The Heart of Lydia Gwilt: Emotion, Characterisation, and the Science of Acting

Catherine Quirk, McGill University

In the dedicatory letter attached to his 1852 novel, Basil, Wilkie Collins asserts, ‘the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of Fiction’ (4). Collins often exploits this close relationship of page and stage, using the language of the theatre to animate his characters. In Heart and Science (1883) for example, the young heroine Carmina becomes more intriguing as a medical case to Dr Benjulia the more theatrical her behaviour becomes. The most thoroughly discussed example is Magdalen Vanstone in No Name (1862), who deliberately uses her training as an actress as a tool for self-advancement.[1] In Armadale (1866), Collins adapts this language of the stage to the social expectations of female behaviour. Lydia Gwilt, commonly read as the villain of the novel, explicitly narrates the process by which she creates this villainous identity. This process of self-narration recalls the scientific methods of characterisation found in the variety of manuals published in England by actors and critics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for young actors in training, or more experienced actors keen to hone their craft.

The acting manual trend began, as did so many theatrical trends, with David Garrick (1717–1779), who published An Essay on Acting, in which will be consider’d the Mimical Behaviour of a certain fashionable faulty Actor as an anonymous pamphlet in 1744. The Essay is, of course, an early depiction of Garrick’s own style, offering, as Shearer West cautions, a biased rather than an ‘impartial’ glimpse into the actor’s genius (11). In England, texts including Aaron Hill’s The Art of Acting (1746), John Hill’s The Actor (1750), and Thomas Wilkes’s A General View of the Stage (1759) quickly followed Garrick’s example. In Paris, Pierre Rémond de Sainte Albine’s Le Comédien (1747) set out the French style in specific contrast to that of Garrick’s Essay. William Guthrie returned the favour, organising his advice in An Essay Upon English Tragedy (1757) as a contrast to specific points in the French theatre. Many manuals provided advice to a growing number of amateur rhetoricians as well as to professional actors. Pamphlets such as The Art of Speaking (1784) ‘sought to train speakers in the best way of expressing emotion’ both on stage and off (West 103).

One of the earliest nineteenth-century examples is Henry Siddons’s Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action published in 1807, reprinted in 1822, and popular with actors and managers well into the final third of the century. Siddons provides a scientific breakdown of how the actor can use each part of the body and area of the face to express a given emotion, and the methods through which the actor can combine the elements of this gestural language to create, embody, and project a character. Later in the century, Fanny Kemble’s published memoir, Record of a Girlhood (1878), chronicles her early days on stage in the 1830s, as she applies the scientific method of acting to her own work. In letters written shortly after her debut in 1829 and reprinted in her memoir, Kemble recalls as central to this application the concept of dual consciousness: the conscious separation of acting self from acted character. In Armadale, Lydia, like Kemble, narrates a distinct separation––a self-conscious distancing––of self from character, of performing self from the self being performed.

The Science of Acting: Henry Siddons and Fanny Kemble

Henry Siddons (1774–1815) was the eldest son of Sarah Siddons (1755–1831), the tragic actress who ruled the legitimate London stage at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. He acted with both the Covent Garden and Drury Lane companies in the first decade of the century, but achieved most success as manager of the Edinburgh Theatre Royal from 1809 to his death in 1815. He wrote a few fairly, if temporarily, successful plays and three less-well-known novels, as well as adapting J. J. Engel’s eighteenth-century German text, Ideen zu einer Mimik (1785), for use on the English stage as Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action. Engel’s original text is a kind of natural history, an attempt to fix gestural language as a science. He presents ‘different physiognomies, collected and classed’, comprising ‘a collection of expressive gestures and attitudes’ (Siddons 25). The text, therefore, divides neatly into epistolary sections, each of which deals with a specific emotion or collection of related emotions. Taken separately, each section gives the actor tricks to mimic a given emotional expression. The text as a whole indicates the centrality of gesture on the nineteenth-century English stage as much as it serves a practical purpose as a handbook for the performance of those gestures. A closer look at Siddons’s text and the application of his techniques by Fanny Kemble illuminates the method behind Lydia Gwilt’s acts of performance.

As a manager of his own theatre early in the nineteenth century, Siddons was in the midst of a reformation not only of acting style but of theatrical convention more generally. The high classicism popularised by John Philip Kemble (1757–1823) was fading from favour at the time that Siddons was adapting Engel’s text.[2] Kemble’s acting style was one of neo-classical grandeur, stately in physicality and declamatory in speech. Watson cites the increased size of the monopoly theatres at the end of the eighteenth century as a key reason behind the development of Kemble’s style (297), but a wider social shift away from the emotionalism of earlier eighteenth-century sentimentality certainly also contributed. Only after Kemble’s popularity began to decline could the prevailing style again lean towards feeling. Rather than a return to emotional realism, the style combined these two extremes of rationality and true emotion.[3] Ideally, in the view of Siddons and those of the melodramatic school who came after, the actor would truly feel the emotion, and would make a rational judgment as to which portions of the external expression of that feeling he would emphasise or project on stage. This ideal acting technique necessitates the simultaneous awareness of one’s own body, feelings, and surroundings and those of one’s character: a simultaneity later termed ‘dual consciousness’ (Archer 150). Edmund Kean (1787–1833) figured prominently in the early stages of this shift towards what later in the century would become Naturalism. Kean’s development centred on ‘a brilliant expression of instinctive emotion which was in itself so genuine that its very sincerity made the wild actions and the wilder ranting to which it gave rise seem real’ (Watson 293). His use of gesture, then, stemmed from a felt emotion and an internalisation of character, rather than from a basic need to project a sensational plot to as many audience members as possible.

