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Wilkie Collins

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    Oh my goodness what an extraordinary novel!! Very long, but one of those "can't put it down" cases. Even reading as fast as I did, and you can expect to read fast because you can't wait to find out what will happen next, it still took me most of February to read, partly because of having to recharge my tablet. My .epub version came to 654 pages, including the Project Gutenberg information at the end, so the paper book versions usually take more pages. In any case, this one is worth every split second you spend on it.
    Not only is this novel too long and complicated to easily condense into a review, the same can be said of the man himself. The most important detail I will discuss is his relationship with Charles Dickens. Yep, Dickens is my man—my number one favorite author, and I have lots of favorites! And Collins's writings are of a Dickensian nature, so what's not to love? This is the sixth of his I have read, plus the multi-author collaboration of The Haunted House. Dickens, twelve years his senior, was his friend and mentor, and helped him toward his success. They collaborated in other works, too, plus another multi-author work that I have not read, but is available at Project Gutenberg, where the remainder of his most of works can also be accessed. So as not to take too much time on Collins himself, rather than on this work, you may read about him at Wikipedia, and visit his Index Page where you can access all my Collins reviews.
    Though Dickens did write ghost stories, or stories dealing with the supernatural, they did not often play a part in his main novels, with the exception of the novella, A Christmas Carol. He was more interested in social justice and especially poverty and the abuse of children. Collins wrote novels that are classified as mysteries, and was known as one of the authors, along with Poe, who created the English detective novel. But, of the works of his I have read, all but one, A Rogue's Life, which is a laugh-out-loud comedy, contain an element of creepiness or something that could possibly be perceived as supernatural, which also gives them an unmistakably gothic character. This one is no exception, in fact, one man's superstition lays the groundwork for the entire underlying theme of the story. But of course, I have only read a smattering of his books. In what is call the "Appendix" at the very end, Collins leaves it to us, the readers, to decide how to interpret the course of events, then goes on to tell a true news story that bears a very creepy similarity to the conclusion of the drama being played out. And I say "drama," which it is, but it also contains Dickensian humor, which as times overpowers the seriousness of the theme. By the way, this book was not received favorably by the public, partly because, according to Wikipedia, "Reviewers found its villainess Lydia Gwilt to be transgressive . . . ." I had to look up that word, which means, "to go beyond limitation (of the law); to sin." Well, that she most certainly did! And Collins also follows Dicken's example of funny names that describe the person, like Doctor Downward. And Lydia Gwilt. Guilt, perhaps? And Mrs. Pentecost with her milquetoast son, Reverend Samuel Pentecost. And he perhaps created one of the most exasperatingly dense characters I have ever encountered in Allan Armadale, or one of the Allan Armadales, as there were four total. Five, actually. Today, we would refer to a person like this as "being asleep," "willfully blind" or being mind-controlled. Not to mention seriously ADD. In Allan's case, it is most likely because his mother guarded him from a terrible secret about herself, therefore being overprotective lest he meet someone out there who might tell him the truth. Is he ultimately forced to face it? I won't tell. And his ditzy girlfriend ends up being the perfect match. As for me, in the end, this one surpassed my previous Collins favorite, The Moonstone.
    As I stated earlier, this, typical of other works by Collins, is a complicated story. HA! On its Wikipedia page, even a listing of the characters is complicated. There are so many Allan Armadales! Plus, since it is a mystery, I will keep to my policy of not revealing too much of the plot.
    The Prologue begins in the past, the year 1832, which reveals the fatal information that haunts two people throughout the story. It takes place in Wildbad, Germany, a spa town now called Bad Wildbad, "bad" meaning "bath." The season is opening and those who are crippled will soon begin to arrive. The mayor, doctor and landlord are awaiting them along with the townspeople, especially the two Englishmen, or rather, one is Scottish. He arrives on a public diligence, named Mr. Neal, who is a mean, selfish and rude man. His physical complaint is minor, but he brings a message, concerning the other carriage that "their courier has met with an accident, and has been left behind on the road, and they are obliged to travel very slowly." The paralyzed man in it is near death, and will need help being transported inside. They wait for hours and most of the townspeople have left. It is growing dark when finally the carriage appears. A young, dark and beautiful woman in tears requests help. Along with her and her husband, Mr. Armadale, there is an elderly Black nurse and a young child. The man, indeed, is near death, now having no use of his body, other than being just able to speak. But that is leaving him, too.
    The next morning, Neal is insulted that the doctor is not attending him at their ten o'clock appointment. He arrives, apologetically, explaining that there is a matter of utmost urgency that Mr. Neal can serve because he speaks English. The dying man is desperate to find someone who can, by dictation, finish the letter he has written to his baby boy, to be received when he comes of age. Neal really cares nothing for other people's problems, but is finally convinced, after seeing Armadale's beautiful wife, who pleads with him, that this is a task he must do. The truth is, he is smitten by her dark beauty, of mixed European and African blood. The horrifying secret divulged in the letter is so terrible that he will not allow his wife to hear, which is why she cannot write what he wants. She loves him passionately, but knows that his love has always been for another woman, stolen by another man. And this woman is part of the dark memory.
    And so Neal reads what he has written so far. His wife begs to stay in the room. Armadale agrees, providing that she leaves without question when they come to a certain part of the letter. She does, but listens in. And here is the story, addressed to his son to be presented to him by his executors when he comes of age. It begins thus:

