Could Lydia Gwilt Have Been Happy? A New Reading of Armadale as Marital Tragedy

Much of Wilkie Collins’s Armadale is taken up by Ozias Midwinter’s internal debate about whether the dream in the novel has a natural or a supernatural origin, and by Lydia Gwilt’s plots to acquire Allan Armadale’s fortune. At first sight the marriage between Gwilt and Midwinter appears to be subordinate to these two themes, but it proves potentially one of the best marriages represented in Collins’s fiction. I argue that as far as the fate of Gwilt and Midwinter is concerned, the origin of the dream is irrelevant, and that the tragic end to the novel is brought about by their own personality flaws. Thus the book is a marital tragedy rather than the melodrama that it at first sight appears to be.

My view can be contrasted with that of Peter Thoms, who argues that “for Gwilt, imprisoned as she is by circumstances, love is just another trap” (131), and that “Gwilt fails both because of circumstances and because the weaknesses in her character triumph too often” (132). In my reading, the “circumstances” which lead to the plots against Armadale’s life are not the “formative influences” (130) in Gwilt’s early life, but rather Midwinter’s obsession with Armadale’s dream; and love is not so much a trap as an alternative end which she unwisely renounces. Thoms also says that “Armadale describes not only the successful quest of Midwinter but also the failed journey of Gwilt” (127) and that “[i]n his quest Midwinter has . . . emerged from isolation to reunite with Allan” (123). While I agree that Gwilt fails in the book, I also argue that Midwinter’s outcome can only be defined as triumphant under the male value system which celebrates vocational success and male friendship; in intellectual as opposed to conventional terms, he is far less isolated during the successful phases of his relationship with Gwilt than he is while his friendship with the unreflective Armadale is at its strongest.

In her introduction to the World’s Classics edition of Armadale, Catherine Peters refers to Midwinter’s “desire for the emotional satisfactions of friendship and sexual love” (xvii) and to Gwilt’s “strong physical and mental attraction to another intelligent outsider” (xix). She also notes that “[w]hile presenting the surface of a sensational novel, Armadale suggests the existence of a subtext . . .” (xii). I intend to show in detail how Collins indicates the possibility of a hypothetical alternative ending to the book which does indeed constitute such a subtext. In the course of my argument, I shall also show how Collins’s clumsiness in yoking together the two major textual elements of Armadale’s dream and the Gwilt/Midwinter marriage was forced upon him by his need to follow generic conventions. Given the emphasis in the book on the debate between free will and determinism, in what follows I shall adopt the assumption that the characters had full psychological autonomy in their fictional world (except insofar as they were constrained to fulfil the dream).

Armadale’s dream, as transcribed by Midwinter, contains three visions. The first is the appearance of “the Shadow of a Woman”. The second involves the shadow of a man stretching out its arm towards a statue, which breaks. The third involves the shadow of a woman giving the shadow of a man a glass of liquid, the man giving the glass to Armadale, and Armadale’s fainting when he puts it to his lips (CollinsArmadale, 141-2). It is worth noting that the dream is not reported directly by the narrator; instead, the reader is given Midwinter’s account, which the easy going Armadale assents to as being an accurate representation (141). It is also significant that in one way Midwinter’s attitude towards the dream is overly rationalistic—he insists on writing a detailed account of it, and asking Armadale to sign it—and in another, overly emotional—he persists in believing it to have a supernatural origin (143).

There are three different interpretations of the dream given in the text at this point. Armadale’s interpretation of the dream is “warning be hanged— it’s all indigestion!” (140). His attitude towards it is to request that Midwinter “leave off thinking about the dream”, hand over “that trumpery bit of paper”, and “have done with it” (152). I do not argue that his interpretation is correct (indeed, the question of which is the correct interpretation is an issue which is not settled by the text), but his advice to Midwinter, which is not followed, turns out by chance to have been good advice, as I shall show below.