Early in the text, Siddons classifies ‘the different modifications of the human form, which the actor studies after nature’ into ‘those which are solely founded on the mechanism of the body’, and ‘those which, more depending on the cooperation of the soul, serve as mediums to judge of its affections, its movements, and its desires’ (14, original emphasis). He goes on to note that he will focus on the latter of these two categories––the expression of emotion or feeling through external gesture. Siddons organises gestural language into three categories: postures, colouration, and those gestures that engage only one part of the body. The latter of these he separates further by size. For instance, a gesture might be expressed primarily by the head, but might also be expressed only by the facial expression, or even by the eyes alone. An arm gesture might be limited to the hand, or to an individual finger. Siddons advocates such a compartmentalised approach in order that ‘the actor, while studying his character, should not content himself in general reflections upon each passion, but give himself much trouble to learn what part of his body may contribute to its effect’ (193). Siddons here builds on Garrick’s breakdown of how each element of the body contributes to a cohesive emotional projection.

Posture, Siddons warns, or the use of the full body to express a given emotion, can easily be imitated but can also be easily over-exaggerated. He considers the full-body expression of an emotion, when well-performed, the most humanising and natural action available to the actor: ‘when a simple affection directs all the forces of the soul towards one single point, and the ideas and sentiments are in perfect unison, then the whole body ought to partake of the expression, and every member to cooperate with it’ (193). However, Siddons reads the ‘involuntary’ gestures of colouration (43) as providing the most immediate and fullest access to a character: ‘in sudden colouring and paleness, [we] find something analogous to the situation of the soul’ (122–123). Significant changes of colour, however, are rarely seen onstage because they are next to impossible to mimic or feign.[4] When such changes of colour are seen in a performance, then, they betray the presence of the actor underneath the role. In Armadale, Lydia occasionally resorts to physically veiling her face to hide the fact that her performed mask has slipped. On the train to London with Allan, for instance, Lydia finds herself unable to keep her own thoughts from influencing her performed character; she comments that ‘long before we got to London I thought it desirable to put my face in hiding by pulling down my veil’ (589). The natural blush brought to her cheeks by thoughts of her murderous plot threatens to interrupt the successful progression of that plot.

In the introductory letter to his handbook, Siddons anticipates the arguments against his gestural language: ‘You tell me, that every thing which is executed by prescribed rules will be formal, stiff, embarrassed, and precise’ (2, original emphasis). Siddons admits the logic of this concern, agreeing that ‘while the rule is perpetually present to the mind of the scholar, he will, perhaps, be awkward and confused in all his gestures, and the fear of making constant mistakes will render him more constrained and irresolute than if he were to give way to his habitual actions’ (2). But as he goes on to suggest, ‘use is a second nature. A man when he first learns to dance, moves with a solemnity which approaches the ridiculous; but this solemnity in time wears off, and his step becomes not only more majestic, but more sure, more free, and more unembarrassed than his who has never practised that accomplishment’ (3, original emphasis). Siddons does not explicitly say how his actors might best go about achieving this familiarity with his formulas. In the early nineteenth century most actors still trained in a repertory system: the actor worked his way up through the ranks of a company, learning the profession by watching more experienced actors from a non-speaking post on stage as, for example, a spear-holder or servant. Siddons ends this section by claiming that the ‘constant custom of appearing before the public [on stage] may make a man bold, but between grace and boldness there is as wide a difference as there is between light and darkness’ (3, original emphasis). He must, therefore, have anticipated some kind of public learning curve for an actor following his theory.

This public learning curve was exemplified after Siddons’s death in the early career of his cousin Fanny Kemble (1809–1893). Kemble became nearly an overnight sensation when she made her debut at Covent Garden in 1829 as Juliet, having taken to the stage only in a last-ditch attempt to save her father and the theatre from bankruptcy. Lacking any sort of conventional training, she nevertheless became one of the most well-known actresses of the mid-nineteenth century, in both England and America. In her memoir, Record of a Girlhood, Kemble recalls her early days as a performer in the 1830s, as she rapidly learned ‘all the technical business, as it is called, of the stage’ (188, original emphasis). Central to Kemble’s application of Siddons’s technique is what William Archer later calls ‘dual consciousness’ (150). This term refers to ‘the sort of double process which the mind carries on at once, the combined operation of one’s faculties, so to speak, in diametrically opposite directions’ (Kemble 246). To perform well, Kemble must maintain an awareness of both her own physical and emotional situation and that of her character. Kemble further describes ‘a sort of vigilant presence of mind’, which operates beneath the actor’s performance and ‘constantly looks after and avoids or removes the petty obstacles that are perpetually destroying the imaginary illusion, and reminding one in one’s own despite that one is not really Juliet or Belvidera’ (246). This constant awareness of any circumstance that might affect her performance or the audience’s experience is an explicit application of Siddons’s scientific formula. Kemble’s detachment from the character she inhabits ensures the success of her performance. Lydia Gwilt exemplifies Kemble’s theorised detachment: for much of the novel, she is constantly aware of anything that might affect the success of her performance. As Kemble does in her letters, Lydia records both her character and her true self, using her diary to narrate the creation––and eventual failure––of her many roles.[5]

