Lydia Gwilt in ‘Armadale’: Flame-Haired Femme Fatale

Lydia Gwilt is the standout character of Wilkie Collins’s ‘Armadale,’ so much so that her wicked ways horrified Victorian readers. It’s no surprise given her status in the story as a liar, bigamist, husband poisoner and temptress. She was truly the antithesis of the demure, domestic and good-natured Victorian woman. I mean, in her first appearance she notes that she does ‘hate’ women… which is strange enough as usually, women club together and support each other in bonds of sisterhood.[1] Lydia’s having none of it.

We know Lydia is antithetical to the desired Victorian woman by her physical appearance as well as her character. Ozias Midwinter is horrified by her hair, noting that ‘It was red.’ This short sentence emphasises the drama of the revelation, which is also signposted by the italics. The modern reader will probably think why? What’s wrong with a redhead? Unfortunately, Victorians associated red locks with female villainy. It’s interesting that Collins wanted John Everett Millais to illustrate the novel, as he was an important member of the Pre Raphaelite brotherhood.[2] This revolutionary group, established in 1848, were known for their detailed, intensely coloured work. Majority of their paintings featured red haired, beautiful women, with intricate and dynamic features. They recycled their life models, so majority of the paintings bear resemblance to the others. A lot of the women depicted in the paintings with red hair, are associated with dangerous or immoral women, such as Ophelia from Hamlet, or Lilith. Collins portrays Lydia in the same vein in the text, and it seems he wanted to in the illustrations. That’s probably why Penguin Classics slapped ‘Madeleine Undressing,’ by John Everett Millais on the front cover. It’s also the header for this article. Even though the figure in the painting isn’t Lydia Gwilt, to me, that’s how Collins wanted her to look, and that’s how I imagine her.

The story of the novel is complex, and Lydia’s plans drive the plot. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but in short, there are two Allan Armadale’s. In the novel, one of them is known as Allan Armadale, the other as Ozias Midwinter. Ozias’ father killed Allan’s father, as the latter stole his proposed bride. Allan’s father did this, as his father before him, gave Allan’s fortune to Ozias’ father. Still with me? Lydia helped Allan’s father steal Ozias fathers’ proposed bride. Her plan? Marry Allan Armadale and get some of his fortune. This falls through. Her new plan? Marry Ozias Midwinter, whose real name is also Allan Armadale, somehow bump off the other Allan Armadale, and pose as his widow, cashing in in the process. Ok, breathe. Murder and deceit? Classic femme fatale tactics.

Lydia’s true nature is exposed when she successfully ensnares Ozias Midwinter after her first plan falls through. In desperation, she sycophantically simpers over Ozias Midwinter and plays the victim in true femme fatale fashion. He notes the ‘magnetic influence of her touch,’ and like a true femme fatale, she uses her femininity and sexuality to lure him in.[3] Collins describes Lydia’s antics as ‘sexual sorcery,’ implying that Lydia’s witch-like power is drawn from her sexual appeal and femininity.[4] Collins is telling us that beauty, when used, can be dangerous, and that men are susceptible enough to fall for it. According to Collins, men love a woman in need, and Ozias ‘yielded’ to her charms, proposing marriage, which she later accepts.[5] However when he leaves, the ‘colour faded out of her cheeks; the beauty died out of her eyes; her face hardened horribly with a silent despair.’[6] This is the real Lydia Gwilt. She is at her most beautiful when she is at her most devious. This subverts traditional ideas of beauty and femininity, and shows a massive contradiction in her character and appearance. Lydia’s true features are worn, hardened and devoid of life, much like her soul.

But is it? Lydia is a complex figure, and perhaps isn’t quite a clear-cut femme fatale, I mean, their known for being morally ambiguous. Considering her part in the plot, between Ozias and Allan’s fathers, is she deserving of a cut of the money? To be honest, it looks like she willingly helped Allan’s father, but her life was pretty rubbish after that. We don’t learn about her backstory until much later into the novel, so the mystery surrounding her is maintained for majority of it. This is also a classic femme fatale trope. Lydia’s first husband suspected her of stealing and whacked her with a horsewhip, then her second husband Manuel spent all her money and then ran off.[7] This does haunt her for the remainder of the novel, especially when Manuel rocks up again, asking her for more money.[8] It’s abnormal for her to have a man love her, truly, and Ozias Midwinter appears to fill that void in her life. She thinks him stupid at first, and pities his affections, as she never expected anyone to genuinely care for her. She slowly comes round to him and falls for him.[9] Although she is the novel’s main villainess, Collins does try to imply there is more to her, in trying to explain her motivations. She’s been abandoned, discarded and used by men surrounding her, so is it fair that she wants a slice of the action?

Her ending is somewhat tragic. She poses as a patient in a Sanitorium and lures Allan Armadale and Ozias Midwinter to her. For their stay Lydia places Allan Armadale in room four, and Ozias Midwinter in room three. She rigs room four, planning to flood it with poisonous gas, and in true Lydia fashion hisses ‘I shall be your widow […] in half-an-hour!’ through the door. It’s interesting that the Sanitorium is one that seeks to cure feminine hysteria.[10] Lydia’s fate is hinted at here, as she’s trusting an establishment that, in the real world, would seek to silence her. The idea of feminine hysteria belittled women in general throughout history, as their genuine mental health issues were dismissed as just another weakness of the female sex. Feminists in the 80’s described it as an agent of female oppression. This does not bode well for Lydia.

Lydia’s pretty scary for readers because of the idea of the domestic poisoner. Lydia’s story takes inspiration from several high profile female killers at the time, whose cases scandalised and scared Victorian society. Female domestic poisoners were particularly feared as they had access to all areas of the home. The evidence of poison is pretty easy to dispose of, it’s not like a bloody knife. The fact that a woman could so easily get into the home and exact some monstrosity was even more terrifying than your average serial killer. Again, this type of woman is antithetical to the ideal Victorian woman. Collins tried hard to make people like Lydia, but, to please the masses, there was only one way her story could end.

Allan Armadale and Ozias Midwinter swap rooms, meaning that Ozias Midwinter is the one set to meet his maker. Lydia realises the mix up, pulls Midwinter out, and manages to save him. Feeling guilty, and seeking ‘atonement,’ Lydia shuts herself in room four and dies.[11] So, does being in the Sanitorium cure her? I mean, she repents right? ‘Even my wickedness has one merit – it has not prospered. I have never been a happy woman,’ she says.[12] Collins kind of has to kill her and make her repent to satisfy the Victorian masses, who don’t want to see Lydia win. If Lydia wins, evil is triumphing over good. And the Victorians aren’t down for that. In a way I see where they’re coming from, especially with Lydia, as throughout the majority of the novel she is evil and unforgiving. So, should she win? Really? Having said that, I was sad to see her go, and upon the event of her death even Collins was ‘upset.’[13] Despite this, throughout the novel she runs rings around majority of the men and maintains this control even in death, in true, iconic Lydia fashion.

Side note, she also dies on page 666… freaky coincidence.

Thanks for reading!

[1] Wilkie Collins, Armadale (London, Penguin Classics, 1995), p. 162.

[2] Ibid., p. xxxi.

[3] Ibid., p. 383.

[4] Ibid., p. 383.

[5] Ibid., p. 385.

[6] Ibid., p. 388.

[7] Ibid., p. 536.

[8] Ibid., p. 566.

[9] Ibid., p. 665.

[10] Ibid., p. 661.

[11] Ibid., p. 666.

[12] Ibid., p. 666.

[13] Ibid., p. xxxi.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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