I have three objects in writing. First, to reveal the circumstances which attended the marriage of an English lady of my acquaintance, in the island of Madeira. Secondly, to throw the true light on the death of her husband a short time afterward, on board the French timber ship La Grace de Dieu. Thirdly, to warn my son of a danger that lies in wait for him—a danger that will rise from his father's grave when the earth has closed over his father's ashes.

    First he speaks of his own life, born in Barbados, the only surviving son of the late Matthew Wrentmore. There he lived with his doting mother who did not discipline him. He wrote, "I doubt if there was ever a young man in this world whose passions were left so entirely without control of any kind as mine were in those early days." He was named Allan after his father's wealthy cousin, Allan Armadale, who was his godfather by proxy, and who also owned an estate in the West Indies, but the families did not communicate. However, one day a surprise letter arrives from Armadale after Allan had turned twenty-one. He wishes to change his will to leave his prosperous West Indies property to him, rather than to his own son. "The young man had disgraced himself beyond all redemption; had left his home an outlaw; and had been thereupon renounced by his father at once and forever." His only request was that Allan change his name to Armadale. Shortly after, he died, and young Allan became a wealthy man.
    Six weeks later an event happens that sets off the chain of tragedies. A young man Allan's age arrives on the island by the name of Fergus Ingleby. Allan was not guided by a sense of intuition, and since this man behaved like a gentleman, he took a liking to him, getting him the job of clerk even though his references were not satisfactory. Allan's mother didn't trust him and disliked him from the start. And so she has a plan.
    It happened that his mother and the wealthy Steven Blanchard of Thorpe-Ambrose in Norfolk had been lovers, but forbidden to marry by both families. He was now a widower with a grown family and a beautiful daughter. She wrote to him, suggesting his daughter and her son meet, and if they like each other, to marry. She wanted to get him away from Ingleby. Because of his poor health, they were on the Island of Madeira at the time for the healthier climate. He liked the idea, and enclosed a small portrait of his daughter, and hoped they would become man and wife as their parents never could. Allan became excited to meet her, and said "The portrait at once struck me—I can't say why, I can't say how—as nothing of the kind had ever struck me before." He felt it was destiny that they should be together. He found a ship that would sail in a couple weeks.
    Then he made the big mistake of sharing this news with his "friend" Ingleby. After their meeting, Allan is suddenly struck with a life-threatening illness.

