Jr Mr. Wilkie Collins is contented with the praise of not having hastily meditated or idly wrought out his new story, he may be sure that his claims to such praise will not be disputed. But the concluding sentences of his preface do away with the modest effect of the opening sentence, and plead for a less qualified verdict.
"Estimated by the Clap-trap morality of the present day, this may be a very daring book. Judged by the Christian morality which is of all time, it is only a book that is daring enough to speak the truth." Mr. Wilkie Collins is fond of challenging his critics, and we see no cause to shrink from accepting his chal- lenge. We have no love for Clap-trap morality, even when it is dignified with a large C, and we have never shown any wish to restrict the development of modern fiction within such narrow limits as exclude Crime, Fraud, and those kindred elements which Mr. Wilkie Collins honours with the same emphasis. But when we find a book daring enough to speak the truth, and appealing to Christian morality, we have a right to demand the whole truth, and some more reference to that morality than is contained in the modern tag which is called a preface. Is it, then, the whole truth about the world in which we live that it is peopled
by a set of scoundrels qualified by a set of fools, and watched
by retributive providence in the shape of attornies and spies? Is it the object of half the world to cheat the other half, and the object of the other half to put itself in the way of being cheated ? Is it true that all women are idiots till they are twenty, intriguers and murderesses till they are forty, and customers of hags who restore decayed beauty till they are eighty ? Do the hags and intriguers exchange cynical letters sparkling with the epigram of a practised writer, and do the murderesses keep journals of equal literary merit and equal power of mental anatomy ? If the world is such Mr. Wilkie Collins is certainly daring and Christian. But if he has only taken disjointed facts, which at best are fragments of truth, and patched them together,—if he has expended his wonder- ful ingenuity in producing a discordant mosaic instead of a har- monious picture, his plea falls to the ground, and the fact that
there are characters such as he has drawn, and actions such as he has described, does not warrant his overstepping the limits of decency, and revolting every human sentiment. This is what Arrnadale does. It gives us for its heroine a woman fouler than the refuse of the streets, who has lived to the ripe age of thirty- five, and through the horrors of forgery, murder, theft, bigamy, • drmadak. By Wilkie Collins. 2 vols. Loudon: Smith and Elder. 1136.
gaol, and attempted suicide, without any trace being left on her beauty. The plot turns on this woman's attempt to murder a boy whom she had first attempted to marry, and to pass herself off as his widow by means of her marriage to another boy who is secretly his namesake. And these attempts are told frankly in a diary, -which, but for its unreality, would be simply loathsome, and which needs all the veneer of Mr. Wilkie Collins's easy style and allusive sparkle to disguise its actual meaning. If we needed any proof of our assertion we should point to Mr. Thomas's pictures. It is well that a novelist should see the effect produced by the images -of his fancy on the man who has to give them form and shape. So long as Miss Gwilt is talking about Beethoven's sonatas, eclips- ing Byron's sarcasm about girls in their teens, and Dickens's joke about church bells, we are tempted to forget the character of the speaker. But if we turn to the illustration no doubt is left in our mind :—
" Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, As to be hated needs but to be seen."
