‘In the Mystery and Terror of a Dream’: Sensationalism, Consistency, and Mental Science in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale

In an October 1859 letter, Charles Dickens disagreed with Wilkie Collins’s advice to draw a more explicit connection between two characters in A Tale of Two Cities: ‘I do not positively say that the point you put, might not have been done in your manner; but […] it would have been overdone in that manner – too elaborately trapped, baited, and prepared [without] the care that conceals itself’ (Letters, 9:127-8). Indeed, Dickens frequently complained that Collins’s style ‘creak[ed]’ too ‘loud’ (10:22). Accusations of over-determination and heavy-handed artifice – whether explicit or implicit – have been a recurring theme in critiques of sensationalist authors. Lyn Pykett’s assertion that the sensation genre’s ‘“thrilling” devices […] may cause the sophisticated late-twentieth-century reader to smile’ (13) points toward such criticism.

Collins’s work by no means escapes such critique. Monica M. Young-Zook, for instance, implies an inverse relationship between the social import of Armadale and its heavy-handed qualities: the ‘novel is slightly flawed and over‑determined, yet it represents an attempt to “speak the truth” about certain gendered expectations in a colonial context’ (my emphasis, 234). Similarly, Nathan K. Hensley writes, ‘Sensational as it may be, the novel’s double-generational plot recapitulates the more serious temporal-political schemes set out by Collins’s advanced liberal contemporaries’ (my emphasis, 618). Contemporaries of Collins likewise pointed to his formal heavy‑ handedness as a source of derision. An 1852 article in the Leader faulted Collins’s novel, Basil, for a degree of contrivance that ‘makes even commonplace incidents look “improbable”’ (1141). Another claimed that though ‘Mr. Collins constructs his machinery well [,] he never rises above machinist’ (Review Queen of Hearts 488). When Collins attempted to defend himself in prefaces against these and like evaluations, fellow writers suggested that he desist lest he draw further attention to his technique (Peters 86). He ignored their advice, and his reputation for over-determinacy lasted throughout his career. Anthony Trollope’s 1883 Autobiography, for one, evidences the lasting nature of this opinion:  ‘The construction [of Collins’s novels] is most minute and most wonderful. But I can never lose the taste of the construction’ (81).

My article, however, will argue that the ‘creakiness’ of Collins’s 1866 novel Armadale is in fact a deft, metafictional rebuttal to such critiques. By examining contemporaneous dream theory, which I suggest informs the novel’s central plot point – Armadale’s dream – and then connecting that theory to the rhetoric of anti-sensationalists, I show how the novel’s dream sequence (and its own interpretation of that dream sequence) posits an alternate hermeneutic of reading. This alternate hermeneutic casts the readerly practices associated with the sensational novel as gentlemanly, thereby disassociating sensational ‘creakiness’ from the ‘low’ status to which its critics had consigned it. Through this process, Collins, I want to suggest, meant to contradict the ideologically-charged hermeneutics espoused in mid-to-late-19th-century assessments of the sensational genre.

Critics have established that Victorian book reviews repeatedly associated sensation fiction’s content to real-life crime. Winifred Hughes, for example, cites a Blackwood’s article to illustrate how reviewers looked back ‘wistfully’ to the above-board crime of the Newgate novel contra what they saw as the lurid crime of sensation fiction (32). Andrew Mangham begins his section on Victorian ‘popular fictional representations’ of crime with reference to Henry Mansel’s review describing the sensationalist weaving true crime into fiction (63). Deborah Wynne identifies negative reviews of sensation fiction as a backdrop against which Wilkie Collins’s editors exploited that genre’s association with real-life crime. Wynne argues that, by setting The Woman in White alongside an unusually high number of non-fiction reports relating to forgery, imposters, and violence, editors were able to generate marketable controversy for the novel (38-39).

I would suggest more specifically, however, that Victorian book reviews conflated crime with the genre’s formal reliance on tropes of inconsistency. Sensation books did not simply shock the reader by displaying gruesome events; they impelled the reader forward by jolts and disconcertion. H.L. Mansel’s famous critique makes much of the ‘means’ by which sensationalism accomplishes its ‘preaching to the nerves’ (216). A review in the Athenaeum specifies this method, describing how ‘the novel-reader must be incessantly stimulated by all sorts of ingenious mystification’ (Review Young Musgrave 769). Typically, ‘mystification’ came in the shape of tropes that continually shocked the reader out of his/her sense of coherence. Various contemporary reviewers identified such tropes as episodic discrepancies – what Margaret Oliphant called ‘piquant situation and startling incident’ (‘Sensation’ 568); a ‘breathless rapidity of [plot] movement’ which mimics the unpredictable, frenetic pace of modern life (Lewes 894); and ‘disconnected’ narrative accounts which baffle the ‘well-regulated mind’ (Butterworth 503). The ‘sensation’ epithet, which originally described the reactions produced in lurid, criminal court cases, thus registered a link between crime and the genre’s formal qualities, not simply its subject matter.

Critical denigration of the genre’s inconsistencies corresponded to a prevalent, Victorian ideology regarding what constituted ‘proper’ masculinity. Recent feminist criticism has uncovered the various ways in which certain exemplary texts clashed with idealisations of Victorian, middle-class womanhood,1 replacing appropriate self-control with ‘eagerness of physical sensation’ (Oliphant, ‘Novels’ 259). However, as James Eli Adams has notably shown, by the 1830s self-control was ‘increasingly claimed as the […] distinguishing attribute of middle-class men’ (7). If ‘sensation’s’ effects were ‘unladylike,’ they were equally ‘ungentlemanly.’ Samuel Smiles’s best-selling Self-Help, one of the most prominent and ideologically charged texts of the day, is perhaps the most salient register of the polarisation of inconsistency and gentlemanliness. Drawing upon contemporary Christian texts and their emphasis on perseverance, Smiles defines the ideal gentleman as a man of ‘character’ – a term which he repeatedly associates with habit, repetition, and what he calls ‘integrity in word and deed’ (317). For Smiles, a man is only as good as the consistency of his conduct – a notion sorely at odds with sensationalism’s formal qualities.