The second interpretation is given by Mr Hawbury the doctor, who peremptorily dismisses Armadale’s explanation as simplistic: “The sight of your face is quite enough . . . I certify, on the spot, that you never had such a thing as an indigestion in your life” (140). He asserts that “[a] Dream is the reproduction, in the sleeping state of the brain, of images and impressions produced on it in the waking state” (144), and laboriously traces each element of the dream back to an incident in Armadale’s waking life (144-50). Mr Hawbury’s explanation is what is referred to in the book (including the Appendix) as the natural explanation.

The third interpretation of the dream is Midwinter’s (140, 143, 151). He believes that the three visions of the dream will be fulfilled, and that, as Mr Hawbury puts it, “this dream is a warning, supernaturally addressed to Mr Armadale” (143) and that “these fulfilments of the dream will mark the progress of certain coming events, in which Mr Armadale’s happiness, or Mr Armadale’s safety, will be dangerously involved” (151).

There is a further, fourth reading of the dream, which is not suggested in the text, and which would be obvious if we were to take the chapter in which it is presented out of the context of the book: that it symbolizes male friendship being supplanted by female friendship. Armadale explains (in the presence of Midwinter) that the taste of brandy makes him faint (149), so that a reader who was not influenced by the knowledge that these events were being encountered in the context of a Collins sensation novel would not naturally think of poison. I speculate that Armadale’s dream, and Midwinter’s superstitious belief in it, represent male fear of marriage: that is to say, that vague fears about a union with the opposite sex have taken on the concrete form of a fantasy in which first of all the two friends quarrel, and then the female partner of one tries to harm the other.1 Note that the characters in the book are led by the context in which the dream appears to overlook the possibility of this fourth interpretation: this context colours their emotional response. In the paragraphs below, I shall look more closely at the precise function of the dream in the novel.2

Much of the tension in Armadale is caused by the conflicting expectations arising from the narrative. The reader expects the three visions of the dream to be fulfilled, and anticipates that the third vision represents Armadale’s death. But he or she also expects the conventional happy ending of fiction, in which the heroes survive and the villain is punished. Swinburne, in his 1889 comments on the book, reprinted in Page’s collection, suggested that:

The prologue or prelude is so full of interest and promise that the expectations of its readers may have been unduly stimulated; but the sequel, astonishingly ingenious and inventive as it is, is scarcely perhaps in perfect keeping with the anticipations thus ingeniously aroused. (258)

The reason for this is that the prologue appears to herald a pure melodrama, whereas, in order to satisfy the conflicting expectations which have been set up in the mind of the reader, Collins has the third vision of the dream fulfilled innocuously. Gwilt attempts to poison Armadale, but disguises the taste of the poison by using brandy, in ignorance of his allergy to it, and the brandy causes Armadale to faint (562-3), and thus, as I argue below, yokes the melodrama (which may or may not have been predestined) to a tragedy which has its roots in all too human character.

Gwilt comes to marry Midwinter after a sequence of events which originate in her plot to marry Armadale for his fortune. Thus, although her original motives were immoral, they fortuitously led her into a situation of potential happiness, as I argue below. (Perhaps Collins is here offering a comment on morality: what determines Gwilt’s fate is not whether her motivations can be labelled as moral or immoral, but rather whether at any given stage she is acting in her own interests in acting on these motivations. Also, the distinction between the origin of Gwilt’s motivations and the wisdom or otherwise of acting upon these motivations, parallels the distinction between the origin of Armadale’s dream and the wisdom or otherwise of interpreting the dream as a forewarning of danger. (I shall return to this theme of the relationship between emotion and reason at the end of the essay.)