Dual Consciousness in Armadale: The Failure of Lydia Gwilt

Wilkie Collins’s Armadale centres not on questions of characterisation or performance but on questions of free will and destiny, and opens by laying out the question of financial inheritance. The novel’s extensive prologue works to cement the importance of heredity––of name, property, wealth, character, morality­­––and the associated ‘struggle against heredity’ (Kent 64) to the story that follows. Most of the events and choices that lead to the second-generation events of the novel have their basis in one of these inheritances. The plot is conventionally described as too convoluted to summarise, but essentially the narrative turns around the financial necessity of Allan Wrentmore taking a surname (Armadale) for the purposes of inheritance, and the troubles that occur in the next generation when both his son (alias Ozias Midwinter) and the son of his financial rival inherit the name of Allan Armadale. This financial situation is at the base of many of the novel’s seemingly unrelated events, including the arrival, mid-way through the novel, of a femme fatale figure set on a mercenary marriage: Lydia Gwilt. Through Lydia, Collins addresses the kinds of performances adopted by women in mid-nineteenth-century English society. Lydia is central to each of the novel’s many strands and connects them through her many constructed selves––adventuress, forger, governess, widow, murderer, and above all performer. As such, she applies the scientifically formulated expression of emotion and characterisation delineated in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century acting handbooks, and follows Fanny Kemble in distinctly splitting this performed character from her true self.

A sizeable portion of the novel is narrated not by Collins’s third person omniscient narrator, but by way of Lydia’s diary and her letters to her mentor and accomplice, Mother Oldershaw. Unlike much of Collins’s fiction, which yields many similar examples of characters telling their own stories within a narrative, neither the letters nor the diary are ‘framed for the reader by the commentary of the omniscient narrator’ (Wynne 159). In much the same way as Kemble’s memoir and Siddons’s handbook provide access to their respective performance theories, this technique gives the reader unfiltered access to Lydia’s own thoughts, granting insight into the creation of her various characters. In the novel’s final pages, however, Lydia returns to the fallen woman narrative into which she is most easily read––repenting and committing suicide to save the man she loves, and whom she has accidentally poisoned––because she fails to control these performances. By not taking account of and allowing for her own emotional development, she loses the dual consciousness necessary to present a successful characterisation.

Collins’s treatment of Lydia as an actor fits into his larger consideration of the methods of acting into which women in society are trained from a young age by their mothers (or, as we see with Lydia, mother-figures)—thus presenting a female inheritance story to balance the novel’s focus on male heredity. Miss Milroy typifies this feminine story as she develops into an exemplar of the conventionalities into which women are trained. Collins introduces the reader to Miss Milroy with a remark on the difficulties of living up to one’s training: ‘Among the heavy burdens that are laid on female human nature, perhaps the heaviest, at the age of sixteen, is the burden of gravity. Miss Milroy struggled—tittered—struggled again—and composed her self for the time being’ (207). Less than a hundred pages later, the narrator shows Miss Milroy’s improvement as she plays her expected role more convincingly while travelling to the Broads with Allan and Mrs Pentecost: ‘While Allan reddened and looked embarrassed, the quick-witted Miss Milroy instantly embraced the old lady with a burst of innocent laughter’ (295–296). Allan––bluntly honest to a fault and absolutely unable to prevaricate––cannot meet Mrs Pentecost’s suspicious questions about his romantic intentions. The situation must be rescued by Miss Milroy, who here deliberately misleads Mrs Pentecost into thinking her innocent of any possible social faux pas, such as taking advantage of the older woman’s inattentiveness to behave as if she were unchaperoned.

Lydia’s training, though of a very different nature to Miss Milroy’s domestic education, similarly instructs her in the business of being a financially-savvy woman as she makes her way upwards through mid-nineteenth century society.[6] As a young girl working as a model for the Oldershaws she learned to emphasise her beauty through performance; while in service with Miss Blanchard she learned to forge handwriting; and she was trained to cheat, again using her beauty for financial gain, while working as companion to a Russian Baroness. Throughout her life, Lydia has been trained to sell: ‘Miss Gwilt’s story begins […] in the market-place’ (632), and as an adult she ‘market[s] herself, as once she marketed elixirs and potions as a child. At every critical moment, she is on display’ (Maynard 76). While the majority of Collins’s female characters are unconsciously ‘actresses vying for husbands in a competitive marriage market’ (Hedgecock 153), Lydia’s performances go a step further: she consciously acts a series of characters in order to improve her allotted place in society by way of marriage. The difference between Lydia and women like Miss Milroy is that the latter has been trained only to display herself for the legitimate marriage market; Lydia, as an orphan with no identifiable place in society, must be willing to trade on any market available.