And yet, in conceptualising character as performative, Smilesian ideology opened space for sensationalist authors such as Collins to ‘re-perform’ that trait through characterisation. By constructing a narrative around a vacated gentleman-name (that of the original Armadale who dies at the outset) and then using the conflict between its two protagonists’ dream-readings to align a character with that name, Armadale makes such readings a means of performing gentlemanly ‘character.’ That Ozias’s interpretation – one filled with inconsistencies – proves the successful mode for integrating a character into the Armadale name directly counters the polarisation of inconsistency and gentlemanliness espoused by anti-sensationalists (and represented in Allan’s consistent hermeneutic). The novel’s dream thus exposes the ideological ‘constructedness’ of the masculinity embedded in such critiques and, further, vindicates the sensational genre through an alternative ‘realist’ model of characterisation that re-defines the very nature of gentlemanliness itself.

Dreaming serves as a particularly viable avenue for Collins’s novelistic re-definition of gentlemanliness, for, in the mid-nineteenth century, scholars of dream interpretation were employing a rhetoric of identity similar to that found in sensation debates. In a concerted effort to shift thinking about dreams away from the supernatural, ‘mental scientists’ such as John Abercrombie, William Newnham, Robert MacNish, and Walter C. Dendy cast dreams as incoherencies that needed to be brought into order by ‘natural […] governing laws’ (Bernard 197).

Most often, they rationalised the necessity for this ordering in terms of mental and physical health. Dreams were seen as the result of an unhealthy nervous disorder within the individual. Newnham, for instance, claims that they ‘may be generally considered as resulting from some […] morbid action of the brain’ (160). Similarly, MacNish associates dreams with ‘the sleep of disease’ (10), and quotes a Dr. Rush in classifying them as ‘transient paroxysm[s] of delirium’ (45). This final reference hints towards the general concurrence that the root of such ‘disease’ subsisted in variations of what Newnham calls a ‘peculiar excitement […] which [disturbs] the nervous system’ (169). In serious cases, disease was categorised as ‘proximate’ – a person’s past ideas and actions, recurring in distorted form while asleep (Dendy 45). Such understanding, wherein dreams become agitated disruption, parallels the rhetoric of sickness that typified sensation criticism. Mansel, for instance, describes the excitement of sensationalism as having ‘the cost of so much morbid anatomy’ and employs verbatim the terms ‘morbid,’ ‘disease,’ and ‘delirium’ (222-223). In the same way that critics saw the sensation reader as wanting remedy for the morbid over-stimulation of narrative jolts, so too mental scientists viewed the dreamer’s condition as a hyper-excited nervous illness in need of a curative.

Further, mental scientists’ conceptualisation of dream-as-disease was grounded in a paradigm of the healthy individual analogous to that signaled by the term ‘character’ in critiques of sensationalism. MacNish, in fact, explicitly states that dreams are closely tied to ‘character’ (62), which he clarifies as ‘whatever propensities […] are strongest in the mind of an individual’ (64). This definition is particularly important, as the high regard for ‘propensity’ points towards the strong influence of Associationist theories of the individual upon mental scientists’ hermeneutics. To interpret the phenomenon of dreaming, MacNish and fellow physicians adopted notions of the mind conceptualised by Locke and filtered through the more recent Associationist work of David Hartley in his Observations of Man, his Frame, Duty and Expectations (1749). Hartley’s reading of Locke’s idea that the mind functioned through the linking of ideas into chains of thought, led him to a model where repetition formed lasting physical vibrations in the brain and thereby established the course of reminiscence and thought generally. Drawing from this model, dream theorists explained the wild ideas and images in dreams as ‘imperfect associations’ (Dendy 39), ‘the resuscitation or re-embodiment of [former] thoughts [broken] loose from their connecting chain, and […] jumbled together incoherently’ (MacNish 49). By thus setting the metaphor of the chain within an outline of dreams-as-disease, such work implied a dichotomy between consistency (the linking of repetition) as forming the healthy individual and inconsistency (the dream’s de-regularising of the chain) as signifying ill health. In this way, its pseudo-medical framework indirectly reinforced popular ideologies of ‘character’ which equated consistency with the sound, moral individual.

As a result, mental scientists’ process of dream analysis aggrandised consistency as an accepted telos. Investigation began with the assumption that the initial unintelligibility of dreams was due to internal discord. Newnham, for instance, claims that, in dreams, one loses the ‘perfect integrity of the brain’ (170) resulting in images which ‘want at least one link to constitute them perfect mental operations’ (163, original emphasis). MacNish similarly identifies dreams as the result of a ‘[dis]quiescence of all the organs which compose the brain’ (43). Even as these quotes characterise the dream-state as disharmonious, they simultaneously evince a desire for cohesion – implied in the repeated prefix ‘con’ (compose, constitute) and explicit in the words ‘integrity,’ ‘perfect,’ and ‘quiescence.’ Conceptualising interpretation as the ordering of fragmented dream-action into coherent understanding, mental scientists presumed to fulfill this desire. The corrupted chain of mental thoughts, it was understood, could be slowly repaired via analysis once again to form a regular thread. The individual’s consistency was thus established at the same time that wholeness was restored, perpetuating a notion of the one’s indispensability to the other.

Allan’s experience of the Armadale dream is essentially a recapitulation of these mental scientists’ theories. Temporarily jolted out of his customarily even disposition by the seeming unintelligibility of the dream, Allan recovers himself by conceptualising that unintelligibility as disarranged past experience and then reordering it. He and Dr. Hawbury use the latter’s ‘rational theory of dreams’ to ‘trace back the whole succession of events […] to something that he [Allan] has said or thought, or seen or done’ (174), thus making his disordered thoughts ‘take some consistency’ (178, my emphasis). A variation on mental science, in other words, is used to promote the necessity of reintegrating one’s actions, erroneously fragmented, into regular, concordant procession.