A character-type which recurs throughout Collins’s work is that of the intellectual character who (for whatever reason) does not fit in to his or her social milieu. Examples outside Armadale include Magdalen Vanstone in No Name who tries to regain her family fortune by unconventional means (as discussed by O’Neill, 158-63), Mannion in Basil who is the son of a man who has been hung for forgery (228-9), and Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone. Such characters do not in general find marital partners who share the isolation from society caused by their situations or attitudes. Gwilt and Midwinter form an exception to this general rule. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a more appropriate partner for Gwilt (from anywhere in literature) than Midwinter, or of a more appropriate partner for Midwinter than Gwilt. Additionally, their marriage is unusual by the standards of most Victorian fiction, both in that it is a marriage of intellectuals, and in that it is a relationship between an older woman—Gwilt is thirty-five (162)—and a much younger man— Midwinter is only twenty-one (76).3 More typical marriages in Collins’s fiction include that between Magdalen Vanstone and Captain Kirke,4 between Walter Hartright and Laura Glyde in The Woman in White, and between the unintellectual Armadale and Neelie Milroy, anticipated at the end of the novel (676). Indeed, one of the functions of Neelie Milroy in the book is to highlight the emotionally and intellectually unsatisfying nature of the conventional marriage in the Victorian novel, in contrast to that of the Gwilt/Midwinter partnership.5

Gwilt writes of her relationship to Midwinter in her diary:

“How happy I was in the first days that followed our marriage . . . Only two months have passed, and that time is a bygone time already! I try to think of anything I might have said or done wrongly, on my side—of anything he might have said or done wrongly, on his—and I can remember nothing unworthy of my husband, nothing unworthy of myself. I cannot even lay my finger on the day when the cloud first rose between us . . . It is only at night . . . that I know how hopelessly I am losing the love he once felt for me.” (545)

She wonders whether there is an “unutterable Something left by the horror of my past life, which clings invisibly to me still?” (546). However, this possibility can be discounted. The only sustainable explanation for Midwinter’s unhappiness which has been presented to the reader is his superstitious belief in the dream as a harbinger of evil. We are told later on, that, on an occasion when Midwinter is asleep, he has lying under his hand his Narrative of Armadale’s Dream (554). We are also told that his dedication to his work is not the only cause of his neglect of Gwilt:

“Midwinter’s all-important letter to the newspaper was despatched by the post last night. I was foolish enough to suppose that I might be honoured by having some of his spare attention bestowed on me to-day. Nothing of the sort!” (550)

Interpreting the dream as Midwinter does—as an indication of preordained doom—makes the continued desire of Gwilt for Armadale’s fortune appear a foregone conclusion. However, a close look at the text shows that this interpretation is incorrect. Collins indicates that, had he abandoned his superstition at this stage, Midwinter would have induced Gwilt to abandon her plot against Armadale’s life on account of the happiness of her marriage. (As discussed below, the ambiguity in the third vision of the dream allows scope for this alternative reading.) We are told again in Gwilt’s diary:

“Supposing I was not the altered woman I am—I only say, supposing—how would the Grand Risk that I once thought of running, look now? . . . the first of those three steps which were once to lead me, through Armadale’s life, to the fortune and station of Armadale’s widow. No matter how innocent my intentions on my wedding day— and they were innocent—this is one of the unalterable results of the marriage. Well, having taken the first step . . . supposing I meant to take the second step, which I don’t—how would present circumstances stand towards me? Would they warn me to draw back, I wonder? or would they encourage me to go on?” (548)

The circumstances, as it turned out, encouraged her to go on.

At this point, it is necessary to take account of two different hypotheses.  Firstly, even if we assume for the sake of argument that Midwinter was correct in his belief that the dream had a supernatural origin, and that the visions within it would have been fulfilled regardless of the actions of the characters, a close look at the text shows that he was incorrect in his further belief that the dream was necessarily a prediction of doom to Armadale. Collins makes the third and final vision ambiguous. It could have been fulfilled by Gwilt’s handing to Armadale at some stage of her married life a glass containing brandy (the taste of which, as mentioned earlier, causes him to faint), but not poison. (This third vision, as described earlier, involved Armadale’s fainting upon putting a glass of liquid to his lips; nothing within the dream implied that the glass contained poison, although this was implicitly assumed by Midwinter.) This would have represented an innocuous closure to the book. Secondly, if we assume that the dream did not have a supernatural origin, (and that the three visions were therefore not fated to be realized), then the fulfilment of the first two was merely coincidental. In this case, the alternative reading of events suggested by Collins is straightforward: again, as indicated above, had Midwinter abandoned his superstition upon marrying Gwilt, she would have abandoned her plot against Armadale, and thus the third and final vision would not have been fulfilled.

