'I had better not write any more, or I shall say something savage that you won't like. I am in one of my tempers to-night. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something of that sort. Do you ever like to see the summer insects kill themselves in the candle? I do, sometimes...'
Lets get one thing straight, from the outset: Armadale may chart the progress of the men of that family name, but it is undoubtedly Lydia Gwilt's novel. She is the self-assured, level-headed Jezebel who maintains her name and her identity, whilst the men of the story scrabble for, cling to and sometimes hide from scraps of names. She controls the often-confusing mesh of plot and sub-plot with guile, courage and that sexual sorcery so often remarked of her, and so dangerous in her. More than this, Lydia Gwilt is uniformly charming: she maintains a certain black humour about the proceedings, even her own misfortunes, that is lacking even in another of my favourite anti-heroines, Bertha Grant (from George Eliot's "The Lifted Veil") and certainly from Gwilt's immediate predecessor, the ambitious Magdalen Vanstone (No Name).
So, what exactly establishes Miss Gwilt as one of, if not the most wicked woman in nineteenth-century literature? A child with no traceable parents, pitied by a respectable family and given a good-quality education, and yet someone embroiled in forgery and assisting the elopement of her mistress by twelve, and responsible for driving a married man to blow his brains out by the time she was seventeen. Reduced to travelling with swindlers, finding an abusive marriage that she resolved with poison and bigamously marrying her assistant in murder. Miss Gwilt escaped the noose on the recommendation of her good looks and charm, and after being abandoned by her lover and surviving an attempt at suicide, she rallied herself in order to pursue the descendants of the family that had precipitated her ruin in the first place, with the assistance of the inmates of Pimlico: the house at Pimlico is, by insinuation, a brothel and a backstreet abortionist's clinic. Little wonder that critics were appalled by Collinss latest creation. The Spectator described Miss Gwilt as 'a woman fouler than the refuse of the streets, who has lived to the ripe old age of thirty-five, and through the horrors of forgery, murder, theft, bigamy, gaol, and attempted suicide, without any trace being left on her beauty'. Lydia Gwilt was so repulsive to contemporary critics, of course, because she so effectively demonstrated the devastation that could be wreaked on modern society by a clever and attractive woman: she reminded Collins's society of the moral and legal loopholes that were at the mercy of someone desperate enough to exploit them or clever enough to have the use of them. Miss Gwilt was respectable enough to successfully get away with the profane acts of forgery at more than one point in her career, and her knowledge of marriage law nearly allows her to impersonate a widow and inherit a vast estate. She escapes the gallows because she takes advantage of the outrage displayed towards capital sentences upon 'respectable women', and gains a retrial. No literary device, this: the nineteenth-century saw countless beautiful, middle-class murderesses spared their lives simply because they were beautiful, middle-class, and, often, highly articulate upon the subject of contemporary womanhood, with Frenchwoman Marie LaFarge as a notable example. Perhaps Miss Gwilt was a too-close reminder of actual events. Or perhaps she was too brazen in other ways...
Lydia Gwilt is utterly a seductress, a woman prepared to exploit her charms in any way that will assist her towards a distinguished mode of living. It is the way she self-consciously does this that seems to irk the characters on the novel particularly the lawyers Pedgift, who, despite their refined, modern educations, cannot avoid referring to Lydia numerous times as that "she-devil with her devilish beauty and devilish cleverness" - a dangerous woman indeed. It seems that even in the nineteenth-century, those old archetypes of feminine-as-harmful keep on reappearing. Miss Gwilt, as self-aware as she is, understands the effects she has on men. As she coyly puts it, "I am not sure whether I frighten or fascinate". Both, in equal parts, of course: Armadale is driven by the sexual machinations of fallen women. This is demonstrated in farcical form by Lydia's effects on the poor, lovesick Mr Bashwood, who loses all volition of his own and becomes an unquestioning Familiar for Lydia, unable to refuse her anything. Foolish as he is, he simply reveals in caricatured form what is happening elsewhere throughout the course of the novel. Allan Armadale falls hook, line and sinker for Miss Gwilt's plans, at least initially, leading her to remark to Mother Oldershaw at Pimlico, "I have got him!" Then, his friend Midwinter follows suit, although he differs from Armadale, in that he is able to gain some fragment of an emotional return from Miss Gwilt, possibly because he mirrors her own techniques of secrecy and partial revelation.
However, a sexually confident, artful creature such as this could not be allowed to be victorious, eventually. Despite the proto-Satanic audacity of Collinss red-haired demoness, one feels that it would have been commercial suicide to allow her to commit two murders and escape all consequences. It is a staple of nineteenth-century novels that unsavoury heroines go mad or die: the sickbed is the arena of moral reckoning, just as it becomes the Confessional for one of Collins's earliest anti-heroines, Margaret Sherwin. Lydia Gwilt, too, has to make an exit from this mortal coil before the novel can conclude. She does, however, escape the indignity of a debillitating illness, another public trial, or hysteria, making the conscious decision to commit suicide in, of all places, an asylum, where typically, feminine volition would be stripped away. Lydia Gwilt's career is notable, then, not only for its duration and its ability to unsettle the greatest bastions of English law and culture, but for the fact that she ends her career of her own volition, and fails to satisfy the law - again.