Other aspects of the narrative, however, undercut this argument for requisite consistency by signaling Allan’s hermeneutic system as overly narrow, marked by omission and ignorance. The account of the event that prompts the dream first encourages doubt in the accuracy of Allan’s ‘mental scientist’ methodology. The setting is the wreck of the ship on which Ozias’s father had murdered Allan’s father years earlier. The return of this vessel, marked as ominous by its sensational description as gloomy and full of shadow (147-148), substantiates the still lingering influence of the dark history upon the present. The place remains under a malevolent cloud, its literal fracturedness a symbolic reminder of the past fracturing of the Armadale family. At the same time, the narrative juxtaposes this sinister valance against Allan’s self-satisfied manner. The narrator describes him ‘astride on the bulwark, [bursting] into his loudest and heartiest laugh’ (147). ‘Cheerfully,’ he ‘saunter[s] humming the chorus of a comic song’ (148).  The dissonance between such behaviour and the disturbing history of the ship, about which Allan is unaware, equates his complacency with ignorance. Further, in the superlative nature of the laugh and the connotations of the verbs ‘astride’ and ‘saunter,’ this complacence carries an undertone of audacity, heightening the effect of the dramatic irony which permeates the scene – later, Allan laughs again while looking directly at the cabin where his father was murdered (150). Such irony works to distance the reader from Allan’s later interpretation of the dream, as its impact requires indulgence in the notion that the wreck which cues it has greater significance than Allan and Dr. Hawbury will concede. Thus, Allan’s posture towards the stimulus of the dream stresses the restrictiveness of his self-possession.

Allan’s dream-state, in contrast, is characterised by temporary loss of composure. His ‘perfect repose’ becomes ‘the distorted face of a suffering man’ (163), who awakens in a condition where he must ‘wait a little till I’m my own man again’ (164). The linking of the dream with temporary self-dispersal marks it as a rupture of the ignorance tied to Allan’s composure. Fragmented, much like the fragmented ship, he sees in it what his coherent self does not.

His loss of ‘own’ership over himself, I would further suggest, links his distorted vision to Ozias and his nervous sensibilities. Earlier in the novel, Ozias’s anxiousness had exhibited a strange communicability. Mr. Brock, for instance, is atypically ‘discompose[d]’ (73) upon first seeing the usher. Later, recollection of Ozias causes ‘his essentially unimaginative mind […] to stagger’ (88, my emphasis). Ozias’s nervousness disarranges Brock at his very essence, and that disarrangement seems to transfer to the latter the extraordinary, imaginative qualities associated with those nerves. The description of Allan in his dream state hints similarly at this nervous influence:

The dreamer’s helpless groaning for deliverance grew louder; his hands raised themselves, and clutched at the empty air. Struggling with the all-mastering dread that still held him, Ozias laid his hand… (164)

The structure of this excerpt conflates Allan’s agitation with that of his friend. The introductory clause of the second sentence defers the noun ‘Ozias,’ allowing the ‘dread’ to ‘master’ Allan as, for a split second, it simultaneously ‘masters’ Ozias. In this conflation, the former, dreaming, merges with the latter and his heightened sensibilities. The men become united via grammatical arrangement. In effect, the syntax replicates an act of mesmerism, a ‘science’ which, as Lewis Roberts explains, was closely tied to Collins’s understanding of dreams (175). Allan, in sleep, is ‘owned’ by his companion. His nightmare vision is thus specifically sold as a projection of the agitated Ozias, who, unlike Allan, knows of the ship’s dreadful history and believes its reappearance to be an ill omen.

Hawbury’s and Allan’s interpretation then reads as doubly regressive, closing off the communication with the Armadale past and setting its goal as the restoration of Allan’s complacency. The narrative emphasises the first point through Hawbury’s boast that the vision can be traced to events ‘in the four-and-twenty hours, or less, which preceded his [Allan’s] falling asleep’ (174). This is a significant alteration of mental scientists’ theories of association. As Abercrombie conjectures, dreams consist of both recent events and ‘old events’ (258) or ‘old associations, respecting things which had entirely passed out of the mind, and which seem to have been forgotten’ (265). Hawbury’s hyperbolic limiting of events to one day underlines the narrowness of his viewpoint. Even while employing a theory grounded in the recurrence of past events, he and Allan leave untouched a large quarry of potentially associative events. Instead, they identify the two shadows in Allan’s dream ‘with such unromantic originals as a woman who keeps a hotel, and a man who physics a country district’ (181). The generic unsuitability of this surmise – made explicit in the adjective ‘unromantic’ – within the framework of a sensation novel, ensures a failure to satisfy readerly expectation, further discrediting Hawbury’s and Allan’s analysis.

This system of reading, narrow and ineffectual, yields to that of Allan’s counterpart, Ozias Midwinter. The novel constructs Ozias’s interpretation of the nightmare by tapping into alternative understandings of the dream-state in order to figure dream-related inconsistency as, itself, a purposeful telos, and thereby self-reflexively reinforce Ozias’s kind of readerly practice as a viable means to establish its own gentleman character. By paradoxically entertaining a belief in the dream as a prognostication and a disbelief in his own conviction, Ozias is able to read the dream as a means to reformulate the conflicts embedded in the Armadale name (and reawakened through the return of Lydia Gwilt).

