The following is a reflection written by PhD student Josh Dobbs after reading and discussing Armadale, Book Two, Chapter Two (Originally published March 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.
I reached the end of Book the Second, Chapter II of Armadale, and found myself struggling to stop. Being of the post-Victorian age, fighting the urge to continue reading the next chapter was an odd experience for me. In the back of my brain, I know the process through which these serialized novels were published and released for consumption by the reading public, but that knowledge didn’t prepare me for the abrupt ending of each installment of Armadale. I don’t mean abrupt endings such as those in Stratemeyer’s Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys adventures, in which he intentionally planned for each chapter to end with a cliffhanger to drive the curiosity of young readers and keep them focused on his books, constantly starting a new chapter to see the resolution of the hair-raising moment that the previous chapter ended with. No, Collins isn’t using such cliffhangers to drive his audience’s curiosity, but rather weaving an elaborate mystery for his readers, a mystery that the reader wants to see resolved, hopefully in the best way possible for the protagonists.
What I mean by the abrupt ending is “I want to continue but I cannot!” This puts me in mind of the comic books of my childhood. I wasn’t one of those kids that bought out the store each month, collecting everything that was released and thus ensuring that I’d have plenty to read until the new releases arrived the next month. Instead, I was a faithful fanatic following a few titles alone. Each month, I would pick up those few titles, read them in a couple days, and find myself having to wait the rest of the month to see where the story went next. Each month, I neared the end of a comic book with mixed emotions. I wanted to hurry up through the last few pages and see how this issue resolved itself, but I could also see that I was in the last few pages and would want to savor them, afraid that they were coming too soon and that I would soon have nothing further to read, at least until next month.
I found myself similarly approaching my book mark in Armadale, in a rush to see what would happen next in the story, but dreading reaching that bookmark and not being able to proceed further (at least if I wanted to abide by the rules of this experiment). The letters in Book 2, chapter 1 were enlightening, especially in establishing the plot between Lydia and Mrs. Oldershaw. The veiled lady is now poised to enter the lives of Allan and Ozias, her red scarf warning of impending troubles, though what those might be are still a mystery. And, in chapter 2, Allan is falling for young Miss Milroy, seemingly throwing a wrench into the Lydia’s scheme. How she will deal with this wrench once she reaches Thorpe-Ambrose, for indeed, with the advertisement in the paper landing squarely on Oldershaw’s doorstep in the chapter’s final line, she must arrive soon at Thorpe-Ambrose, is still a mystery as well. I savored those juicy revelations that this installment gave me, but I lamented not being able to progress further, as I am so very used to doing as an English major in a post-Victorian world. Not being able to continue reading a novel because I simply cannot, and not just because it is inconvenient in the moment, is a new experience for me. I want to continue, to determine if Allan’s dream is prophetic or not, to determine if Ozias can overcome the cycle established by his father, and to see what is to ultimately be the fate of the Armadale name and family.
Were I a Victorian, I would definitely run out and buy the next installment of Armadale as soon as it was released. I am not…maybe I’ll peek at what happens next. But, I shouldn’t, right? I hate reading like a Victorian, since it stinks to have to delay my gratification until the next installment. I love reading like a Victorian, since I get to leave myself in the blissful agony of suspense until the next installment.