The Merits of Melodrama: Armadale

Wilkie Collins, Armadale (1864)

ArmadaleHaving enjoyed Wilkie Collins’s two most famous novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, I wanted to read more of this Victorian author’s wildly popular sensation fiction. Recommendations from several quarters led me to Armadale, his longest book and the one of which TS Eliot said “It has no merit beyond melodrama, and it has every merit that melodrama can have.”

Melodrama it certainly does have, in abundance. The extremely convoluted plot involves concealed identities, stolen inheritances, murder, suicide, violent love, strange coincidences, and ingenious scams. There’s not much to delight a logical mind, but many memorably-drawn characters, moments of humor and satire, and some penetrating psychological insights. I’m not sure what Eliot would name as the merits of melodrama, but if he means that it’s only an exciting story without much depth or substance, I’d say there’s more to Armadale than that. Collins brings up questions of love, identity, and sacrifice that last beyond the momentary thrills of the page. He portrays all his characters, even the evil and absurd ones, with a generous spirit that brings out their common humanity and keeps us from thoughtlessly dismissing them.

Although I did enjoy the book, and didn’t find it difficult or intimidating in spite of its length, it seemed to me like a first draft that would have benefited from another round or two of revision. It was originally published in installments, and Collins appears to have written it on the fly without an overarching outline or sense of structure. The tone lurches from ominous thriller to drawing-room comedy, with interpolations of a lurid prophetic dream that ramp up the melodrama to the max. Partway through, villainess Lydia Gwilt enters the scene with a first-person narrative from her journal, in which she conveniently if somewhat unwisely records her dastardly deeds for posterity. Letters and other documents have already been inserted into the story, a device that breaks up the lengthy third-person stretches and lends a pleasant variety, but the journal starts to take up more and more space and other characters are pushed aside. It’s not that Gwilt isn’t a complex and compelling character — she definitely is — but this throws the balance of the novel out of whack. One wonders what would have happened if Collins had gone back and made the book Lydia’s story, or at least started giving her perspective at an earlier point.

Given the circumstances of nineteenth century publishing, though, that was not to be. If you choose to embark upon this magnificent melodrama, you’ll have to take it as it is, finding pleasure in its excesses and forgiving its faults.



Back to the Classics Challenge: Nineteenth Century Classic
Classics Club List #24

23 thoughts on “The Merits of Melodrama: Armadale

  1. I really do want to read something by Wilkie at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later. But I think I’ll start with The Women in White or The Moonstone. I am a bit hesitant about this one, since you say it doesn’t seem to have an overarching plot line


  2. I loved this book and didn’t have a problem with the melodrama, but I would agree that it’s not as well structured as The Woman in White or The Moonstone. If you want to read more of Wilkie Collins’ books I would highly recommend No Name.


  3. My copy of this book is sitting on my shelf…mocking me. I was supposed to read it this summer, but haven’t even started it. I like Wilkie Collins and have enjoyed his other novels, and I want to read this one, but … it’s just so long! You give me hope, though, that I’ll be able to make it through, once I can make myself pick it up and start reading. 🙂


    1. Having large chunks of unstructured vacation time did help. I think once you get started, though, you’ll find yourself racing through it. It’s just so wacky!


  4. I had never heard of this but it sounds really good.

    Some of the structural inconsistencies that you refer to do sound a little annoying but Gwilt sounds like a great character.


    1. She’s quite something. I think there was a stage adaptation that was named after her instead of the title. Now that I’d like to see — they must have done a lot of streamlining of such a massive book!


  5. I think that’s why I haven’t re-read a lot of the classics that were originally published as serials. They put so much into each installment but didn’t have anyone looking at the over-arching story and it’s annoying in a full book.
    Thanks for that tip about Pic Monkey. I have all my letter and they’re the same size, but I was having trouble even w/ GIMP putting them all together. I was thinking about quitting, but now I’ll finish up tomorrow.


    1. Good, I’m glad that helped!

      You’re right that other serials sometimes have that disconnected quality. It doesn’t always bother me, but here it did.


  6. I really must read Armadale, especially since I profess to be a Collins fan. I can understand the melodrama tag this book has, and I’ll be happy to take it as it is and forgive its faults. I really appreciate your sensitive and honest review of the text. Looking forward to getting back into more 19th century literature this fall, specifically Collins!


  7. Yeah, it becomes progressively more and more weird that I haven’t ventured into further Wilkie Collins adventures, given how much I adore The Woman in White and The Moonstone. I guess it’s that I’m nervous his other books will let me down, which is silly! Even with flaws, Armadale sounds pretty great.


  8. Great review! I agree that that there is more depth and substance to Armadale than meets the eye, or rather the reader has to dig for it a little, fill in some of the blanks. I personally loved Lydia and I think that Collins had a real sympathy for her as well.


    1. I think that’s why I wished that Collins had gone back and filled in those blanks more himself. But he was already on to the next book, I suppose.


  9. I’m just amazed–and thrilled!–to find someone else who has read Armadale! It is convoluted for sure, but fascinating. “Lydia Gwilt” has always struck me as a perfectmy ingenious name for a villainess. Collins is one of the few who could rival his friend Dickens in apt character naming. I would highly recommend Collins’ “No Name” which has greater structural clarity and a compelling human story.


    1. There are some other reviews around the blogosphere that led me to Armadale… unfortunately I can’t find them now. No Name sounds great too.


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