Foot Fiction: School Days…And Wilkie Collins

Readers, life has gotten away from me like always, and I find myself longing to post about my running, hiking, and jaunting about in the beautiful fall weather.  The only problem is that all of this foot travel is happening on MSU’s campus, where I rush hurriedly from one place to the next, followed by hours upon hours of reading in my guest bedroom, which I now call the library (because libraries are fun, and offices are not). But my thoughts are not far away from this blog, even if I am far away from the trails and adventures of summer, and I found myself writing two different short projects last week that I think my readers might like to see.  Might is, of course, the operative word.

The first of them is below; if you are into detective fiction, nineteenth century novels, or crime dramas, then you might find my thoughts on fancy footwork in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale interesting. I hope the select group of readers who happens to care about these ideas enjoy my analysis.  If you haven’t read Armadale, I highly recommend it for the self-conscious absurdity of the plot, Collins’s masterful, tongue-in-cheekiness, and his shockingly bad–perhaps mad–villianess, Lydia Gwilt.

For the rest of you readers who are not willing to devote three 8-hour days to reading Armadale, stay tuned for a full report of the Manestee River Trail, soon to be conquered by two Greulichs, and written about here.

Happy Fall!

“A Movement A Foot”

Peripatetic and Verbal Dexterity in Armadale

In John Sutherland’s introduction to the Penguin Edition of Armadale, he states “Lydia Gwilt uses the machinery of the modern metropolis with the expertise of a Victorian James Bond,” comparing her criminal acumen with those of the twentieth century’s most enduring heroes (ix).  His statement brings up interesting questions about the longevity of the text in society; he claims that she coins several clichéd criminal moves, including “throwing the tail,” the “drop dead” routine, and the use of high-tech “stylish” tools to accomplish her murderous ends (ix).  I found this observation interesting in its acuity in reading her character and in thinking about the mechanics of the novel and its cultural potential. If we take Sutherland at his word and assume that Lydia’s character is the genre-setter of modern criminal modus operandi, then we can begin to look at Armadale as a novel that accomplishes the very kind of cultural infection that it meditates upon.

While there are many ways that we could think about how Armadale obsesses about the cultural reiteration of the criminal, I want to focus on dexterity—verbal and physical—as it applies to the novel’s characters. The extent to which characters are identified as hero, victim, and villain is questionable throughout the novel, and describing the dexterity of each is one way to help readers identify their role in the machinery of the text. Characters who exhibit dexterity on foot drive or complicate the plot in interesting ways, while characters who are not so light on their feet appear to become their victims.

Allan is a primary case in point. For most of the first three books of the novel, Allan could be read as the hero of the story, utilizing his Bond-esque confidence to dictate his life on the estate. His confident, athletic movements become superimposed on his athletic prose; his response to Darch is an especially self-aware moment of his verbal prowess: “As for your casting my invitation back in my teeth, I beg to inform you my teeth are none the worse for it.  I am equally glad to have nothing to say to you, either in capacity of a friend or a tenant” (193).  Allan’s boxing metaphor, denoting the quick footwork of argumentative parry, places the agency of the story in his possession, and for a moment, the day is his.

However, Allan’s verbal prowess is self-inflated, and readers (at least this reader) find his continual loss of verbal and physical dexterity disappointing throughout the rest of the novel. We cheer for Allan to win the day, but as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that his forceful, thoughtless rhetoric, like his impulsive actions, set him up as a victim who cannot save himself. Lydia’s diary chastises his flummoxed interpretation of verbal rules, conflating his verbal and physical clumsiness: “Armadale was present, and flourished his well-filled purse in his usual insufferable way. ‘I’m rich enough, old boy, and it comes to the same thing.  With those words he took up his hat, and trampled out on his great elephant’s feet to get the box. I looked after him from the window as he went down the street.  ‘Your widow, with her twelve hundred a year,’ I thought to myself, ‘might take a box at the San Carlo whenever she pleased, without being beholden to anybody.’” (555). In this diary entry, Lydia bemoans Allan’s clumsiness on foot and in word, and then plots his death shortly after, during a walk along the seafront (567). The passage implies the kind of street smarts that must be possessed in order to thwart our villainess, and Allan has neither the light foot nor the sly tongue to save himself. If we read Lydia’s diary as a moment of genre-definition, then it certainly seems that Allan is cast (perhaps coined?) as the archetypal bumbling victim.