Thus I have shown that, whether or not the dream had a supernatural origin, in either case Gwilt’s attempted poisoning of Armadale (which in the text represents the fulfilment of the third vision of the dream) was brought about first of all by Midwinter’s irrational belief in the dream (and not, as might originally appear, directly by the dream itself), and secondly by Gwilt’s irrational persistence in her plots against Armadale. (I call her persistence irrational because her marriage to Midwinter gives her a potential source of satisfaction independent of Armadale’s fortune.)

Even at this stage, after the first attempt on Armadale’s life, the eventual suicide of Gwilt could have been avoided. She plots to have Armadale murdered at sea (567-70). As she writes in her diary:

The one danger to dread was the danger of Midwinter’s resolution, or rather of Midwinter’s fatalism, giving way at the last moment. If he allowed himself to be persuaded into accompanying Armadale on the cruise, Manuel’s exasperation against me would hesitate at nothing . . . he would be capable of exposing my whole past life to Midwinter before the vessel left the port. (573)

Again Collins suggests the possibility of an alternative chain of events: Gwilt’s diary suggests that had Midwinter abandoned his superstition even at this late stage, at worst Gwilt’s marriage would have broken up—the train of events leading to her suicide would not have occurred. Even after Armadale sailed, Gwilt’s tragedy could have been avoided. She writes once more in her diary:

if he had persisted in his first resolution to accompany me to England, rather than allow me to travel alone, I firmly believe that I should have turned my back on temptation for the second time, and have lulled myself to rest once more in the old dream of living out my life happy and harmless in my husband’s love. (578)

As suggested in the diary, Midwinter once again had an opportunity to prevent the tragic ending of the novel. Armadale might or might not have been killed at sea, but Gwilt’s marriage to Midwinter would have continued. Once the fulfilment of the three visions of the dream has been completed, it should be apparent even to someone who believes that the dream foreshadowed future events that this dream can now have nothing more to say about the future. However, Midwinter’s fatalism persists even though the dream is now superannuated. In the Epilogue, after Gwilt’s suicide, Midwinter says to Armadale:

I have learnt to view the purpose of the dream with a new mind. I once believed that it was sent to rouse your distrust of the friendless man whom you have taken as a brother to your heart. I now know that it came to you as a timely warning to take him closer still. Does this help to satisfy you that I, too, am standing hopefully on the brink of a new life, and that while we live, brother, your life and mine will never be divided again? (677)

Armadale’s closing words in the Epilogue are:

Everybody says, Midwinter, you have a great career before you—and I believe that everybody is right. Who knows what great things may happen before you and I are many years older? (677)

Thus Midwinter’s career prospects, like his friendship with Armadale, are celebrated at the expense of his potentially fulfilling marriage with Gwilt.
I have demonstrated that although the first part of Armadale (by which I mean the events preceding Gwilt’s marriage to Midwinter) is, as is commonly recognized, a melodrama concerned with external conflicts, the second is a tragedy concerned with internal ones. The main conflict, which is responsible for the tragic end, being that in which Midwinter’s superstition conquers his reason. Subsidiary conflicts are those of love against ambition: Gwilt’s love for Midwinter against her ambition for the possession of Armadale’s fortune, and Midwinter’s love for Gwilt against his ambition connected with his career as a journalist.

