17 Life Lessons From Armadale

It takes patience to read a Wilkie Collins classic. I’ve probably attempted to read this e-book three times before I finally gave up and let it stay on my PC for a year. I couldn’t get myself to delete it because I know that a Wilkie Collins creation is a treat once you get to the part that makes it interesting. So I tried to read again chapter by chapter. It was bearable when I read one chapter a day. Then I tried two chapters per day. Near the end of the book, I ditched the two chapter ration and just continued reading until the end.

It was indeed something that I enjoyed reading. To say that the plot is convoluted is absolutely accurate, and it’s what makes this story engaging. Armadale is a classic mystery set in the 19th century. It tells us of a story of two best friends named after their father bearing the same name – Allan Armadale. One of the younger Allan Armadale was solely raised by his mother in a remote place called Somersetshire Shores while the other Allan Armadale ran away from home and took up the name of the gypsy vagabond who informally adopted him. So the story proceeds with the other Allan Armadale living as Ozias Midwinter, a name of a wretched drunkard gypsy. It was serendipity that Ozias Midwinter found himself wandering in Somersetshire Shores and it was the beginning of a friendship that he will cherish throughout his life.

A mystery is not a mystery without a villain (or villainess) and Collins expertly introduces his readers to Lydia Gwilt who provided movement to the novel. Allan Armadale of Somersethire Shores is such a lucky fellow that he eventually inherited Thorpe Ambrose estate from his mother’s side of the family (the Blanchards). We all know what happens when money is involved. It becomes a motive for something sinister. Lydia Gwilt originally obsessed over marrying Allan Armadale because of the conveniences that a lady of Thorpe Ambrose may experience. Near the end of the book, her obsession evolved into a desire for murder.

Probably the best part of any Wilkie Collins story is his well-developed characters. Lydia Gwilt may have been a villainess and reading through pages and pages of her twisted schemes made me hate her at most. Surprisingly though, she made me cry when she sacrificed herself in place of Ozias Midwinter inside the room with the noxious fumes of her own doing. If you read the novel carefully and internalize it well, these characters can come to life as if they are real and not just figments of a good writer’s imagination.

Armadale is a work of fiction but it also mirrors humanity as perceived by the author. So cutting short this introduction, I now present 17 life lessons that I’ve picked up from reading Armadale:

1.     Context changes everything.

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If I were to look at Allan Armadale from a 21st century point of view, I’d describe him as some guy with kinky sexual preferences. Really, who wouldn’t make that conclusion? After all, Collins did say that Allan “made love” to Eleanor “Neelie” Milroy inside a horse drawn carriage in the presence of an elderly chaperone.

Except that it can’t be right. I’m sure I downloaded a mystery, not an erotic novel. So there must be something wrong here, something very wrong. True enough, that description of Allan Armadale is totally warped. If you must read a classic, read it with respect to context.

So how do I explain “made love” if it isn’t something sexual in nature? When common knowledge fails, consult a dictionary. The online Collins English Dictionary gives us a second definition of “make love” to mean courtship. So Allan and Neelie were probably just flirting with each other inside the carriage. On the other hand, this type of behavior is still unacceptable during Collins’ time which is why Mrs. Pentecost (the elderly chaperone) wasn’t pleased with Allan. Proper courtship rituals are taken very seriously in the 19th century which makes it really improbable that he can get away with doing Neelie inside the carriage with Mrs. Pentecost around. Context changes everything.

2.     It’s not a crime to be skeptical.

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When Alexander Neal was first approached by the doctor to finish a letter that the elder Allan Armadale wrote, his initial reaction was not positive, although he didn’t really say no either. He was hesitant because he weighed things carefully. He grilled the doctor for additional information before agreeing to the task. He was cautious, something that reminds me so much of what we’ve become in the Internet age. Over the years, we’ve all learned to scrutinize what we read carefully before believing what was posted.

Mysteries often have more than one skeptical character on board. In later parts of the book, readers will be introduced to Augustus Pedgift Senior who was never fooled with Lydia Gwilt’s playacting. Ozias Midwinter also managed to save young Allan Armadale’s life because he didn’t trust the purity of Felix Bashwood’s intention at the train station.