Dexterity also defines our villainess, as Sutherland suggests, and although we could certainly argue whether Lydia is a victim of fate, industrial society, Mrs. Milroy, or perhaps even her diary, it seems evident that linguistic and literal footwork lie at the heart of Lydia’s villainy. In earlier sections of the novel, events are narrated through the vague phrase, “there was a movement afoot;” it is one of the novel’s many reiterated phrases and denotes both physical hustle and bustle, but also the rhetorical velocity of words and ideas, planted, overheard, and spread. At moments, it is difficult to tell the impetus of that movement, as in Brock’s letter to Midwinter in “The Plot Thickens;” “At any rate, she confirmed me in the suspicion that some underhand proceeding is on foot, of which Allan is destined to be the victim”(238).  As readers discover in the reading of her diary, Lydia herself is the “underhand proceeding on foot,” darting between alleys, walking deserted streets, and manipulating with words as quickly as she vacates her residences, always via foot, to avoid being traced in London’s urban jungle (539).

There is one other character that develops the dexterity that Lydia masters in the novel: Midwinter.  I use the word develop here purposefully; Collins does not always frame Midwinter as the possible hero of this tale, and his identity as the hero is questionable from his introduction as the taciturn minstrel of fate to his verbal and physical abandonment of Allan, to his love affair with the enemy.  Indeed, it is his ability to develop the dexterity of criminality that draws Lydia to him; she is impressed by his ability to handoff in passing notes between them, commenting that “I couldn’t help thinking at the time how that brute and booby Armadale would have spoiled everything in the same situation”(415). This passage occurs at the height of the plot, when it isn’t clear if Midwinter will devoutly protect Allan, or blindly follow Lydia.  And his dexterity in accomplishing the moves of the criminal infects his character with that evil potential.

But perhaps more importantly, Midwinter also possesses a persuasive force over Lydia, encouraging her to “trample” her “wickedness underfoot” (514). That ability to manipulate her character via his dexterity leaves the story without a centered hero-villain-victim triangulation.  In protecting Allan from poisoning via his midnight sleuthing, Midwinter becomes Allan’s hero and Lydia’s victim.  But in appealing to Lydia’s love, she becomes his hero as well as his tormentor, saving him despite herself. And Lydia becomes the instrument of her own torment and salvation, as she removes herself from the equation entirely, like the most compelling of Bond villains (who are also sometimes Bond girls, e.g. Vesper Lynde). Midwinter’s dexterity places him in a liminal space somewhere between hero and villain and victim—and blurs the generic lines among other characters as well.

In reading these characters through the scope of dexterity, we can return to Sutherland’s observations about the generic innovations of Collin’s sensation novels to ask some further questions. In what ways does the deconstruction of the hero/villain/victim relationship in this novel perpetuate further iterations of fictitious criminality? What traits survive the evolving characterization of heroes, villains and victims? Can we trace generic pathways among the sensation novel and crime fiction of later eras? What are the implications of this generic infection on the cultural consciousness of badness?  Of madness?  Armadale’s characters defy categorization, but whether the novel forecasts postmodernism’s anti-heroes by traversing the footpaths and alleys that exist between these archetypes is up for debate. My analysis begins to suggest that the footsteps of Lydia and Midwinter may precede James Bond’s complex and domineering heroism, but it certainly leaves open that possibility for exploration.

Works Cited:

Collins, Wilkie, Armadale. Ed. John Sutherland. New York; Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Creative Commons License
Foot Fiction: School Days…And Wilkie Collins by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://apiedonfoot.com/2013/10/13/school-days/ .

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