The other characters are so mild compared to the heroine that it is hardly worth while dwelling upon them. But the same test answers for them all. They are not characters, they are shadowy beings put in to answer the requirements of Mr. Wilkie Collins's plot. They do just as he tells them, and are led by the nose as he wants them. That he places them well and leads them cleverly is only to be expected of a writer who has raised 'plot interest " to the rank of a science. But he can do no more than this, he cannot leave them to act without him, he cannot even leave them free to follow the bent of those peculiarities he bas imposed upon them. The most striking instance of this is old Bashwood's fraud upon Miss Gwilt when she sets him to watch Armadale's room, and when Midwinter stuffs his handkerchief into the grating which commands the corridor. What would have been simpler than for Bashwood to tell Miss Gwilt why he had lost sight of the room? He ran no risk by telling her, he ran a great risk by not telling her. Yet because it suits the plot that Miss Gwilt should be deceived, Mr. Wilkie Collins makes the man whose interest it Was to tell her what had happened hide from her what had happened. The only excuse is that Miss Cswilt had told him, "If you lose sight of the room for a single -moment before I come back you will repent it till the end of your life ;" and Mr. Wilkie Collins says, "If she had threatened him lees openly when she placed him on the watch, he might have owned the truth." But then when Midwinter was on the point of entering the room he checked himself and stuffed up the grating, :saying aloud, "If there is anybody watching us in there, let him watch us through this." Bashwood could not suppose Miss Gwilt wanted him to proclaim his presence by removing the handkerchief. He could not fail to infer that Midwinter had gone into Allan's 'room. And if he attached such immense value to the reward promised him, he would scarcely have forfeited all chance of it when it was almost within his grasp. But this is just Mr. Wilkie 'Collins's treatment of his puppets. He makes them utterly repul- sive to begin with, they drag on throughout the story, making themselves alternately ludicrous and disgusting, for the sake of a reward, and they are deprived of it at the end.
Mr. Wilkie Collins has himself acknowledged that it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters, -and one reason why his novels never excite a higher feeling than 'curiosity is because the characters are sacrificed to the story. We .do not allude to old Bashwood, who is merely the nervous lay figure occurring in all Mr. Wilkie Collins's books, the male form of the mother in the Dead Secret. But observe how completely young Armadale drops his personality when his personality would be rather in the way. Compare his simple straightforward letter which gives an account of the wreck of his yacht, with all his former -attempts at telling the plainest story, and failing to keep his -attention fixed for more than two minutes. He may well say, "I fancy my held is still muddled by my illness," though it is the first time we ever heard of a head being muddled into clearness ; ' I seem to have lost my old knack at putting things short, and finishing on the first page." But even an attempt on a man's life does not make him lose a knack which is his whole character, or teach him in one lesson that clearness of narrative of which Mr. Wilkie Collins and his cleverest scoundrels are justly proud. To take a more remarkable case, that of Midwinter. Mr. Wilkie Collins tries to show that Midwinter is alternately under the influence of Allan's dream, and struggling against it. He has made up his mind at first that the dream means something, and he is always wanting to prove himself mistaken. But for the purposes of the story he is a believer in fatalism at odd moments, and only resists it when he has sufficient grounds for yielding. As Allan's dream is the actual inspiration of the plot, and as Mid- winter is thus worked upon to enable the dream to come true, it is somewhat daring of Mr. Wilkie Collins to tell us that we are free to interpret the dream by the natural or the supernatural theory as the bent of our own minds may incline us. We see no natural theory, but entire disbelief of the story ; no supernatural theory, but unmitigated fatalism. We can hardly suppose this to be Christian morality, except that the young men of the book dream dreams, and the old men (such as Bashwood) see visions. But tracing the various links of the plot, we must accept the super- natural theory. Midwinter asks if there is such a thing as chance in the world when Allan tosses up for a tenant of his cottage, and there is certainly no such thing in the world of Mr. Wilkie Collins. Look at the way in which Miss Gwilt comes to be governess. Look at the way in which Midwinter, who is convinced that Allan is threatened by a man-shadow and a woman-shadow, that he is the man-shadow and Mrs Gwilt the woman-shadow, and that the statuette by the long French window is destined to be broken by Allan and the man-shadow ; who knows that a woman has designs on Allan, and that this woman's name is Miss Gwilt; and who hears that Allan has learnt certain particulars about Miss Gwilt; refuses to put these things together at the right moment because he is trying to believe that the dream is not true. All the ingenuity in the world is wasted on such contradic- tions.