There will always be an Alexander Neal, Augustust Pedgift Senior, or an Ozias Midwinter in all of us. Sure, we may be annoying to those who are objects of distrust, but it comes from our natural instinct to protect ourselves. It’s not a crime to be skeptical at times. In the age where almost every type of scam has been imagined, it may even save our life or somebody else’s life. Better to be safe than sorry.

3.     Preparation is the first step to success but isn’t a guarantee to attaining it.

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Maria Oldershaw is not one of my favorite characters in the book, but I do give her credit for being such a good planner. I don’t think that Lydia Gwilt would have made it that far if not for Oldershaw’s resourcefulness.

Even before Allan Armadale settled in at Thorpe Ambrose, Mrs. Oldershaw already has her plan in place. This plan wouldn’t have been so effective if she didn’t do her homework. She hired a lawyer to look into the late Blanchard’s will. Next, she hired a detective to do some spying at Thorpe Ambrose. Then she devised her plan. Mind you, what she did is equivalent to stalking these days, which makes her efforts despicable rather than admirable. Still, she knows what she’s doing.

I would have thought that Augustus Pedgift Senior was a match for Mrs. Oldershaw. Just like her, he also did his homework before he made some proposals to circumvent the damage that Ms. Gwilt created. Too bad Allan didn’t see the sense in Pedgift Senior’s logic. Preparation is indeed the first step to success, but it isn’t a guarantee. Many things can happen in between to hinder us, which is why it’s still important for us to be flexible even if we have an original plan in place.

4.     There is a reason why it’s confidential.

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The one thing that puzzles me the most in this classic is how it was possible for Maria Oldershaw to have access to the late Blanchard’s will. Thorpe Ambrose originally belonged to the Blanchards and only passed on to Allan Armadale through inheritance. I would think that this document is considered very confidential and its contents are only to be disclosed to concerned family members (or close friends, maybe). Mrs. Oldershaw is neither family nor friend, but she was able to see its contents through a hired lawyer. Then again, Mrs. Oldershaw is an abhorrent character and she may have dropped a lie or two (and maybe some more) to her lawyer to make her inquiry legitimate.

Skipping that part about how Mrs. Oldershaw gained access to the will, it stands to reason that the contents of the will became a motive for Ms. Gwilt. Ms. Gwilt and Mrs. Oldershaw were in on this together and both were aiming for a share in Allan Armadale’s wealth. The will provided a way for Ms. Gwilt to do this by trying to become Allan Armadale’s wife. This was actually how her obsession started.

The contents of a will and other document similar to a will are sensitive in nature and disclosure of such information may lead to a life or death situation. This is the reason why some documents are considered confidential. Confidentiality aims to protect the people from wicked characters like Mrs. Oldershaw and Ms. Gwilt.

5.     Not everyone is guilty by association.

 

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Of all the characters in the book, I felt sympathy for Ozias Midwinter. Through unfortunate circumstances, Ozias’ father was driven to kill young Allan Armadale’s father. Ozias’ father was never tried for the crime so he never went to jail for it.

Sadly, it was Ozias who paid for his father’s crime. His own mother and stepfather maltreated him in childhood, placing judgment on him because of his father’s sins. It drove him to quit school, leave home, and live as a vagabond. He had a hard life. Then when he found out about his father’s past, he felt more broken. He actually felt that he deserved such punishment because of who his father was.

Yet in the end, it was Ozias who sacrificed his own life to save Allan’s life. Both Allan and Ozias were the best of friends, giving us much contrast to what their fathers are to each other. Wilkie Collins clearly tells us that people are not necessarily guilty by association.

6.     Never underestimate a jealous woman (or man).

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Image courtesy of patrisyu at freedigitalphotos.net

Anne Milroy was a surprise for me. In the first two books, Collins hardly emphasizes Anne’s presence. She was just introduced as Major David Milroy’s ailing wife who can become impossible at times. Little did I know that she will become the catalyst of the story in the third book.

Anne Milroy isn’t such a bad woman. Whatever character she may have exhibited is attributed to her illness which changed her both physically and psychologically. As her condition worsened, her insecurity increased all the more. Lydia Gwilt’s presence as their governess did little to make her feel better. On the contrary, it ignited her suspicious nature which drove her to look into Ms. Gwilt’s background. She was looking for an excuse to fire Ms. Gwilt because she has convinced herself that Ms. Gwilt meant to steal her husband. Her jealousy triggered a series of events that botched Mrs. Oldershaw and Ms. Gwilt’s original plan.