Ozias’s tenuous belief in the dream as a premonition incorporates the sort of hermeneutic paradigm away from which mental scientists were attempting to move. Dendy, Newnham, and MacNish unanimously reject the visionary power of dreams as, respectively, not ‘rationally’ viable (70), ‘groundless [and] inexplicable’ (223), and ‘unphilosophical’ (102). Such adjectives correlate the dismissal of supernatural visions with their general incompatibility to mental scientists’ preferred modes of thought. Acknowledging the idea of pre-vision would mean disrupting the surety of an associative schema based upon recurrence. MacNish eschews premonition to such an extent that he claims, ‘I would not have noticed it, were it not advocated even by persons of good sense and education’ (102). Significantly, this statement suggests that, despite the scientific counter-movement outlined above, notions of premonition remained prevalent within the mid-Victorian cultural conversation of dreaming.

Indeed, strong spiritualist movements, both secular and religious, pervaded discourses about dreaming and formed a significant resistance to mental science. John Sheppard’s On Dreams, In Their Mental and Moral Aspects (1847) postulates that the soul is made of minute particles that allow it to pass out of the material body during sleep and gather supernatural messages (48). Thomas Millington similarly writes that ‘during sleep […] the mind in its partial abstraction from the body learns from a higher […] order of spirits […] future events’ (32). Here, both writers cast dreaming as a space where self and body part and transcendental knowledge is acquired. The fractured visions from which mental scientists saw the need to recoup identity are instead relished as a source of higher awareness.

In a related manner, another strain of spiritualist thinking saw dreams as containing messages sent from God, often citing Scriptural prophecy as evidence. Mrs. Blair’s Dreams and Dreaming (1843), for example, supports the contention that ‘the phenomenon of dreaming is inexplicable […] without taking in the agency and intervention of spiritual beings, to us invisible’ (41). Similarly, Catherine Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature (1848) argues that man’s spiritual connection to God allows a straddling between the material and spiritual world in sleep (10). Like Sheppard and Millington, these writers characterise dreaming as a mystical, semi-incomprehensible state. They explain it by conceptualising the infiltrated dreamer as a split being, sharing his/her agency with that of a heavenly messenger. And this splitting is invariably positive, a means of obtaining greater moral understanding. In other words, such explanations employ a theological rhetoric to incorporate the ambiguities of dreaming – ambiguities which mental scientists cast as disease – into a framework of ethics. The above samples give some sense of how spiritualists during the period were assigning positive value to dream-state incoherencies in a variety of ways and to a variety of ends, thereby offering numerous alternatives to the mental science process and its ideological bent.

Armadale exploits the cultural authority inculcated by the popular spread of spiritualist viewpoints in somewhat haphazard fashion. A number of spiritualist motifs emerge throughout the narrative, connecting Ozias’s visionary interpretation with prevalent, extra-textual modes of thought. For example, when the narrator relates Ozias’s thoughts as he looks upon the sleeping Allan:  ‘It had come, in the bright freshness of the morning; it had come in the mystery and terror of a Dream […] There he [Allan] lay – so near in the body […] so far away in the spirit’ (163). Two Spiritualist understandings present themselves here. The neuter, third-person pronoun serving as the subject of the opening sentence taps into notions of the inspired dreamer by giving agency to a presumed external source. At the same time, the separateness of Allan’s body and spirit harkens to theories that explained visions as the acquisition of a disembodied soul. Later, the novel hints towards a theological paradigm as Mr. Brock, in a last desperate attempt, encourages Ozias to view his visions as ‘the [Christian] providence of God’ (624). Given the cultural interest in seeing dreams as supernatural revelations, such allusions would have worked to lend credence to Ozias’s perspective.

Importantly, however, the narrative avoids validating Ozias’s interpretation via recourse to a strictly spiritualist value system. Allan’s dream is never proven to be a prophetic message from a higher power. The novel, then, does not simply offer a substitute to mental science and its contingent ideologies. Instead, it pointedly confronts them: Ozias’s spiritualist approach repudiates the notion that the incoherencies of Allan’s dream be viewed as a means for re-establishing individual consistency, and instead posits a contrary interpretation which, in recognising their significance, requires an affirmation of inconsistency as a viable end point. In this manner, the question as to what extent, if at all, the dream is premonitory becomes irrelevant. Collins’s fiction skirts this issue, because what matters is that Ozias’s hermeneutic approach, whether uncovering a prophetic ‘truth’ or not, works – acting upon it, Ozias is able to fend off the destructive Gwilt and eventually to bring a character to the Armadale name.

The reason that Ozias’s hermeneutic leads him to a conclusion rife with inconsistencies is owing to his belief in the prognostic nature of Allan’s dream. Adopting his father’s claim that the original Armadale crime is ‘ripening again for the future in the self-same circumstance [of] the past’ (55), Ozias concludes that the ‘Shadow of the Man’ in the dream is his future self attempting to murder Allan. The father’s claim, importantly, had assumed that this action would riddle Ozias with self-opposition – that the event would come despite the fact that Ozias would have to ‘be all that is most repellent to’ him (119). For him to accept the shadow as a direct representation of his future self means accepting a behaviour completely inconsistent with his ‘love for Allan’ (121).

Ozias’s primary interpretive move also makes contingent a secondary step that requires further acceptance of inconsistency. Taking the dream as a representation of his father’s divination leaves no allotted space for the ‘Shadow of the Woman.’ Her presence is not part of the scenario upon which Ozias’s hermeneutic is based. Ozias therefore interprets her as ‘a person whom my friend has not met with yet’ and claims that ‘the living woman will appear when the living woman is first seen’ (182). However, as registered in the somewhat fallacious circularity of the latter claim, such interpretation virtually concedes its inability to incorporate the woman into what, in the case of the man-shadow, seemed so unambiguous a transition from prophecy to dream to future reality. Lacking a clear, prefigured self, the ‘shadow’ of the woman-shadow becomes her primary distinguishing feature. She thus remains fundamentally ambiguous. In this sense, Ozias’s interpretation requires allowance of a sort of internal dissension. It asks for credence in its prophetic reading by virtue of the clarity of the man-shadow even though acceptance of that clarity would make ambiguous the dream’s other central component, the woman-shadow. In other words, its proposed end point here again makes self-contradiction compulsory.

