Author: Wilkie Collins
# of Pages: 752
Favorite quote: Many a young man of the past generation, who was no fool, has sacrificed everything for love. Not one young man in ten thousand of the present generation, except the fools, has sacrificed a half-penny. The daughters of Eve still inherit their mother’s merits and commit their mother’s faults. But the sons of Adam, in these latter days, are men who would have handed the famous apple back with a bow, and a “Thanks, no; it might get me into a scrape.”
Sadly, there is no Booklist summary for this novel, which is unfortunate, as I have no idea how to explain the plot in any coherent manner- mostly because there are several people with the same name. There is an Amazon reviewer who does an excellent job of summarizing the book, and so I shall include a snip of her review here, with requests that if you enjoy it, please give Jane Perskie a vote on Amazon!
Wilkie Collins' suspense thriller "Armadale" contains no less than four main characters, named Allen Armadale - two fathers, each with a single son and heir. Only one Allen Armadale, however, is the rightful owner of the estate, Thorpe-Ambrose, plus a fortune in pounds sterling, and title to land and wealth in Barbados, West Indies. Although the plot sounds convoluted, if only by containing so many characters of the same name, I have to say this is compelling reading at its best, and the narrative is extremely understandable and well paced. The author is a master storyteller.
Allen Armadale, (let's call him #2), makes a death bed confession in 1832, at the Swiss health resort of Wildbad. The only English speaker available to document the dying man's final words is a Scot, Mr. Neal. This shocking written disclosure is then mailed to Armadale's executors to be given to his infant son, (Allen Armadale #3), when he comes of age.
Armadale, (#2), nee Wrentmore, was born in Barbados and upon turning twenty-one he received a surprise inheritance from his godfather, a Mr. Armadale, of Thorpe-Ambrose in Norfolk, England. The young man would become the owner of his godfather's considerable Barbadian estate on the condition that he change his name to match that of his benefactor. It was thus that Allen Wrentmore became Allen Armadale, the largest proprietor and wealthiest man on Barbados. The elder Armadale had just disinherited his own profligate son, Allen Armadale #1. The infamous son, going by the pseudonym Fergus Ingleby, turns up in Barbados shortly thereafter and befriends his distant cousin, the newest addition to the Armadale line. The consequences of this relationship are dire.
Years later, another pair of Armadale men (#3 and #4), both in their early twenties, meet and become the best of friends. Although each has been warned never to come into contact with the other, there is, initially, no way for them to recognize each other's true identities. As with their forefathers, a generation before, a pseudonym is involved here. Unlike their fathers, however, both are totally innocent of malicious intent.
All four Allen Armadales are connected by the most enigmatic, fascinating villainess that I know of in literature, Lydia Gwilt - although her name leaves much to be desired aesthetically. Miss Gwilt, perhaps fiction's first femme fatale, is a beautiful, sensual, flame-haired temptress. She is also a bigamist, dope addict, forger, and murderess....at the very least, and probably the book's most intelligent personage. Her intrigues drive the plot of this gripping drama: a tale of murder, espionage, counter-espionage, criminal fraud, adultery, inescapable destiny, romantic rivalries, confused identities, innumerable secrets and lies.
Well, I think you can tell why I didn't want to try and describe it.
This book is certainly a Victorian Gothic novel. The role that fate plays (or does it play a role? Hmm) in the lives of so many people, the random plot twists, the dastardly (albeit female) villain and the difficult-to-swallow coincidences mark it firmly in that territory. But what a ride you take along the way! Collins intersperses his tale of revenge and anger with absolutely hilarious comic moments. Had he taken a turn to write comedy instead of Gothic, I think he would have been vastly successful in that, too. Collins also is very much a product of his time, and his characters are as well. There is the self-made man, the inheritor to an estate, the buxom blond, the intriguing older woman- all playing their roles to a T.
If at times the plot seems implausible (and believe me, there are those times), then this might detract a bit from your enjoyment of the novel. But the main problem I had with the novel was the complete change of narrative at the end. For the last 20% of the novel or so, the omniscient narrator is ignored and Lydia Gwilt, of devious feminine wiles, takes over by writing about the occurring events in her diary. This would be fine if Lydia was interesting. But she's not. Her diary entries are long, tedious and she comes across as vain and selfish. I found myself skimming many pages of these chapters because I had no desire to spend any more time with Miss Gwilt. It annoyed me enough to knock the book down a few points. Luckily, though, Collins humor and a thoroughly interesting premise (fate vs. free will always gets me) kept the book going and I am pleased to have read it.