These performances for the marriage market contribute to the treatment of Armadale as a theatrical novel, even though it lacks any major theatrical scenes or characters. In many of Collins’s novels, he places a telling moment at or immediately after a visit to some kind of theatre; in Armadale, the climax of the murder plot is instigated by a night at the opera. Armadale also includes one character with theatrical training––Ozias Midwinter––but unlike, for example, Magdalen Vanstone in No Name, he does not use this background effectively. Instead, in those instances when Midwinter makes use of his early training to conceal from Allan their joint familial history, he appears particularly uncomfortable with the necessity of performance. Midwinter ‘is unable to act credibly and it is only through Allan Armadale’s lack of penetration […] that he does not see through his friend’s adopted character’ (Jung 97). Throughout the novel Collins circles around the fact that the nineteenth century is primarily an age of performance, as Pedgift Senior says in the letter that forms the novel’s epilogue. The lawyer bluntly reminds his son that ‘we live, Augustus, in an age eminently favourable to the growth of all roguery which is careful enough to keep up appearances’ (810). Significantly, Pedgift phrases his assessment of society in a way that emphasises the agency needed to perform: a character can only be kept up by way of one’s own effort. Collins, through Pedgift, touches here on the necessity in social performance of the split consciousness that Fanny Kemble relies upon on stage: the duality is necessary to ‘keep up’ the external characterisation, while not losing sight of the internal, performing self and its aims.

In his closing letter, Pedgift refers specifically to Mother Oldershaw, who by this final moment in the novel has fully reinvented herself as ‘the last new Sunday performer of our time’ (812). Collins has already presented this new Mother Oldershaw to the reader upon Lydia’s return from Italy, when Lydia meets not her old accomplice but instead ‘the sudden presentation of Mrs. Oldershaw, in an entirely new character’ (706). Lydia of course recognises this new performance for what it is––another fraud––and tells Oldershaw to ‘put your Sunday face in your pocket’ (706), to save her new role for those who might be fooled by the mask. Collins has already insisted, however, that in a world based on successful and convincing performances, the act of shifting from one character to another has much higher stakes. We have seen Mother Oldershaw switch characters once before, when as part of the plot against Allan she adopts the persona of Lydia’s respectable reference. In a letter to Lydia she explains that ‘the last expiring moments of Mother Oldershaw, of the Toilette Repository, are close at hand; and the birth of Miss Gwilt’s respectable reference, Mrs. Mandeville, will take place in a cab in five minutes’ time’ (263). In order for Mother Oldershaw to play her new character convincingly, she must entirely separate that character from others she has played in the past. Collins heightens this necessity by calling for the ‘death’ of one character and the ‘birth’ of the new.[7]

The most obvious actor in the novel is Lydia Gwilt. Her performances, as they are presented to the reader, primarily relate to her various plots and so they appear to align the character with the conventions of the femme fatale. As Jennifer Hedgecock points out, the act of hiding one’s true identity and intentions is intrinsic to this character: ‘By using the masquerade, the femme fatale attempts to conceal her old identity, the stigma attached to her whole concept of selfhood. To protect herself, she puts obstacles in the way of detectives to obstruct the progress of their investigation’ (22). Throughout the novel, Lydia ‘consciously, deliberately, uses her beauty to advance her schemes of revenge, fraud, and murder’ (Morris 111). She takes advantage both of her natural beauty and of her duplicity, creating a series of identities based on these external characteristics rather than on her true self.[8] Lydia uses these identities ‘to create a spectacle’ through which she attempts to ‘control […] not only the male gaze but everybody in the novel’ (Jung 106). Lydia’s aptitude for the art becomes immediately apparent upon her first physical (that is, non-epistolary) appearance in the text. When Armadale first meets Lydia at the Broads, he falls under the influence of her beauty, unaware that she performs specifically to highlight that beauty. He comments to Midwinter shortly after this first meeting that ‘a governess is a lady who is not rich, […] and a duchess is a lady who is not poor. […] What age do you guess her at, Midwinter? I say, seven or eight and twenty’ (357). She is actually none of these things––not a governess, nor a lady, nor a duchess, nor even a woman of ‘seven or eight and twenty’––and yet she easily persuades Armadale to associate her with all of these characters.

Before the reader sees these complete performances, Collins first presents Lydia as an anonymous woman, identified solely by her external appearance and characteristics. Other characters read her as dangerous and link the coincidence of her repeated appearances, but they cannot ascribe a specific identity to her. Instead, Midwinter and the Reverend Brock repeatedly refer to her merely as ‘the woman, whom we both only know, thus far, as the woman with the red Paisley shawl’ (250). She first appears in the prologue as ‘an orphan girl of barely twelve years old, a marvel of precocious ability, whom Miss Blanchard had taken a romantic fancy to befriend, and whom she had brought away with her from England to be trained as her maid. […] No creature more innately deceitful and more innately pitiless ever walked the earth’ (39). Lydia appears first as a nameless, deceitful orphan, without a redeeming quality. This first description of her, however, emphasises that she acts as ‘an instrument’: she cultivates her ‘wicked dexterity’ (39) not for her own ends but rather in the service of others’ villainous schemes.