Ozias’s positing of inconsistency as a viable resolution ultimately gains validation not from the exegesis itself proving correct, but because (in a meta-fictional act) his relationship to that exegesis proves the means of bringing about the novel’s own, happy end. Two significant collaterals result from his method of reading: one, Ozias’s recognition of his supposed future role translates into an intense self-scrutiny that considerably shapes his later interactions with Allan. Contemplating the inward rupture between his present and future selves, he is both drawn to his friend by virtue of the ‘nobler nature’ of his love and repelled from him by the self-loathing thought of his pending fratricide (323). Such dissonance puts him in a liminal mindset, simultaneously fixated on Allan and yet ready to desert him altogether. The second collateral result comes from his resolution to leave the dangerous woman-shadow unidentified. This act transforms his hyper-sensitivity into hyper-suspiciousness – conceptualising the shadow as an unknown but dangerous variable, he becomes multifariously cautious; as he puts it, ‘distrustful of even the most trifling misadventures’ (187). Both of these attitudes will prove pragmatically valuable as the narrative progresses.

Further, Ozias’s hermeneutic places him in an erratic, incongruous position as regards the reading itself – he maintains a genuine belief in the validity of its inconsistencies and yet also conceptualises such inconsistencies as a reason for doubt.  When Hawbury presses him to elaborate upon his understanding of the dream, he blushes ‘under the lash of the doctor’s logic’ and yet, the next moment, is again certain that ‘[it] is [his] firm conviction’ (182-183). Victorian understandings of the blush noted, first, its social ‘utility’ as a facilitator of legible interaction; as Thomas H. Burgess describes in The Physiology or Mechanism of Blushing (1839), a genuine blush was thought to make apparent a person’s ‘infring[ing] upon the prescribed laws of society’ and also to show his/her capitulation to those laws (49). Ozias’s subordination to Hawbury, here, emphasizes this point, and, moreover, aligns the transgressed rule in question with the inconsistencies of his reading by casting ‘logic’ as the subordinator. In this sense, Ozias’s blush shows his complicit-ness in the doctor’s position against himself.

Yet, importantly, Burgess also hypothesised blushing as a sign of ‘morbid sensibility […] the chief attribute of men of this temperament [being] inconstancy’ (57-58). Such definition gives this blush a second valence, connecting it to the hypersensitivity of Ozias’s inconsistent demeanor. And, indeed, even as Ozias capitulates to Hawbury, he maintains sufficient confidence in the perspicacity of his inconsistent reading to declare its accuracy moments later. This conflicted position is no momentary one, brought on by idle boasts in the heat of an argument; the narrative repeatedly depicts Ozias fluctuating between genuine certainty and genuine doubt in the truth of his reading.

Sensational reading, then, in addition to sensational form, becomes appropriated into the narrative’s attempt to contest denigration of the genre as ‘ungentlemanly.’ For, as I will show, Armadale’s climax, through the inconsistency necessitated by Ozias’s dream-reading, associates with its allotted ‘gentleman-name’ the state of inconsistency that distinguishes both. Ozias proves finally able to safeguard the text’s titular name from its damaged past, as embodied in Lydia Gwilt, precisely because of the various results of his reading, including his simultaneously gravitating away from/towards Allan, the hyper-cautiousness ensuing from his understanding of the woman-shadow, and his erratic belief/disbelief in his interpretation of the dream. In this way Armadale ultimately redefines gentlemanly identity, making it amenable to sensational reading and writing practices.

The catalyst for the novel’s redefinition of the gentleman is Lydia Gwilt. Her presence establishes a central conflict, the resolution of which serves as a vehicle for re-inscription of the text’s gentlemanly character. In this regard, Francesco Marroni is, I think, correct in calling her the ‘prevailing centripetal tension of the novel’ (51); yet I disagree with his contention that this makes the novel centre around her as protagonist. For, as its title suggests, all forces in the text are ultimately subordinated to the story of Armadale.

In fact, the name ‘Gwilt’ characterises her, principally, as an instrument of the Armadale conflict. Various critics have noted the name’s homophonic resemblance to ‘guilt,’ and have connected it to topics ranging from English colonial policy to marketplace cosmetology.2 However, it is useful to note that the move from the one term to the other relies on the addition of ‘will,’ a fact which ties the ‘guilt’ contained in Lydia Gwilt’s name specifically to the corrupted inheritance (the will) that spurs the revengeful murder of the prior-generation Armadale, and, by extension, the present conflict between Ozias and Allan. Gwilt, from whose name ‘quill’ might also be extracted, is the person who forged the letter by which the murderer Armadale was betrayed, and her writing plays an important, contributory role to the narrative’s main trajectory.

Predominant criticism’s inclination to connect Gwilt’s authorship to self-making3 frequently detracts attention from its significance as regards the formation of the Ozias and Allan identities. Gwilt, after all, is as much concerned with shaping and manipulating others as she is with stylizing her own identity – a fact illustrated in her writing Mother Oldershaw about her frequent attempts to ‘manage’ other characters, including both Allan and Ozias (193, 514). Sean Grass’s notion that she attempts to ‘order […] disorder’ (212) might be more accurately seen as an attempt to order others according to her ends. And, in this, she has some success. Using an anonymous letter, for instance, she is able to skew Miss Milroy’s character in the eyes of her father to such an extent that he decides to send her away from home (600). Her ‘re-writing’ of Bashwood is even more pronounced, as she transforms him from humble weakling into life-risking spy. As such examples illustrate, Gwilt’s authorship is by no means entirely self-directed.

