The following is a reflection written by MA student Audrey Cheatham after reading and discussing Armadale, Book Two, Chapters Three and Four (originally published April of 1865). This reflection is part of the Nineteenth-Century British Research Seminar’s experiment with reading Wilkie Collins’s Armadale “like a Victorian,” or in its original serialized parts. More information about our group’s experiment can be found here.
Reading Chapters III and IV in Book Two of Armadale together with Brent’s post below brought up a fascinating point for me about the nature of serialization. Since Robyn Warhol’s talk here at UTK last September, I have been thinking about how to conceptualize the individual segments that make up a serialized novel. Warhol’s talk dealt primarily with the effects of serialized reading on an audience; Brent’s point about unity—and the possibility of reading each serial installment as a coherent narrative whole—illuminated for me a new way of reading the novel’s epistolary motif. Given how important correspondence is to the novel’s movement, it may not be such a leap to conceptualize the novel’s serial installments as a kind of correspondence. Of course the novel’s plot hinges on letters—concealed letters, scheming letters, letters sent too early or too late or to the wrong recipient. (Someone in discussion brought up the point that in our modern world of mobile phones and instant messaging, the novel’s plot as it stands would evaporate.) There are smaller letters too, however, less crucial to the plot but no less crucial to the social world in which each Allan Armadale must operate.
Chapter III finds Allan’s and Midwinter’s troubles with the country community around Thorpe Ambrose begun by a series of letters. Neither realizing nor caring for the importance of public image to a gentlemen in the country, Allan trivializes local correspondence. It is Midwinter who must bring Allan’s notice “a little impatiently to a letter lying on the breakfast-table” (ch. 3), read Pedgift’s self-recommendation aloud to force Allan’s attention, and ask after Mr. Darch’s response to Allan’s message when Allan is “too lazy to put the question for himself” (ch. 3). Understanding as well the importance of reputation (less charitably called gossip, that most ubiquitous and unreliable of correspondences), Midwinter insists that Allan treat the issues of local opinion seriously, and that he respond promptly to any perceptions of impropriety. Allan has all of the activity and none of the thoughtfulness required of a landed gentleman in the country, while Midwinter possesses an understanding of local politics with none of Allan’s power to respond; thus, when Allan does act to respond to local correspondence, he does so in exactly the wrong way.
Allan’s response to Mr. Darch’s rejection of engagement as Allan’s legal adviser is as prompt as could be. He calls out “Stop the messenger!” (ch. 3) and responds then and there, but his response only inflames the series of contentious misunderstandings. When Midwinter finally returns to urge caution it is too late; to Midwinter’s “Where is your answer to his letter?” Allan replies “Gone!” (ch. 3). They cannot take back the message now, whatever the consequences. (In the modern world, this intemperate response to ill-temper might be like sending that all-to-honest drunk text message to your boss, and more closely resembles problems of our own time than the slow correspondence of the rest of the novel.) Allan’s response to the offense of the neighborhood at his evasion of their public welcome is similarly thoughtless, with Allan utterly failing to read the room at any of the houses he visits. In making his excuses he trivializes what he calls “speechifying” (ch. 4), the very thing in which the locals take pride, and declares that he does not “care two straws about hunting or shooting” (ch. 4), the chief recreations of country gentlemen.
Allan’s misreadings of communication, whether written, oral, or nonverbal, cost him a reliable local support network, which opens him up further to the machinations of someone like Lydia Gwilt. Correspondence involving Lydia in Chapter IV returns the issue of letters once again to the larger drama of the novel’s plot. The consequences of Miss Milroy’s ill-fated change to her father’s advertisement for a governess have come to fruition—Lydia is coming to Thorpe Ambrose, well ahead of any possibility for suspicion. Timing is once more at fault. In Chapter III and the beginning of Chapter IV, local correspondence moves quickly (perhaps too quickly)—Allan rushes off his two messages to Mr. Darch, engages Pedgift, further troubles the waters of local opinion, and sends strawberries to Mrs. Milroy all in one long (and presumably difficult on Richard’s feet) day. At the end of Chapter IV, the trouble becomes the opposite. The pieces can come together only so quickly, and Mr. Brock, Midwinter, Allan, and the Milroys all fail to pool their various pieces of information in time. If only Mr. Brock had Google and an Instant Messaging system; if only Midwinter could send emails chasing after Allan’s hasty decisions; if only Lydia Gwilt were in a facial recognition database of known con artists.
Alas, they are as hampered by time and distance from “reading ahead” in Lydia’s plot as Collins’ readers would have been, and this is where the nature of serialization begins to resemble a kind of correspondence. For me as a reader, confined to reading “like a Victorian” (without leave to read ahead), this installment of Chapters III and IV becomes a letter, with Collins dispensing local gossip, recommending (or recommending against) particular characters, and filling in key pieces of Lydia Gwilt’s puzzle, paralleling the purposes of the letters in the novel itself. Like Midwinter, I must wait on Mr. Brock’s further discoveries and the postal system—or, in my case, the timing of the publisher—which will deliver them. Across the troublesome distances of time and space, Wilkie Collins is performing a type of correspondence with his readers; the novel’s serial installments are his letters of news, this elaborate piece of English gossip Collins’ to impart, expecting response in the purchase of the next installment. The reader no more knows “how this strange discovery is to end” (ch. 4) than Mr. Brock does. I suppose I will have to wait for Collins’ next letter to find out.