I have no proof against Ingleby. There was more than one woman on the island whom I had wronged beyond all forgiveness, and whose vengeance might well have reached me at that time. I can accuse nobody. I can only say that my life was saved by my old black nurse; and that the woman afterward acknowledged having used the known negro antidote to a known negro poison in those parts. When my first days of convalescence came, the ship in which my passage had been taken had long since sailed. When I asked for Ingleby, he was gone. Proofs of his unpardonable misconduct in his situation were placed before me, which not even my partiality for him could resist. He had been turned out of the office in the first days of my illness, and nothing more was known of him but that he had left the island.

    As you may have guessed by now, Ingleby was really the disinherited son of Armadale, who took off himself to Madeira, claiming to be Allan Armadale, who he actually really was. Most likely it was he who poisoned Armadale, and even worse, by the time the intended groom arrived in Madeira, his future bride was already married to the impostor. A letter had been written to Armadale's mother, but never sent. The reply was forged by Miss Blanchard's twelve-year-old maid who had an uncanny gift for forging letters. Was she a sorcerer? Or just evil? Here is what Armadale thought of her. Her name is Miss Gwilt but we do not know that until much later.

That girl's wicked dexterity removed the one serious obstacle left to the success of the fraud. I saw the imitation of my mother's writing which she had produced under Ingleby's instructions and (if the shameful truth must be told) with her young mistress's knowledge—and I believe I should have been deceived by it myself. I saw the girl afterward—and my blood curdled at the sight of her. If she is alive now, woe to the people who trust her! No creature more innately deceitful and more innately pitiless ever walked this earth.

    The arrival of the real intended groom forces the married couple to admit to Mr. Blanchard their deceit. Though everyone tried to keep the two Armadales separated, it is to no avail. The impostor strikes Allan across the face, prompting him to arrange a duel. And though they agree on the time and place and conditions, Allan arrives to find that his coward adversary has fled with his wife on the timber ship, La Grace de Dieu. Allan and Mr. Blanchard take off after them in his yacht.
    But a storm is brewing, and the timber ship is wrecked. All are rescued except the groom, who is nowhere on board the yacht. Everyone knew he had returned to the cabin to retrieve his wife's jewel box. They return home.

I waited through that day at a tavern on the port for the first news from the wreck. It was brought toward night-fall by one of the pilot-boats which had taken part in the enterprise—a successful enterprise, as the event proved—for saving the abandoned ship. La Grace de Dieu had been discovered still floating, and the body of Ingleby had been found on board, drowned in the cabin. At dawn the next morning the dead man was brought back by the yacht; and on the same day the funeral took place in the Protestant cemetery.

    It is at this point in the reading of the letter that the dying Armadale tells his wife to leave the room. She does, but listens in.

But a discovery made by the yacht's crew pointed straight to a conclusion which struck the men, one and all, with the same horror. When the course of their search brought them to the cabin, they found the scuttle bolted, and the door locked on the outside. Had some one closed the cabin, not knowing he was there? Setting the panic-stricken condition of the crew out of the question, there was no motive for closing the cabin before leaving the wreck. But one other conclusion remained. Had some murderous hand purposely locked the man in, and left him to drown as the water rose over him?

    And so goes the confession of murder by Allan Armadale. And here comes the most important part of the letter, which will haunt his son who dares believe the superstition passed down by his father. It is because he has learned that his intended wife gave birth to a son also, after her husband's death.

Despise my dying conviction if you will, but grant me, I solemnly implore you, one last request. My son! the only hope I have left for you hangs on a great doubt—the doubt whether we are, or are not, the masters of our own destinies. It may be that mortal free-will can conquer mortal fate; and that going, as we all do, inevitably to death, we go inevitably to nothing that is before death. If this be so, indeed, respect—though you respect nothing else—the warning which I give you from my grave. Never, to your dying day, let any living soul approach you who is associated, directly or indirectly, with the crime which your father has committed. Avoid the widow of the man I killed—if the widow still lives. Avoid the maid whose wicked hand smoothed the way to the marriage—if the maid is still in her service. And more than all, avoid the man who bears the same name as your own. Offend your best benefactor, if that benefactor's influence has connected you one with the other. Desert the woman who loves you, if that woman is a link between you and him. Hide yourself from him under an assumed name. Put the mountains and the seas between you; be ungrateful, be unforgiving; be all that is most repellent to your own gentler nature, rather than live under the same roof, and breathe the same air, with that man. Never let the two Allan Armadales meet in this world: never, never, never!

