The following is a reflection written by Post-Doctoral Lecturer Brent Robida after reading and discussing Armadale, Prologue (Originally published November of 1864). 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.
I’m very impressed with Collins’s “labyrinth of linkages” (Tolstoy). Though, keeping the endless plot revelations and twists straight is a challenging task. For a c19 audience who hadn’t looked into Armadale for a while, this task must have been even more challenging, if more familiar as well. Perhaps Ozias Midwinter’s (I always think of Ozymandias) madness is Collins’s merciful recognition of our experience as readers. But then there are sign-posts and markers aplenty recalling previous characters, actions and events. In fact, I think the epistolary motif lends itself well to a certain memorializing strain. The shock and impact of the letter affects character and reader alike, in the sense that the letter need only be mentioned for its gist to reappear. And a story that hinges so heavily on likenesses, timing, destiny and the question of who is the “real” Armadale and who gets to decide it, does well to include the two very conscientious characters, Mr. Neal and Mr. Brock (each of whom, I believe, would make fine storytellers themselves).
Plot conscientiousness too probably reflects the nature of the serialized form. Perhaps an author of Dickens’s genius, who transfixes and hypnotizes his reader, can get away with less emphasis on systematizing time, place and action, but for one like Collins who is so committed to painting the transparent tapestry of the linear, more attention is demanded from author and reader alike. (I say this in regard to Armadale alone, since I’ve read nothing else of his, and only Armadale thus far into the story). The attention given to the narrative pays off and I’m enjoying this book much more than I expected to.
The anticipatory beats sounded off by this or that mysterious character’s entrance onto the stage is partly responsible for my interest, I think. Collins seems a master of generating deferred gratification in his audience, to such a degree that at times we’re almost certain we know where he’s taking us, or at least to whom he is taking us, but we still insist on going along for the ride. I begin to align my own readerly with Collins’s writerly intentions–toward the end. This sounds obvious, but I think this hovering consciousness of climax is what allows us to willingly, and enjoyably, finish any book. Though as we discussed at our previous meeting, these authors might not always have known where or when their book’s end was.
I brought up Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” (which incidentally begins with Charles Dickens – and I read somewhere, Wikipedia maybe, that T. S. Eliot remarked that it was Collins and not Poe who invented the Detective genre) at our last meeting. His famous “principle of unity” says in part the following, and I quote from different places in the essay: “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression…It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting — and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe,” (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem…What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones — that is to say, of brief poetical effects.” The temporal limit Poe talks about strains to the point of breaking in the case of a serialized novel, but then he also says that a long poem is a bunch of short ones (he was talking of Paradise Lost, of which he says half has the effect of prose – and can you really disagree with him there, if you’ve ever tried the whole thing at once?).
What I’m getting at is whether we should look at Collins’s separately published parts as short stories, or novellas, or some kind of completed narrative whole (which, now that I think of it, is what the serialized genre is in the first place), with the cliffhanger and dopamine hit of anticipatory “Next week on Armadale”-ness substituted for the dénouement. This seems obvious, I think, in light of our contemporary entertainment industry and culture. I think of the way The Sopranos ended, the infamous cut to black in medias res. Perhaps the show’s creator just got tired of serializing it over and over again. I’m also reminded of the desperation that media distributors currently find themselves in, since the demand for content simply cannot be filled. This is good for the consumer, I suppose, since it allows for all kinds of shows suited to diverse tastes and audiences, yet every time I wade through Netflix’s catalogue, I can’t find a single thing to watch. I wonder if Hollywood started to serialize single motion pictures 30 minutes at a time over several weekends whether the quality of mainstream film would improve. Or maybe ticket prices would decrease. At least I have Armadale to look forward to.