The outward force of her pen works most ardently in various attempts to fashion the Armadale character. By forging the consent letter for the Ingleby-Blanchard marriage, Gwilt first re-inscribes ‘Armadale’ with the character of the rejected son. Letter in hand, Ingleby is once again able to ‘be’ Allan Armadale; at least for a time. His death initiates an ‘emptying-out’ of Armadale, a complication that the novel aims to resolve by re-writing that character through the Allan/Ozias narrative.

Ultimately, it reaches this end through the reinsertion of Gwilt into the text armed with her own, variant plan once again to write the Armadale character, essentially setting her in meta-fictional opposition to its own narrative resolution. Through writing, Gwilt attempts to force her ‘doubly-embedded narrative,’ a term which Alan Palmer uses to address ‘versions of characters [that] exist within the minds of other characters’ (15), upon the main narrative. Indeed, Gwilt’s first-person narration (in her letters and then in her diary) repeatedly interrupts the story told in third-person about the reconciliation of the two Armadales. In the end, though, her authorship here proves a subsidiary function of the overarching narrative movement that I have been tracing. By over-writing Gwilt’s attempt to inscribe ‘Armadale,’ and, moreover, by displaying Ozias’s inconsistency as vital to this process, the novel utilises the rhetorical technique of Gwilt-as-author to integrate inconsistency into what appears – set against her vengeful effort – a victorious and befitting characterisation of the Armadale name.

Gwilt’s plan is essentially to write the Armadale character as her deceased ex-husband. This move entails marrying Ozias under the signature of ‘Armadale,’ killing Allan in order to free the Armadale estate under law, and then returning to said estate under the guise of the ‘Armadale’ widow. Although her plan recognises Ozias’s presence after its completion as an ‘obstacle,’ she decides to meet it ‘when the time comes’ (546). The implication is that she must discard (possibly kill) him, or coerce him into living as her secret husband – either of which would sever his connection to the Armadale name. Her version of the Armadale character, then, would effectively kill the gentleman of the text. Gwilt’s self-making, her ‘claim[ing] the character of the widow of […] Armadale’ (539), is, in this sense, fundamentally tied to the novel’s ‘making’ of its eponymous identity.

As one of the narrative’s two namesakes, Allan proves woefully unprepared to stop Gwilt’s lethal inscription of the Armadale character. His understanding of Gwilt is a static one, based upon the fixed, seemingly impeccable character reference with which she first meets him. When the lawyer, Pedgift, reveals Gwilt’s shady history, Allan cries, ‘Stop!  Stop! You’re making my head swim […] I don’t understand all these ins and outs’ (405). Then, he reconciles the lawyer’s report with ‘one conclusion, and one only [that] forced itself into his mind’ (415) – a conclusion in which Gwilt remains innocent as before, a victim of circumstance. Such an approach marks Allan’s adherence to regularity as the reason for his failure to secure against the woman who would write the gentleman out of Armadale. Refusing to credit the multitudinous incongruities – the ‘ins and outs’ – that Pedgift’s report obliges one to associate with Gwilt and who she is, he instead takes refuge in the hyperbolically singular ‘one [and] only’ conclusion that makes her false deeds mesh with her original written character. By thus fitting her into a ‘consistent character’ paradigm, Allan remains ‘entirely unsuspicious of the [actual] character of the woman he had to deal with’ (417).

The consistency model is, of course, a defective gauge by which to track Gwilt, whose very expertise lies in perverting it. Using her talent for deception, she constructs what appear to be consistent characters within limited spatial and temporal frames. Thus, she is able to be known by Oldershaw as a villainess and yet simultaneously keep an excellent character with her landlady (559). Likewise, she is able to appear to switch characters effectually: at one time, she ‘introduce[s] [her]self in the character of [a] poor innocent woman’ (516), at another, she plays her ‘new character [in] widow’s weeds’ (720). Elsewhere she takes a ‘governess’s character’ (378), ‘the character of a Patient’ (747), and ‘the character of a lady who has come to consult [Doctor Downward]’ (767). Within the closed system of each of these separate scenarios, Gwilt seems a constant entity. Holistically, however, the manifold ‘characters’ which she performs make her identity incredibly complex. What Dr. Downward calls a ‘host in yourself’ (741), Gwilt is un-amenable to an understanding grounded in strict regularity. Allan’s model, by repeating a part for the whole, misses her numerous ulterior aspects.

By contrast, the effects of Ozias’s sensational-esque ‘reading-inconsistency’ prove remarkably effective in dealing with Gwilt.  Hyper-cautious, Ozias perceives Gwilt’s threat immediately upon her arrival. ‘[He] pointed to the lonely figure, standing with its back turned on them, fronting the setting sun. “There,” he said, “stands the living Woman, in the Shadow’s place.  There speaks the first of the dream-warnings […]”’ (321). Belief in the incongruously ambiguous dream-woman allows Ozias a preternatural insight into Gwilt. Having accepted the former as a ‘Shadow,’ he is able to connect Gwilt to his reading via her analogous silhouette. Later, Gwilt calls one of her deceptive performances a reflection of ‘the shadow of my own circumstances’ (539, my emphasis), essentially using the word ‘shadow’ to denote a more accurate sense of the character which lies beneath her performances. Thus, Ozias’s inconsistency (as activated via his dream-interpretation) gives him a discernment that, pre-empting Gwilt’s ability to trick perception through manipulative performance, nears a clearer understanding of her intentions.

Yet, as I have pointed out, Ozias’s inconsistency also makes him somewhat paradoxically disbelieve the outcomes of his own reading. This trait develops into momentary lapses of distrust in his instinct about Gwilt. When he compares Gwilt to Mr. Brock’s description of the ‘Gwilt’ on whom the rector has been spying, he denies that ‘the woman, in a word, whom he would have known instinctively, but for Mr. Brock’s letter, [is] the woman whom he had now actually seen’ (338). Ozias, in this case, discards instinctual perception for congruity – the matching up of descriptions based on Brock’s ordinary perception. He exchanges an idea of character as indefinite for one which assumes that character is static. In doing so, he disavows his knowledge of Gwilt’s menace; a menace not detected in Brock’s report, undermined as it has been by Gwilt’s switching characters with her maid (261).