She next appears as ‘a neatly-dressed woman, wearing a gown and bonnet of black silk and a red Paisley shawl’ (81). Here too she exists as an anonymous but villainous figure, though, in contrast to her first appearance, she now works on her own initiative. She reappears to extort money from Mrs Armadale and chooses to keep her own name hidden: Mrs Armadale tells Brock that ‘the name I knew her by […] would be of no use to you. She has been married since then—she told me so herself’, and ‘refuse[s] to tell’ her married name (83). In a novel that has to this point emphasised the importance of names, we know that this lack of a name will prove significant. This exchange becomes ironic when the reader realises that Lydia has discarded her married name as it is too easily recognisable. The name Mrs Armadale knew Lydia by is precisely the name that would have helped Brock protect Allan against her. Finally, Lydia appears on a river steamer, again described as ‘neatly dressed in black silk, with a red Paisley shawl over her shoulders’ (92). Here, too, she acts on her own initiative, ‘persist[ing] in giving a name which was on the face of it a false one; in telling a commonplace story, which was manifestly an invention; and in refusing to the last to furnish any clue to her friends’ (94). Having been caught in an incontrovertibly criminal act––attempted suicide––Lydia protects herself by falsifying both her name and her story. While Arthur Blanchard’s death after rescuing Lydia from the river is certainly accidental, Lydia’s actions leading to that death are deliberate and self-interested.

In each instance, Lydia is identified solely on the basis of her external appearance: specifically, her clothing. Mother Oldershaw draws this circumstance to the reader’s attention when she wonders how Brock could possibly have known Lydia in the Gardens: ‘I was a little puzzled (considering you had your veil down on both those occasions, and your veil down also when we were in the Gardens,) at his recognising you’ (252; original emphasis). Brock identifies Lydia through her external trappings, her costume, not by her body, voice, or face. The reader knows­­––since Collins has already related this meeting from Brock’s perspective––that he has in fact recognised her shawl (250). By this point in the novel, as Jessica Maynard notes, the ‘black silk dress and red Paisley shawl [have] become a means of identification’ (68). Of course, Lydia uses this conflation of her self with her costume to her own advantage: she and Mother Oldershaw thus conspire to trick Brock, allowing their plan against Armadale to progress. They allow the Reverend his first glimpse of the face inside the costume after substituting the actor performing ‘Miss Gwilt’, the character who has been identified by the gown, veil, and shawl, replacing Lydia’s physical presence with that of Oldershaw’s housemaid. Mother Oldershaw summarises the purpose of this substitution in a letter to Lydia: ‘I want him to see the housemaid’s face under circumstances which will persuade him that it is your face’ (261; original emphasis). Even if the substitution fails to appease Brock’s suspicions entirely, ‘he will warn young Armadale to be careful of a woman like my housemaid, and not of a woman like you’ (262; original emphasis). Lydia will then be free to pursue the original plan against Allan, without fear of interference from those who associate the villainess of the prologue with black silk and Paisley.

The crux of this deception comes in Book the Second, Chapter X, titled ‘The Housemaid’s Face’ (322), which immediately follows Lydia’s first physical entrance into the text. Brock writes to Midwinter of the newly arrived governess: ‘take the first opportunity you can get of seeing her, and ask yourself if her face does, or does not, answer certain plain questions […]. Test her by her features, which no circumstances can change’ (331). He refers, of course, to the housemaid’s face and features, which they think belong both to the woman with the Paisley shawl and to the new governess. Given the centrality to the narrative of cosmetics and performative masks, this attempt to recognise Lydia by her face is destined to fail. Faces, like names, are anything but reliable. In performing this substitution, however, Mother Oldershaw and Lydia split Lydia into two physically separate women: a split that becomes intrinsic to the continuation of their plot against Allan. The success of Lydia’s performance here relies on her physical embodiment of Kemble’s dual consciousness. Midwinter remarks incredulously, ‘the woman whom he had seen at the mere, and the woman whom Mr. Brock had identified in London, were not one, but Two’ (337), acknowledging the literal separation of the new governess from the woman in the black silk and Paisley shawl. This absolute separation, of course, is Lydia’s and Mother Oldershaw’s aim; Lydia marks its success by writing triumphantly, ‘I have been proved not to be myself’ (343, original emphasis).

Lydia spends much of the novel, then, in the position of successful actor: creating an obvious performed self separate from her true self, as Collins literalises in the episode of the housemaid’s face. The portions of the story told through the perspective of Lydia’s diary, however, suggest alternative motivations for these performances. Apart from the obvious access to both sides of Lydia’s character––performed and performing––which is not granted to the other characters, the diary also allows Collins to develop Lydia beyond the two-dimensional villainess or femme fatale. The character who emerges in the diary entries is both more fully developed and more sympathetic. In moments when, for instance, Lydia asks her diary, ‘Am I handsome enough, today?’ (515), or decides that ‘I must go and ask my glass how I look’ (593), we see the uncertainty that underlies each act of performance.[9] As Mother Oldershaw’s presence in the novel constantly reminds the reader, for a woman of Lydia’s age to rely on her natural beauty is nearly absurd. Despite her outward confidence in her powers of performance, Lydia remains well aware of the dangers that await a woman who begins to look her age.