I have also shown that the main theme of Armadale is that of male friendship considered as an alternative to a satisfying marriage (as opposed to the conventional marriage of Victorian fiction as exemplified by Armadale and Neelie Milroy). However, there is also another significant theme: that of how reason can be corrupted by emotion. Midwinter believes that, when Armadale has his dream, it is a supernatural indication that he may bring harm to his friend. He then continues to believe this even when the three visions of the dream have been fulfilled and the dream can therefore, even if his conjecture about its supernatural origin is accurate, have nothing more to say about the future. Finally, at the end of the book, he indulges in an elaborate post hoc fitting of circumstances to theory and concludes that the dream was in fact a warning that his friendship with Armadale should be reinforced. Mr Hawbury also indulges in a post hoc fitting of circumstances to theory when he argues that the dream had a rational explanation (143-50)—a reading which is not sanctioned by the text. Armadale himself argues that the best course of action would be to forget the dream, but this sound advice (which, as I have explained above, would have saved Midwinter’s marriage had he followed it) originates not from any kind of reasoned argument but rather from the flippancy of his character and his intellectual laziness. Finally, Gwilt is propelled by her mercenary desire for Armadale’s fortune into what could have been a fulfilling marriage with Midwinter, but chooses to indulge her desire even when it is no longer in her own interests to do so.

I conclude by quoting Pedgift Senior’s admonition to Armadale against Gwilt, which I take out of context as a comment on the interpretation of Collins’s texts in general, and Armadale in particular:

You and my son are young men; and I don’t deny that the circumstances, on the surface, appear to justify the interpretation which, as young men, you have placed on them. I am an old man—I know that circumstances are not always to be taken as they appear on the surface . . . (367)

Works Cited

Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. Ed. John Sutherland. London: Penguin, 1995.

_________. Basil. London: Constable, 1980.

_________. The Fallen Leaves. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1997.

_________. The Moonstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

_________. No Name. Ed. Virginia Blain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

_________. The Woman in White. Ed. H.P. Sucksmith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Huskey, Melynda. ‘No Name: Embodying the Sensation Heroine.’ In Victorian Newsletter (Fall 1992) 5-13.

O’Neill, Philip. Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety. London: Macmillan, 1988. Peters, Catherine. Introduction to Armadale, by Wilkie Collins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Swinburne, A.C. ‘Wilkie Collins.’ In Fortnightly Review NS 275 (1 Nov 1889) 589-99.

Reprinted in Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage, ed. Norman Page, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Taylor, Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-century Psychology. London: Routledge, 1988.

Thoms, Peter. The Windings of the Labyrinth: Quest and Structure in the Major Novels of Wilkie Collins.Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992.

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  1. Although my explanation for the origin of the dream, like all my arguments in this essay, rely only upon an examination of the text, and not on extraneous historical or biographical facts, it is interesting to note, purely as an aside, that Collins himself never married. []
  2. Jenny Bourne Taylor’s book includes material on the Victorian theory of dreams; as stated above, however, this historical background is not necessary to my argument. Catherine Peters (xxi-xxii) states that Collins “hints at the possibility of yet another, unexpressed meaning to the dream, which hovers between the other two” (i.e. the doctor’s “rational” explanation and the “prophetic” one) and that the terms he uses for the three people in it (“the dreamer, the Shadow of a Man, and the Shadow of a Woman”) “embody a startling anticipation of Jung’s theories of ‘the shadow'”. Although my explanation could be called psychoanalytic, in the sense that it postulates a surface manifestation of hidden fears, it has been presented without reference to any specific psychoanalytic theory. []
  3. Collins did sketch the beginnings of a relationship between an older woman and a younger man elsewhere—Mellicent and Amelius in The Fallen Leaves—but he did not develop this as he does with Gwilt and Midwinter. []
  4. Melynda Huskey points out that Kirke’s love for her “is based entirely on Magdalen’s appearance” (9). []
  5. The contrasts between the Gwilt/Midwinter, the Armadale/Midwinter, and the Armadale/ Neelie Milroy relationships probably deserve a fuller analysis than I have given here, but for the purposes of my argument that the book is a marital tragedy, it is sufficient to note the quality of the first of these. []