Ozias’s self-contradictorily entertaining both a distrust of Gwilt and a disavowal of her threat, situates him in a liminal relationship with her. Instead of shunning her outright, as his pure instinct would dictate, he befriends her; yet he remains, at heart, wary of her presence. As he explains, even as he courts Gwilt, ‘I believe that if the fascination you have for me draws me back to you, fatal consequences will come of it’ (497). The statement encapsulates the rift in Ozias’s association with Gwilt. He is both drawn and repelled, stuck at a midpoint. As his mention of ‘fatal consequences’ implies, this condition issues specifically from the sense of inconstancy that his dream understanding necessitates. He later confesses to Gwilt, ‘I am afraid of you […] of you, and of myself’ (501). Here, Ozias’s fear of Gwilt is coupled with his fear of his own dream-self – a ‘self’ which he recognises as incongruent with his current sense of ‘self’ as potentially ‘noble’ in his loyalty to Allan. As his repeated ‘you’s signify, such coupling superimposes his own sense of division onto Gwilt. At this point in the novel, he relates to her as both a menacing nightmare-come-to-life and as a person worthy of friendship.

Interestingly, the narrative marks such convoluted association as an effective method for stymieing Gwilt. Ozias’s medial proximity erodes her deceptive abilities. Playing upon the trope of the femme fatale, Collins’s novel metaphorically localises these abilities in Gwilt’s clothing. Her gloves, which ‘fit her like a second skin’ (455), and the ‘speckless integrity of her dress’ (457) create a sexualised, persuasiveness to ‘a man’s eyes the most irresistible of all’ (455). In other words, Gwilt’s false characters, her ‘second skin[s],’ depend upon her clothing and its power to give them the outward appearance of ‘integrity’ – that ideological register of good character. When Gwilt meets Ozias, however, she is metaphorically disarmed. Her diary confesses, ‘I couldn’t bear put my bonnet on; I couldn’t bear my gloves [for] the want to look at him’ (503). In her attempt to fathom Ozias, she strips herself of her rhetorical tools. She sheds the very articles that generate the efficaciousness of her false characters. Ozias ‘neutralizes’ what Rachel Ablow’s article on The Woman in White calls the threat of public opinion’s potential amenability to women’s manipulation (160); but, unlike Walter Hartwright, whose neutralising (per Ablow) confirms his masculine integrity, Ozias neutralises chiefly via his erratic dimensions.

For the narrative connects Gwilt’s desire to look specifically to Ozias’s conflicted behaviour towards her. Gwilt writes to Oldershaw, ‘What strange absurdity and inconsistency!  And yet how I like him for being absurd and inconsistent’ (529). For Gwilt, Ozias’s incongruous attitude offers a curiously illegible text to decipher. Her posture towards him thus takes the form of repeated inquiry, which, when left unanswered, leads her into a position where she does not ‘think [she] ever determined on anything in [her] life as [she] determined on finding out […] who he really was’ (505). The desire that leads her to relinquish her primary source of manipulative power (her ability to play character effectually) is thus compelled and fomented by Ozias’s indiscernibility. Further, such relinquishment puts Gwilt in a relatively unauthoritative position towards Ozias, a fact voiced in her sudden realisation, ‘What had become of my influence over him?’ (505). This lack of authority later translates even to a kind of submissiveness, as Gwilt, ‘for his sake’ (624), temporarily hesitates in her plan to harm Armadale and eventually ceases her threat altogether through deliberate self-destruction.

The suicidal end to Gwilt’s menace comes in the story’s denouement, wherein the narrative displaces her attempted inscription of the Armadale identity with its own. Casting Ozias as the foiler of her plan (succeeding where Allan cannot), the novel overwrites Gwilt’s inscription with one in which inconsistency emerges as an indispensable quality of the gentlemanly name. The scene begins with attention drawn to Allan’s vulnerability. Having assumed the place of Mrs. Armadale through marriage to Ozias, Gwilt needs only to kill Allan in order to write a ‘dead character’ into the text’s gentlemanly space. Ever passive, Allan proves remarkably pliable to this scheming. When Bashwood, Gwilt’s messenger, tries to lure him to the Sanatorium with a fake report about Miss Milroy’s health, Allan, harbouring no residual suspicion due to his restorative interpretation of the dream, readily consents. He later confesses that he was swayed by Bashwood’s ‘waiting [at the station] night after night’ (784), a repetition which he, basing his ideas on a paradigm of character as ‘consistent conduct,’ reads as confirming Ozias’s first impression of Bashwood as a trustworthy man. His integrity-dependent posture thus leads him directly into Gwilt’s trap.

Ozias, conversely, proves vigilant precisely because of his inconsistency-based discernment. Of his unplanned return to England, he says, ‘A serious anxiety has brought me back’ (750). The narrative shortly connects this anxiety to ‘little irregularities in [Gwilt’s] correspondence with him [that] proclaimed themselves to be suspicious’ (753). In other words, Ozias returns into a position to protect ‘Armadale’ because he credits the ‘sensational,’ anxiety-producing discrepancies of his wife’s text. Instead of attempting to reconcile these pointedly little irregularities with a singular idea of Gwilt in her role as ostensibly faithful wife, Ozias responds with his nerves, allowing an idea of her as incongruous due consideration. His ability to do so is, intra-textually, a harkening back to the requisite acceptance of teleological inconsistency implied in his earlier dream interpretation, and, meta-textually, an enactment of sensational reading practices. The effectivity of Ozias’s reading argues for the validity of both.