Fast forward to another character – Felix Bashwood. Mr. Bashwood was the biggest fool of all in this book. Despite what he knows about Ms. Gwilt, she manages to keep him wrapped around her finger. This poor mand is blindly in love with Ms. Gwilt, but he is not immune to this monster called jealousy. His jealousy led him to hire his own son to look into Ms. Gwilt’s past. Ms. Gwilt knew that she was being followed while she was in London but she never suspected Mr. Bashwood to be behind all this.

In both situations, Ms. Gwilt was entirely wrong in deducing who initiated the problems she got herself into. Instead of suspecting Anne Milroy, she thought Neelie Milroy was behind it all. Mr. Bashwood averted suspicion because she thought that Maria Oldershaw was placing her under surveillance. Both times, she underestimated the evil that jealousy can create in someone’s mind.

7.     Envy makes one blind.

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I don’t think that it was jealousy that Lydia Gwilt felt when Allan Armadale and Neelie Milroy rekindled their love for each other. I think it was more envy that drove her towards her most evil self.

It was clear that Lydia hated Allan, although the intensity of that hate manifested only much later in the story. She never really wanted Allan because she was deeply attracted to him. She just wanted to be married to him so she can enjoy the material rewards that come with being his wife. The fact that Neelie Milroy and Allan Armadale are together again made her see that her chances of being Mrs. Armadale is zero. When she sees Neelie and Allan, she sees all the conveniences that she couldn’t have that Neelie will get once the latter is married to Allan.

She was envious of Neelie, this much is clear. This envy made her blind to the fact that Anne Milroy is equally capable of probing into her past which caused so much trouble for her. She believed Neelie to be guilty of this misdemeanor even if Anne Milroy’s private nurse revealed Anne’s participation in the fiasco. Her envy made her blind to the truth.

8.     Evil wins because good always follow the rules…

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Allan Armadale believed that it was in good faith that Anne Milroy requested his assistance in tracing Lydia Gwilt’s reference in London. He never suspected any malicious intent behind it, even if Mrs. Milroy insisted on keeping things confidential between themselves. It was only when the dubious Mrs. Mandeville was traced back to Maria Oldershaw’s residence that he realized his own mistake. Not wanting to offend Lydia Gwilt further, he decided not to disclose what he found out, but it was too late. The whole thing blew up in his face.

While Allan kept his word and kept Mrs. Milroy’s participation confidential, Mrs. Milroy implicated him which gave the impression that he alone initiated this probe. He never once betrayed Mrs. Milroy nor did he say anything bad about Lydia Gwilt. Yet both women took advantage of his silence to spread lies about him.

If there’s anything to be said about Allan Armadale it is that he followed the rules of decency even under pressure. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being a good person. This just tells us that being good doesn’t spare us from pain.

9.     … but it doesn’t mean that evil gets away with it unscathed.

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Ozias Midwinter’s father committed a murder but he was never jailed for it. Yet readers don’t find him celebrating. He was plagued by his own guilt which he carried to his death.

Jane Armadale (nee Blanchard) deceived her father about her husband’s identity. She managed to keep this secret from her son (Allan) up to her death. Yet she never had peace. In fact, her death was hastened by the effect of Lydia Gwilt’s presence in Somersetshire Shores. Lydia and Jane go way back which is why Lydia is privy to Jane’s secret. Lydia used this secret as leverage to extort money from her.

Lydia Gwilt finds herself in various sticky situations ranging from minor misdemeanors to serious crimes, but she continues to live among the innocent. Yet we see her try to commit suicide twice with her last effort finally rewarded.

All three characters got away with their misdeeds, but weren’t truly happy with their lives. So it just may be that evil wins over good, but it doesn’t mean that evil lives happily ever after.

10.    In customer service, the customer is king…

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In this novel, Thorpe Ambrose isn’t just a residence but is a large estate that generates income. In the modern sense, Thorpe Ambrose is also a business and just like any other business, it has its employees. Among those employees, Allan Armadale required the regular service of a lawyer to which the Pedgifts were lucky enough to be chosen over James Darch. The law office of the Pedgifts is run by a father and son tandem – Augustus Pedgift Senior and Augustus Pedgift Junior. Among the two, Pedgift Junior has a natural gift of delighting his clients.