There are other places in which Mr. Wilkie Collins has over- reached himself by this same ingenuity. It seems a startling incident to bring the two Armadales on board the very timber ship in which the father of the one drowned the father of the other. And as Mr. Wilkie Collins has spared no pains to in- struct himself on matters of fact, we may take it for granted that a waterlogged ship may drift for twenty years without being broken up by winds and waves, from within a day's sail of Madeira to the Isle of Man. But we own it seems improbable to us that she should grow new masts during that time, and instead of sinking lower in the water should rise higher. In the second wreck, the second time that an Armadale is fastened into his cabin, how comes it that the cabin furniture is wrenched out and left to float when the cabin hatch was nailed down? In the trial of Miss Gwilt for murdering her first husband, how comes it that the lawyers for the prosecution knew what had been confided to the attorney for the defence? Did this never strike Mr. Wilkie Collins's legal referee ? We should also be glad to know how Dr. Downward was encouraged in his blindness to the law about proofs of marriage. He consoles Miss Gwilt by telling her that the lawyers will not go to the parish register for proof of a marriage, as the proof afforded by it is insufficient. Very true ; proof of identity is required as well. But though the register is not proof of identity, it is proof of marriage, and the handwriting in the register is sometimes held evidence of identity. Moreover, evidence which is not conclusive in favour of anything is very often thoroughly conclusive against it ; and though the presence of a signature in the register would not prove identity without evidence to its genuineness, evidence that the signature was not genuine would disprove identity. And what becomes of Dr. Downward's "false declaration before a magistrate, which is punishable as perjury by law," after the falsity of it is fully established by the return of Allan? What is the good of the doctor's "carrying things with a high hand," and how can so good a lawyer as Mr. Pedgift say there is not a jot of evidence against him ? We can only say it is very lucky for Dr. Downward that Mr. Wilkie Collins made up his mind to spare him, and to make all his other characters spare him. The one fact of the doctor's having connived at a false statement so as to entrap Allan into his house was quite enough for Mr. Pedgift, and it would have been enough for any other Old Bailey lawyer.
This tenderness to Dr. Downward is no doubt explained by the fact that he reminds Mr. Wilkie Collius of Count Fosco. But though Dr. Downward is a very fair copy of Fosco, he is not the only copy in Armadale, and when young Bashwood tells his father, "Thank your stars that you have got a sharp son who can take the pith out of these papers, and give it a smack of the right flavour in serving it up. There are not ten men in England who could tell you this woman's story as I can tell it. It's a gift, old gentle- man, of the sort that is given to very few people, and it lodges here,"—we are at once brought back to Fosco's, "I shall make this a remarkable document. Habits of literary composition are perfectly familiar to me. One of the rarest of all the intellectual accomplishments that a man can possess is the grand faculty of arranging his ideas. Immense privilege. I possess it. Do you?" It is because Mr. Wilkie Collins possesses this immense privilege
that he is always imparting it to the characters of whom he is most proud. But it leads him into an absolute identification of himself with his characters which is the reversal of that rule for dramatic writing laid down by Southey. Instead of putting himself in the place of his characters, and thinking what they would do under such circumstances, he puts himself in the place that should be occupied by his characters, and thinks what he would do. Thus when young Bashwood tells that story, he is not a genuine employi of a Private Inquiry office, but Mr. Wilkie Collins acting in that capacity. Mother Oldershaw is not a genuine restorer of damaged faces and guardian of damaged characters, but she is what Mr. Wilkie Collins imagines he would be if he could embark in that line of business. It is hard for Mr. Wilkie Collins to imagine himself a silly girl, but when he does so be must play out the play ; and therefore Neelie Milroy is a young Mrs. Nickleby, telling Allan they may meet when he is a widower and she is a widow. One result of this is that whenever Mr. Wilkie Collins differs from his characters there is sure to be a mud- dle. Any one with half the cleverness of Miss Wilkie Collins Gwilt would have known that she must have been proved guilty of the murder of Armadale if she had succeeded in it ; if only that Midwinter loved his friend more than he loved her, and would not have been silent when he knew her history. And any one with half the cleverness of Mr. Wilkie Collins himself must see that the story of the two Armadales has no effect on the conduct of the novel, that another man would have done far better than Mid- winter to marry Miss Gwilt under the name of Allan Armadale, and that the only proof of ingenuity in the book is the maintenance of a complication which of itself was improbable, and which would have broken down in real life with the first stress that was laid upon it.