    The letter is completed and Armadale dies soon after. We then jump ahead to The Story, which is the present, temporarily. It is 1851 and we meet the Reverend Decimus Brock as he is vacationing on the Isle of Man, pondering a conundrum that has plagued him for years. We once again go back in time to the point when Mrs. Armadale and her son move to his parish in Somersetshire. The year is 1837. Young Allan was eight years old. The reverend is quite smitten with her, as she explained she was a widow and wished to protect her son—or really, to keep him sheltered from the world as they had lived all these years. But he needed to be educated, and she inquired of Brock if he would be Allan's teacher. He agrees, though not without reservation.
    As it turns out, young Allan is nothing like his father. He is sweet, innocent, loving and generous of heart, taught so, no doubt, by a mother repentant of her shameful behavior. Unfortunately, a devoted student he is not. His mind flits all over the place except for where it should be. He makes decisions based on a whim, which remains so all through the story. He cannot recognize the good from the evil, in fact he doesn't recognize evil at all. His misguided personality guarantees to bring him trouble ahead, most of which he is not even aware of, while others scramble to put things right.
    We then jump ahead to 1845, and Allan is now sixteen, and still an impulsive airhead. But he has a goal.

Through the eight years that had passed, Mr. Brock's responsibility had rested on him lightly enough. The boy had given his mother and his tutor but little trouble. He was certainly slow over his books, but more from a constitutional inability to fix his attention on his tasks than from want of capacity to understand them. His temperament, it could not be denied, was heedless to the last degree: he acted recklessly on his first impulses, and rushed blindfold at all his conclusions. On the other hand, it was to be said in his favor that his disposition was open as the day; a more generous, affectionate, sweet-tempered lad it would have been hard to find anywhere. A certain quaint originality of character, and a natural healthiness in all his tastes, carried him free of most of the dangers to which his mother's system of education inevitably exposed him. He had a thoroughly English love of the sea and of all that belongs to it; and as he grew in years, there was no luring him away from the water-side, and no keeping him out of the boat-builder's yard. In course of time his mother caught him actually working there, to her infinite annoyance and surprise, as a volunteer. He acknowledged that his whole future ambition was to have a yard of his own, and that his one present object was to learn to build a boat for himself. Wisely foreseeing that such a pursuit as this for his leisure hours was exactly what was wanted to reconcile the lad to a position of isolation from companions of his own rank and age, Mr. Brock prevailed on Mrs. Armadale, with no small difficulty, to let her son have his way. At the period of that second event in the clergyman's life with his pupil which is now to be related, young Armadale had practiced long enough in the builder's yard to have reached the summit of his wishes, by laying with his own hands the keel of his own boat.