As a retained lawyer, organizing an event is not a part of Pedgift Junior’s job but he happily organized a picnic for Allan when Allan wanted one. In London, he also assisted Allan in finding a good hotel to stay in. He made sure that Allan got the best service there was at this hotel. He even assisted Allan in the search for Mrs. Mandeville.

Pedgift Junior is not required to do those extra services that he did for Allan, but he gladly lent a helping hand anyway. The way he took care of his customer is impressive. Pedgift Junior exemplifies customer service in the most ideal way.

11.    … but the customer isn’t always right.

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A trusting Allan Armadale never realized that his search for Mrs. Mandeville will lead to a scandal. Instead of exposing Lydia Gwilt as a fraud (as Anne Milroy hoped), Ms. Gwilt turned the tables on Mr. Armadale. She expertly maneuvered the situation to make herself look like an underdog and Mr. Armadale the villain. Augustus Pedgift Senior would have ignored all the rumors surrounding Mr. Armadale if it had not escalated to the highest authority. Pedgift Senior didn’t have a choice but to defend his client from further damage. Sadly, Mr. Armadale rejected all of Pedgift Senior’s proposals for the remedy. Leaving Pedgift Senior with no other option, he decided to drop his client.

While it is important to please your customers, there will come a point where you will have to make a choice between keeping your customer or maintaining your credibility. Pedgift Senior will not be able to do a good job of defending Mr. Armadale if he refuses to cooperate with him, so dropping him as a client was the more logical thing to do rather than hold on to the business that Mr. Armadale provided him.

12.    Haters will believe the worst rumors about you.

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When Allan Armadale finally decided to claim Thorpe Ambrose, he made the mistake of offending his neighbors. Even before his arrival, the Norfolk folks were already aware that Thorpe Ambrose has a new owner. Being hospitable people, they planned a welcome celebration for him. For some, this gesture may be flattering, but not for Allan. He’s just not the kind of person that likes to be celebrated this way. So to avoid the welcome party, he settled at Thorpe Ambrose earlier than expected which thwarted all plans for a “surprise” welcome party. This seemingly innocent action on Allan’s part offended his Norfolk neighbors. What’s more, their opinion of him became lower when they found out that Allan never attended college nor does hunting interest him.

Personally, I don’t see Allan as a particularly offensive character. He was just raised differently from the Norfolk people. His neighbors’ opinions may seem like a trivial matter, but it set the right condition for Lydia Gwilt’s lies. When Lydia spread the rumor that Allan was looking into her past behind her back with some malicious unfounded accusation, the Norfolk people readily believed it. They never gave Allan the benefit of the doubt nor did they even question Lydia’s honesty. The seed of hatred was already in their hearts which is why it was easy to nurture Lydia’s lies within them. Their original dislike for Allan made them believe the worst rumor spread about Allan.

13.    It’s called a team because you’re supposed to work together.

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As much as I dislike the Maria Oldershaw and Lydia Gwilt partnership, I have to admit that they made a great team. Mrs. Oldershaw creates the plan while Ms. Gwilt executes it. When they were constantly communicating with each other, they were able to outsmart Decimus Brock and Ozias Midwinter. The veil dropping ruse was a stroke of genius on Mrs. Oldershaw’s part. The ruse worked so well that Mr. Midwinter never associated Ms. Gwilt with the woman that caused Jane Armadale much distress before she died. It is clear that Mrs. Oldershaw is the more perceptive one between them.

When their original plans were falling apart, Ms. Gwilt wrote less and less to Mrs. Oldershaw until she cut off all ties to Mrs. Oldershaw. To think that it is at this particular moment that she needs her support system. This was Ms. Gwilt’s biggest mistake. She was doing great because she had a Mrs. Oldershaw to guide her. They were a team. Then she decided to go solo and everything went downhill from there.

14.     Sleep isn’t just a word in the dictionary.

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My favorite parts of this novel are those chapters that disclose Lydia Gwilt’s diary entries. For one thing, the pace of the story is faster when Collins writes from Ms. Gwilt’s perspective. Secondly, it gives the readers an insight into Miss Gwilt’s mind. Among the chapters, I find the 10th chapter of Book 3 to be the most interesting set of diary entries. It is where readers will find Ms. Gwilt transitioning from merely obsessing over marriage into someone contemplating murder.

