation from it that appeared in the very first sentence.
In his later work, Collins would take up specific social problems—fallen women in The New Magdalen(1873), for instance, and issues surrounding divorce and child custody in The Evil Genius: A Domestic Story (1886). In the latter, heeding the advice that “forgiveness of injuries” is “the first of Christian virtues” (309), the divorced wife manages to be magnanimous and forgive her husband for his “sexual frailty” (308). The couple duly remarry and set off on a second honeymoon with their little girl. For all its sensationalism, and even through its sensationalism, in Armadale the novelist projects his views more subtly. Still, it is not difficult to deduce these views, especially after reading their counterpoint in The Meaning of Night.
Cox’s sequel, The Glass of Time, provides a more conventional ending to his narrative. Here, Edward acquires a few more names, including, we may safely assume, Edmund Grendon of Grendon & Co., Booksellers and Publishers in the Strand, mentioned at the end as being helpful but “somewhat reclusive by nature, and often absent on business” (528). He has lived several lives, eluding either punishment for his crimes or the reader’s sympathy. Emily Carteret, who became the new Lady Tansor, has, as Edward foresaw in the earlier novel (see 694), lost more than she ever gained. She now suffers from guilt, though not badly enough to prevent her implication in another murder. Only when the net closes on her does she ask for forgiveness. Edward’s daughter, born in one of his other lives, takes over as chief investigator, using subterfuge worthy of her father in order to resolve the inheritance issue at last. She manages to secure her personal happiness as well, in such a way as to lay the old rivalry to rest. Here then is the final unravelling of the mystery and righting of wrong. Cox himself said that “the spectacle of the unknown becoming known continues to satisfy; the triumph of reason soothes us still” (Introduction, xxvi). But it is hard to feel more than that—hard, in particular, to rejoice with characters whose identities shift so often and so completely, and who focus primarily if not solely on worldly ambitions. Thoroughly researched, intricately plotted, the two-volume saga of the Evenwood inheritance comes to a close, leaving us to wonder what to take away from it.
More, perhaps, than we think at first. To his credit, Cox has not carried over from nineteenth-century sensation or “mystery fiction” simply a vague kind of “nostalgic charm,” as he puts it himself (Introduction, xxvi). There is much atmosphere but little charm about his seedy picture of nineteenth-century London, over which the mirage of Evenwood hovers throughout with “faery splendour” (248). But, to those who pick up on his recycling of the older text, or texts, he does show that Victorian concerns can still resonate with us today. Moreover, and arguably intentionally, he demonstrates by way of contrast that Collins’s treatment of the narrative was not simply a revolutionary way of “conducting experiments with a text” (Costantini 10)—or of keeping the reader on the edge of the seat. Rather, to an extent not usually associated with sensation fiction, it was a means of opening windows on and for human nature. This shows how wrong Eliot was to contend that Armadale “has no merit beyond melodrama” (468). For all his well-known celebration of Collins as an author from whom any contemporary novelist could learn something about “the art of interesting and exciting the reader” (469), Eliot was indeed “really a poor ally of Collins” (O’Neill 2) in this respect.
Like many of the other recent novels that tap into our fascination with all things Victorian, Michael Cox never brings his narrative up into the present. Yet he still participates in our continuing reassessment of the Victorian era, in this case by making us intensely aware of the sea-change in our cultural climate. The Meaning of Night also brings home to us, in this indirect way, “the redemptive power” not so much of the past itself (Shiller 555), as of one particular Victorian novelist’s compelling moral and spiritual vision.
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- With some reason, Monica Young-Zouk (236-37) and Sara Salih (158) emphasise the colonial element rather than see it as context. [↩]
- She emerges as a more sympathetic character in the stage version of the novel, to which she gives her name, and on which Collins collaborated with the celebrated French actor Régnier de la Brièrre (see Gasson 131). [↩]
- When first taken in by Lydia, Allan dismisses his already acknowledged feelings for Neelie as a “foolish flirtation” (363), while Lydia complains in her diary that her new husband “forgets me in Armadale almost as completely as he forgets me in his work” (669).
- Cox himself wrote of the “manipulation of perspective” in this kind of fiction (Introduction, xvi). The suggestion that early examples like Collins’s expose “the story as a construction” relates equally to The Meaning of Night, where such narrative techniques raise similar questions: “Who is this investigator? What are his motives?” and so forth (Thoms 8, 10). [↩]