    Meanwhile, Brock has fallen in love with his mother, but to no avail. She wishes to keep their relationship as close friends and he complies. And something else happens. As Brock frequented Mrs. Armadale for tea, he one day comes with a newspaper with an ad attempting to locate Allan Armadale, age fifteen, requesting communication with "Messrs. Hammick and Ridge (Lincoln's Inn Fields, London), on business of importance which seriously concerns him." Mrs. Armadale tries to hide her shock by replying that it was another family and friends, but Brock saw the change in her pallor. She explains that there are two Allan Armadales, but begs Brock to understand that it is something she must keep to herself.
    Now, it is 1850 and Brock takes Allan to London to attempt to expand his vision. But all he wants is to build boats and have a life on the sea. His mother's health is failing, ever since the newspaper ad. Then something else happens to really shake her. A young man is brought to the inn in a state of madness. He is of dark complexion, and carries a carpetbag containing nothing of value. Included is a testimonial from his former employer of his good character. Brock is called in along with the doctor, who determines he has brain fever. His name is Ozias Midwinter. But Allan also shows up and takes a liking to him, again on a whim. He announces to Brock that he has told the landlord and doctor he will cover all the bills. Brock reminds him that he has no money.
    Midwinter does recover and this begins what could be called a love story—brotherly love and devotion, that is. Allan has greatly helped in Midwinter's recovery, for which he owes him his life. He is the first person, ever, who has shown affection for him. And in fact, Midwinter will literally devote his life to keeping Allan safe and alive throughout the story. But as for the others—though Midwinter has done nothing wrong, he is suspected of not being quite who he appears to be. There is an air of mystery and darkness about him. Mrs. Armadale begins to suffer "under violent nervous agitation." She suspects who he really is, (and so do we).
    So through Allan's friendship, Midwinter recovers in several weeks, and when it comes time to pay the bill, he wires his bank and is able to pay with his own funds.

Ozias Midwinter spoke of his obligations—and especially of his obligation to Allan—with a fervor of thankfulness which it was not surprising only, but absolutely painful to witness. He showed a horrible sincerity of astonishment at having been treated with common Christian kindness in a Christian land. He spoke of Allan's having become answerable for all the expenses of sheltering, nursing, and curing him, with a savage rapture of gratitude and surprise which burst out of him like a flash of lightning. "So help me God!" cried the castaway usher, "I never met with the like of him: I never heard of the like of him before!" In the next instant, the one glimpse of light which the man had let in on his own passionate nature was quenched again in darkness.

    But Mrs. Armadale wants to know about him, and despite Brock's subtle efforts, they are no match to Midwinter's deep sense of intuition.

"You have something to say to me," he answered; "and it is not what you are saying now."

There was no help for it but to accept the challenge. Very delicately, with many preparatory words, to which the other listened in unbroken silence, Mr. Brock came little by little nearer and nearer to the point. Long before he had really reached it—long before a man of no more than ordinary sensibility would have felt what was coming—Ozias Midwinter stood still in the lane, and told the rector that he need say no more.

"I understand you, sir," said the usher. "Mr. Armadale has an ascertained position in the world; Mr. Armadale has nothing to conceal, and nothing to be ashamed of. I agree with you that I am not a fit companion for him. The best return I can make for his kindness is to presume on it no longer. You may depend on my leaving this place tomorrow morning."

    Midwinter is everything Allan is not. He is passionate, quiet and introspective. He is of the world, and a brutal world it has been so far for him, so he is not easily fooled. And the most disturbing information, that will turn his life upside down, is yet to come.
    As mentioned above, since this is a mystery, I will not reveal too much, as it is full of truly bizarre twists and turns. So I will condense the events which take us to the point where we begin with Brock pondering a problem. And the problem, of course, is Midwinter.
    Then a most major event happens. A female visitor comes to town. She is wearing a gown and bonnet of black silk, a red Paisley shawl and thick black veil that hung over her face. She stops Brock in the street to inquire of Mrs. Armadale's residence. After she leaves, Brock finds Mrs. Armadale in an extreme state of nervous attack, due to the unwelcome visitor. She tells Brock she wishes to remove to another part of England. Did the woman want money? Yes, and she will return for more. But it is even worse than that.

"Is this person," he asked, "connected in any way with the painful remembrances of your early life?"

"Yes; with the painful remembrance of the time when I was married," said Mrs. Armadale. "She was associated, as a mere child, with a circumstance which I must think of with shame and sorrow to my dying day."