It is already at this point that the original plan is falling apart. It is also this period where she began pulling away from Maria Oldershaw. To add to her already muddled mind is Ozias Midwinter’s confession of love and his real identity. Also, her efforts to win back Allan Armadale’s interest in her were all in vain. As events unfold before her eyes, she became disappointed, bitter, and angry.

With so much emotional baggage, it is no surprise that she gets less sleep every night. If she does get some sleep, it is mostly because she took some laudanum to help shut her eyes. It may not have been Collins intention to point out the values of a good night’s sleep, but I tend to think that Miss Gwilt’s darkest self surfaced because her mind wasn’t getting the necessary rest it should have. Lack of sleep and a few drops of opium (from laudanum) may have been the reason for Miss Gwilt’s transition to a murderess.

What happened to Miss Gwilt may be overkill. After all, not everyone who lacks sleep contemplates murder. Still, we can’t dismiss the value of sleep in our lives. Sleep lets us recharge so that we can think clearly the next day.

15.    Physical attraction may get you the man, but a deeper bond keeps him.

 

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Lydia Gwilt is a very attractive woman, as described in the novel. Possibly, we can liken her to a supermodel or a hot attractive babe you can see on the Internet. She only has one effect on men – she mesmerizes them with her beauty, elegance, and grace. So it is no surprise that Collins will include a few admirers in the novel. Among those admirers, she only fell in love with one – Ozias Midwinter.

Lydia and Ozias got married and they were happy in their marriage in the first few months. When Ozias became busy with his work, their relationship started fading away little by little. Then when Allan Armadale dropped by their place for a visit, the distance between their relationship grew some more.

In contrast, Allan and Ozias’ friendship never faded. Ozias never forgot that Allan helped nurse him back to health in Somersetshire Shores. He was so used to people maltreating him that he found Allan’s friendship uplifting. In return, his friendship helped Allan cope with the loss of Allan’s mother. Both friends shared a deeper bond that isn’t easily broken, something that Lydia doesn’t have with Ozias.

16.    Old habits die hard.

 

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Possibly the best thing that ever happened to Lydia Gwilt is Ozias Midwinter. Their marriage signaled the beginning of Lydia’s desire to reform herself. She tried her best to become a good person. Her diary shows the inner struggles she went through to control her murderous desire. Too bad it didn’t last long.

The evil in her heart is already ingrained in her. As a child, she had the bad fortune of being used for forgery. Her initial days outside of school and convent led her to a group of smugglers. Her first husband was abusive while her second husband made her commit her first serious crime. This was the past that she hid from her husband, possibly because she was afraid of losing him. Yet this fear was also the reason why she broke her resolution to become a good person.

Old habits die hard, which is why we have to exert extra efforts to break them. Her love for Ozias was strong enough to want the change, but it wasn’t strong enough to extinguish her hatred for Allan Armadale. In the end, it was her hatred that destroyed her resolution.

17.    Everyone is given a second chance, but not everyone makes good use of it.

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I don’t feel totally sorry for Lydia Gwilt but I can’t help but compare her a bit to Ozias Midwinter. They’re not the same, of course. Ozias never committed murder in his life, but Lydia did.

She was originally given the death sentence for the murder she committed but was retried and given a lesser sentence. She was jailed for theft, yes, but was later released after serving her sentence. Earlier in her life, she committed forgery in behalf of Jane Armadale which estranged Jane from the rest of her family. Lydia may have been dismissed from her employment but the Blanchards made sure that she got the best education for her. She’s been given several chances in life and what does she do with them? She connives with Mrs. Oldershaw to dupe Allan Armadale into marrying her. She connives with Dr. Woodward to commit another murder.

Ozias, on the other hand, had a hard life which wasn’t all due to his own doing. Some of them were pure spite directed against his father. He may have lost his temper a few times and cost him his employment, but he never deliberately planned to hurt someone. His biggest second chance was his friendship with Allan which he treasured until the end. In here, we can see the contrast between Lydia’s and Ozias’ response to their second chances.

Fiction reflects real life and just like in real life, everyone is given second chances in life. Some of us makes good use of it, while some respond like Lydia and take those second chances for granted.

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