Once positioned strategically in the Sanatorium with Allan, Ozias converts his technique of reading incongruity into a displayed incongruity that successfully preserves the Armadale name. Gwilt lodges Ozias and Allan in rooms three and four, respectively, with a plan to leak poison into room four. The description of Ozias’s suspicions:  ‘His mind was occupied in drawing disconnected impressions together […] – his mind, clouded and confused […] decide[d] on baffling the conspiracy, whatever it might be, by taking Allan’s place’ (796). Caroline Reitz argues that the sequence presents a ‘new, ‘self-possessed’ Ozias’ taking refuge in facts (99). However, contextualising this passage within the methods of interpretation I have been tracing shows a following of Ozias’s movement from failed association to acceptance of discrepancy to an internalisation, and, finally, projection of that discrepancy. Quickly discarding what would be a quasi-associative attempt to bring ‘together’ the disparities in surrounding events, Ozias practices instead his ‘sensational’ reading style, finding his ‘decision’ in the ‘clouded and confused’ state where impressions do not match. The sentence next indicates Ozias’s internalisation of that state, turning a word that could easily function adjectively to describe the discrepancies that Ozias reads – ‘baffling’ – into a gerundial indicator of his proposed action. This internalisation is then converted outwardly into a plan to upset the correspondence between person and room number.

The trope of the two rooms forces a critical reliance on consistency into Gwilt’s plan. Akin to the manner in which the narrative earlier squelches Gwilt’s ‘self-making’ by abruptly ending her diary and forcing her ‘to return to the name under which she is best known in these pages’ (743), the narrative here reduces her ‘making’ of Armadale into a simple equation wherein Allan and Ozias function as mathematical constants:  (3 – 4 = -1), or, Ozias (room three) minus Allan (room four) equals the negation of the Armadale gentlemanly identity (negative one). For the operation to work, the correspondence between person and room number must remain consistent from inception to completion, a necessity exemplified in the fact that Gwilt administers the poison, not to Allan himself, but ‘into the glass funnel’ of room four (801). As such, the plan preys upon the latter Armadale, who would passively remain in his designated room. Ozias’s switch, however, in rejecting requisite consistency, thwarts Gwilt’s scheme.

The narrative allows the reader to trace both the impulse and the outcome of the switch back to Ozias’s inconsistency. Although Ozias explicitly retains ‘no fatalistic suspicion of himself’ (796) as he decides to put himself in harm’s way to save Allan, he, nevertheless, and more significantly, operates under the residual effects of his fatalism. The fracturing result of his reading – his simultaneous belief in the ‘nobler nature’ of his love for Allan and the self-deprecatory attitude contingent upon crediting his dream-self fratricide – has fostered a devaluation of self in comparison to Allan so great that his choice to risk his own life becomes ‘the work of an instant’ (796). This self-perilous act, in turn, prompts Gwilt’s suicide. When she realises that the men have swapped rooms, she exposes herself to the poisoned air in order to rescue Ozias. She calls her self-inflicted death ‘the one atonement I can make for all the wrong I have done you [Ozias]’ (806) – in other words, a last act of that humility first aroused in her by Ozias’s discrepant nature. With Gwilt’s passing, the Armadale name symbolically escapes from the annihilation which the hindrances of its past had threatened.

In thus utilising Ozias’s inconsistency to overwrite Gwilt’s attempted inscription of its representative ‘gentleman,’ the novel’s overarching narrative writes that attribute into its titular figure. The traits embedded in Ozias vitalise the once characterless state of the Armadale gentleman. In this regard, the novel participates in the mid-Victorian rhetorical struggle over how the recently destabilised identity of the gentleman should best be defined, and, through its self-reflexive process of characterisation, offers its own construal.

The epilogue’s final chapter ends by confirming the implementation of inconsistency into its ‘Armadale’ space. Interestingly, it avoids the most straightforward approach to this process – explicitly naming Ozias as sole heir, thereby directly putting him (as inconsistent character) into the novel’s gentleman ‘character space.’ Of course, this option would have involved the deposing of Allan, an overtly radical move which, it seems, Collins was not prepared to make, despite his prefatory invective against ‘Clap-trap morality’ (4). Instead, the epilogue takes a more politic bent. On the subject of the name, Ozias tells Allan:

‘You know what the name is which appears on the register of my marriage […] let us come to a first and last understanding about this. […] I entreat you to believe that the reasons I have for leaving it unexplained are reasons which, if Mr. Brock was living, Mr. Brock himself would approve.’ In those words he kept the secret of the two names. (814-815)

Here, Ozias, retaining his pseudonym, cedes the estate and the official name of ‘Allan Armadale’ to his friend. However, his keeping ‘unexplained […] the secret of the two names’ is an important qualification; for, in doing so, he maintains, with the express exclusion of Allan, what reads as a much more meaningful, albeit unrecognised, claim upon the title. ‘Armadale’ thus becomes an uncertain space, inhabited, perhaps but never definitely, by both/either Ozias and/or Allan. In Wilkie Collins: Women, Property, and Propriety, Philip O’Neill claims that the text ‘never satisfactorily convinces that [it] can resolve contradiction’ (19). In this case, I would suggest that contradiction is exactly the point. The entanglements and paradoxes of leaving ‘Armadale’ in such a position are a means of finalising that narratological process by which sensational inconsistency has come to characterise the novel’s gentlemanly name.

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  1. Kate Flint, for example, locates anxiety over sensation novels in the genre’s engagement with a proportionately female audience (15-16). Pamela Gilbert discusses how sensation fiction elicited an anxiety wherein the body of the female middle-class reader stood for the permeable body of culture (2-4). Lyn Pykett connects sensation and its female readers to later subversive ‘New Woman’ fiction (5-6). []
  2. For the colonial connection see, especially, Reitz and Young-Zook. For cosmetics, see Niles. []
  3. See, e.g., Marroni and Tutor. []