    And her dying day comes very soon after. Allan falls into an unnatural mourning, even losing interest in the yacht he has built. Reverend Brock, in respect for his deep love for Allan's mother, is devoted to keeping Allan safe and protected. They decide to go to London, then perhaps tour Europe.
    But two more things happen. While in London, Allan wants to be reunited with his friend Midwinter, and Brock can find no credible reason to keep them apart. Soon another ad appears in the newspaper.

SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD.—To parish clerks, sextons, and others. Twenty Pounds reward will be paid to any person who can produce evidence of the death of ALLAN ARMADALE, only son of the late Allan Armadale, of Barbados, and born in Trinidad in the year 1830. Further particulars on application to Messrs. Hammick and Ridge, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London.

    This one Midwinter does see, and yes, he is the other Allan Armadale. And so, not only does he discover that he now has a certain amount of wealth, but he receives the damning letter written by his father. Does he believe in fate and superstition? Yes, absolutely. So now he also faces a conundrum, and that is how to remain devoted to his beloved Allan while being determined to avoid the deadly fate.
    At this same time, Allan's only remaining male relatives all die. (Mrs. Armadale's brothers disowned her for her despicable behavior.) One died after saving the life of a lady on a ship, who had jumped overboard. The lady was wearing a gown and bonnet of black silk, a red Paisley shawl and thick black veil that hung over her face. Hmm. By now we should realize who she is. And the other two died in a bizarre accident in the Alps. Allan and Brock are in Paris when the news reaches them that Allan is now the new (and very wealthy Squire) of the Thorpe Ambrose estate. Thorpe Ambrose is actually a real place in Norfolk, England, called Thorpe St. Andrew.
    Being the clueless person he is, he makes not only disastrous decisions, but alienates the whole Thorpe Ambrose community, has no idea how offensive he is, and how he has committed so many social atrocities, but you'll have to read the book to find out more of that. I want to mention one last haunting event.
    Midwinter is now traveling with Brock and Allan, and they are on the Isle of Man, which puts them back into present time. Brock has been called back to his parish because his substitute had an emergency that required he return to his home. And so, this is the painful decision he ponders as The Story begins. He still does not trust Midwinter, and agonizes at leaving him alone with Allan. But Midwinter, intuitive as he is, knows this. Therefore, during the night, as Brock prepares to leave the next morning and cannot sleep, Midwinter comes to his room and bares his soul. He tells of the miserable life he has led. His mother married Mr. Neal, and he was badly abused, running away as a child and finding ways to stay alive. And finally, he gives Brock the letter his father had written on his deathbed. Brock now understands, and knows that Midwinter will take good care of Allan. The letter is burned.
    And one more event. The two young men now are left alone on the island while some repairs are being made to the yacht. Castletown is boring, so they begin to explore the rest of the island. Here, Allan meets a doctor. Now Allan has the gift of gab, while Midwinter goes off by himself to be alone. It happens that this doctor has a boat, which even though it is very late at night, Allan wants to see. Then he wants to go for a sail, so he and Midwinter take off. Then they come upon a wrecked ship that is being taken apart. Of course, he wants to explore it. None of this is to Midwinter's liking, and it becomes even more horrifying. The ship is the La Grace de Dieu, the very timber ship on which his father murdered Allan's father, which petrifies Midwinter. Of course upon boarding, Allan, ditzy as he is, fails to secure the boat, which floats away. And so they are stuck. Attempts of Allan to awaken the village for help fail and near morning, he falls asleep. And has a dream that causes him such distress while dreaming that Midwinter can see it in his body movements. And it is the dream that Allan neither understands nor cares, but Midwinter completely understands, and which follows him through the remainder of the novel.
    This one will truly keep your heart pounding, especially since Allan never does "wake up," as we would say. So the burden remains with Midwinter to avoid fate. Yet try as they might, both he and Brock are hoodwinked by those who are deceitful by profession. I really cannot praise this one highly enough. If you commit to reading one long book this year, make it this one. And it's free from Project Gutenberg.
    Below: View of Thorpe in 1851.

View of  Thorpe in 1851

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