While for Lydia acting and its necessary duality can be a way to ‘forget’ herself (515), to remove herself from the everyday reality of her own situation, this forgetfulness can lead to an accompanying loss of the reasoning that underlies her performances. Lydia’s love for Midwinter disrupts what has been a fairly successful series of characterisations. Pedgift Senior––the only character not to be taken in by Lydia’s façade––describes his work prosecuting female criminals as merely an exercise in finding ‘the weak point in the story told by any one of them’ (443). This singular weak point, Pedgift insists, immediately brings out ‘the genuine woman, in full possession of all her resources, with a neat little lie that exactly suited the circumstances of the case’ (443): a lie in which, of course, the lawyer can then catch her. In Lydia’s case, this ‘weak point’ lies in her love for Midwinter. The ‘neat little lie’ that leads to her downfall is much more complex than those in Pedgift’s reminiscences, but nevertheless leads to the same disastrous end.

Both narrators, the omniscient narrator and the writer of the embedded diary, obscure the cause––and fail to anticipate the effects––of Lydia’s lapse in performance. Lydia’s love for Midwinter is one of the few things she feels unable to record in her diary, even once she recognises the existence of the emotion. She deliberately stops herself from confiding her feelings: she can only say that Midwinter is a man ‘whom—well, whom I might have loved once, before I was the woman I am now’ (511, original emphasis). When Lydia leads Armadale’s spy out of the town and accidentally meets Midwinter, she expresses ‘the first signs of agitation she had shown yet’ (459). Here, the narrator notes the disruption in Lydia’s presented character when she sees Midwinter, but says no more. Lydia’s performance in this instance quite obviously fails because of her surprise at seeing Midwinter without having been able first to prepare herself. We have seen her ability to improvise interactions at a moment’s notice, as she has just done with her haughtiness to the spy for instance, and so her inability to do so here is telling.

Lydia does realise that Midwinter has had some effect on her, though she cannot confess the nature of that effect. On the train to London, just after she has agreed to marry Midwinter, she wonders, ‘What can be the secret of this man’s hold on me? How is it that he alters me so that I hardly know myself again?’ (593, original emphasis). Lydia has spent so many years creating, performing, and selling her own characters without the least susceptibility to outside influences that now she cannot comprehend her vulnerability. Once the two are reunited in London, his influence over her ability to perform grows. At one point she confesses to her diary that she ‘was on the very point of crying out to him, ‘Lies! all lies! I’m a fiend in human shape!’’ (594), betraying the character she has presented to him as well as the self protected by that character. Finally, Lydia’s control over her own performance vanishes altogether when she confesses, ‘I feel as if I had lost myself—lost myself, I mean, in him’ (615; original emphasis). The love Lydia feels begins to overshadow everything else in importance, even her financial plots, disrupting both her performed character and the progression that character is meant to follow.

As Lydia loses both the will and the ability to carry on her carefully-planned performances, the reader must work harder to differentiate between truth and artifice. Lydia as diarist and Collins as author blur the boundaries between fact and fiction in their retelling of the events: Collins consciously, Lydia unconsciously, because she too can no longer tell the difference. In the scene when the two meet outside the town as Midwinter returns, for instance, Lydia asks Midwinter for the ‘support’ of his arm as her ‘“little stock of courage is quite exhausted.” She took his arm and clung close to it. The woman who had tyrannised Mr. Bashwood was gone, and the woman who had tossed the spy’s hat into the pool was gone. A timid, shrinking, interesting creature filled the fair skin, and trembled on the symmetrical limbs of Miss Gwilt’ (460). Superficially, she performs this moment of weakness, this ‘timid, shrinking’ version of herself, in order to elicit Midwinter’s sympathy with her as the victim of Allan’s spy. This new role, however, follows immediately from the moment in which the narrator first shows Lydia’s performance to fail. The reader, then, must wonder whether the ‘timid, shrinking, interesting creature’ is a creation for the purposes of her original scheme, or is instead a true reflection of her own feeling. Neither Collins nor Lydia provides a concrete reading of this moment: Collins, for the purposes of suspense, Lydia because she cannot recognise the failure of her performance, much less the cause of that failure.

Collins draws our attention to the failure of Lydia’s dual consciousness by once again literalising her split self: ‘I was startled just now by a shadow on the wall. It was only after a moment or two that I mustered sense enough to notice where the candle was, and to see that the shadow was my own’ (531). As in the episode of the housemaid’s face, Collins explicitly describes the two separate aspects of Lydia’s self: here, as self and shadow rather than as self and physical other. Similarly, Collins approaches Lydia’s full loss of control over her performance through a sequence of moments when she loses control over elements of that performance. Rather than adhere to Siddons’s system, in which each element of the body must necessarily work together towards a successful performance (193), Lydia’s hands twice act as if of their own accord. Sitting with Midwinter outside the town, she comments incredulously that ‘my hand lifted itself somehow, and my fingers twined themselves softly in his hair’ (504). Later, when writing in her diary, she questions her control over what she has written: ‘I see my own hand while I write the words—and I ask myself whether it is really the hand of Lydia Gwilt!’ (616). These moments of disembodiment recall a similar moment in Fanny Kemble’s recollection of her debut performance.

The mere appendage of a train—three yards of white satin—following me wherever I went, was to me a new, and would have been a difficult experience to most girls. As it was, I never knew, after the first scene of the play, what became of my train, and was greatly amused when Lady Dacre told me, next morning, that as soon as my troubles began I had snatched it up and carried it on my arm, which I did quite unconsciously, because I found something in the way of Juliet’s feet. (Kemble 190; original emphasis)

Kemble’s professional inexperience excuses her lack of immediate awareness of and control over the duality necessary to successful acting. Lydia, however, has been engaging in public performance since she was a child and knows precisely what elements are necessary to elicit the desired effect on her audience. Here, her lack of awareness reflects her sudden lack of control: her body acts in cooperation with her actual feelings for Midwinter, rather than in expression of the feelings of her role.

Lydia’s characterisation fails because she cannot recognise that it is no longer a performance. As Jenny Bourne Taylor writes, ‘Lydia gains power when she is not what she appears to be, and loses it when she becomes subjected to her own desire for Midwinter, when she wants to fill the role that she had been able to manipulate as a masquerade’ (168). What she feels matches what she has intended to act, collapsing her studiously crafted duality. Fanny Kemble attributes her success as an actor to an explicit separation of performing and performed selves; Henry Siddons describes such a separation as necessary to a ‘truth[ful]’ performance (205). Lydia, in falling in love with Midwinter, removes this separation and becomes, essentially, the character she acts. At first, Lydia explicitly denies the truth of this feeling, wondering ‘whether there was a time once when I might have loved him?’ (465; original emphasis), and thinking distantly of ‘the time when he might have possessed himself of my love’ in return for his own (504). Even as her plot against Allan reaches its climax after her return to London, she fails to recognise the influence of her repressed feelings: ‘I wrote to Midwinter to-day, to keep up appearances. When the letter was done, I fell into wretchedly low spirits—I can’t imagine why’ (701). She tries to return to her original performance intentions, and cannot understand her inability to do so.

Crucially, when Lydia tries to carry out the final stages of her scheme, she begins to lose her ability to perform. Throughout the novel, Lydia’s main talent lies in making herself appear much younger than she is and in using her beauty to beguile. Once she leaves Midwinter, she loses this ability and with it the ability to carry out her original plot: a plot which, after all, rests primarily on her appearance, and only secondly on the coincidence of names. As Lydia reaches the final stages of her plan against Allan, Collins traces the effect on her face of this loss of the ability to manipulate her external appearance. Twice he describes her, in words that diametrically oppose everything we have seen of the character, as ‘white and still, and haggard and old’ (757, 787). Through much of the second half of the novel, Lydia has been unable to lie directly to Midwinter’s face: another illustration of her true feelings disrupting her performance (500, 726). Now, dressed in widow’s weeds and apparently in mourning for another man, she comes face to face with her husband and must deny their relationship, ‘in tones unnaturally hard and unnaturally clear’ (757, emphasis added), or give up her plots entirely.[10] When speaking these fatal words, ‘she never lifted her eyes from the ground […]. When she had done, the last vestige of colour in her cheeks faded out’ (757). Again, she cannot meet Midwinter’s gaze while telling a falsehood. Due to this failure, and the accompanying loss of her beauty, the performance of renunciation is unconvincing. The character achieves the desired effect—Bashwood believes that Lydia is not married to Midwinter—but the toll this performance takes on Lydia as an actor is so extreme as to lead first to the immediate loss of her beauty, then to Midwinter’s suspicion, and finally to her death. Having lost control of the dual consciousness that allows for successful performance, Lydia slips inevitably back into the conventional plot of the fallen or villainous woman. Her suicide, then, marks both the inevitable end of a woman whose life progressed from performance to performance and from scheme to scheme, and the inevitable consequence of a failure to perform.

The acting handbooks published in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chart a growing desire for the appearance of truthful emotion on stage. The gestural expression of characterisation and emotion does not just develop to help the actor reach the furthest points of ever-larger early-nineteenth-century theatres, but also to assist the actor in developing a theory of characterisation that enables her to express this appearance of truth. Collins makes use of this gestural expression of emotion for rhetorical effect in Armadale to portray Lydia Gwilt as the consummate performer. In her stage career in the 1830s, Fanny Kemble applies this scientific formulation of character delineated in such handbooks as Henry Siddons’s Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action. Through Lydia’s diary, Collins reveals the character’s adherence to Kemble’s description of the separation between true self and performed character necessary to any performance. Lydia’s performance fails because her separation of these two selves fails; in Kemble’s terms, she loses herself in Juliet and forgets to keep herself from leaning on the balcony, which is, after all, only made of canvas (247).


Works Cited

Archer, William. Masks or Faces? A Study in the Psychology of Acting. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1888.

Bernhardt, Sarah. Ma Double Vie: Mémoires de Sarah Bernhardt. Librairie Charpentier et Fasquelle, 1907.

Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. 1866. Oxford University Press, 2008.

––. ‘Letter of Dedication,’ Basil. 1862. Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 3–6.

Cox, Jeffrey N. ‘The Death of Tragedy; or, the Birth of Melodrama.’ The Performing Century: Nineteenth-Century Theatre’s History, edited by Tracy C. Davis and Peter Holland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp. 161–181.

Hadley, Elaine. Melodramatic Tactics: Theatricalized Dissent in the English Marketplace, 1800-1885. Stanford University Press, 1995.

Hedgecock, Jennifer. The Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature: The Danger and the Sexual Threat. Cambria Press, 2008.

Jung, Sandro. ‘Acting and Performativity in Collins’s Armadale.’ Armadale: Wilkie Collins and the Dark Threads of Life, edited by Mariaconcetta Costantini, Aracne, 2009, pp. 93–108.

Kemble, Frances Anne. Record of a Girlhood. 3 Vols. Richard Bentley and Son, 1878.

Kent, Christopher. ‘Probability, Reality and Sensation in the Novels of Wilkie Collins.’ Wilkie Collins to the Forefront: Some Reassessments, edited by Nelson Smith and R.C. Terry, AMS Press, 1995, pp. 53–74.

Maynard, Jessica. ‘Black Silk and Red Paisley: The Toxic Woman in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale.’ Varieties of Victorianism: The Uses of a Past, edited by Gary Day, Macmillan, 1998, pp. 63–79.

Morris, Virginia B. Double Jeopardy: Women Who Kill in Victorian Fiction. The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Pykett, Lyn. ‘Collins and the Sensation Novel.’ The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins, edited by Jenny Bourne Taylor, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 50–64.

Siddons, Henry. Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action. 1807. Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1822.

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

Watson, Ernest Bradlee. Sheridan to Robertson: A Study of the Nineteenth-Century London Stage. Harvard University Press, 1926.

West, Shearer. The Image of the Actor: Verbal and Visual Representation in the Age of Garrick and Kemble. Pinter Publishers, 1991.

Wynne, Deborah. The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine. Palgrave, 2001.


[1] On Collins’s use of the stage in No Name see, for instance, Pykett, Taylor, and Wynne.

[2] See Kemble, Watson, and West on this decline of classicism.

[3] Jeffrey Cox points out that ‘of course, “realism” in the theatre is essentially a matter of stage conventions: there is finally nothing more “real” about small theatrical movements, conversational speaking tones, and sets designed to make the audience believe they are seeing into real middle-class rooms than there is about large gestures, oratorical styles of delivery, and spectacular sets designed to make the audience believe they are viewing exotic locales’ (170). The realism advocated by Siddons, or that embraced by Garrick, reflects the relative ability of these actors to express the emotional reality of a character.

[4] The text includes an anecdote from the French actor Michel Baron who claimed that his effectiveness in a particular scene rested on the rapidity with which his face went from red to white on stage. ‘Suppose that this player really had an imagination strong enough to have produced so rapid a succession of physiological expressions, so contrary and so difficult to represent, we know likewise that, according to the custom of the French theatre, he must have put on rouge.––Now how is it possible for him to have been able to turn so visibly pale and red, covered as he was with paint?’ (Siddons 213–214).

[5] Sandro Jung argues that ‘Lydia Gwilt spectacularises and theatricalises her identity in her interaction with other characters and how her writing activity continuously stages an identity’ (94). As an extension of this reading, I suggest that her diary in fact parallels the genre of the stage memoir: the text records her own performance theory but also reveals the actor behind the many acts of characterisation.

[6] The majority of nineteenth-century women are primarily trained with a view to marriage: as the actress Sarah Bernhardt recalls being told as a young girl, ‘tu es idiote avec ton sentiment romanesque. Le mariage est une affaire, et il faut le regarder comme une affaire’ (95) [You are idiotic with your romantic ideas. Marriage is a business affair, and must be regarded as a business affair]. Mother Oldershaw repeatedly makes this connection between business and marriage (or, more euphemistically, woman’s role in mid-nineteenth-century society).

[7] In fact, we see just how easy it is in Collins’s world of performances to track an actor between characters: Allan, on his search for Lydia’s reference, quite easily ends up at the residence of Mother Oldershaw. Having used Mrs Mandeville as needed, Oldershaw has evidently returned to her regular life and resurrected her previous character. This return, however, allows Allan and Pedgift to trace the connection between the two characters, a discovery that nearly derails Lydia’s entire scheme.

[8] ‘She has been an innocent victim, a deserted child, a little maid, a muse, a nun, a teacher, a governess, a piano player, a card player, a swindler, a decoy, a murderer, a prisoner, and a widow. It is quite easy to see that there is no role that Lydia cannot perform’ (Hedgecock 37). Lydia’s true character, however, is protected by and operates underneath this surfeit of identities.

[9] Fanny Kemble expresses similar uncertainty over the performances she describes as ‘uneven in themselves and perfectly unequal with each other, never complete as a whole, however striking in occasional parts’ (2.14).

[10] Although Lydia, in her diary, comments earlier on ‘how unnatural all this would be, if it was written in a book!’ (684), this is Collins’s first explicit description of his heroine’s performances as anything other than natural and convincing.

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