Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 10; 28 March 2021

Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Wilkie Collins’s Armadale

The complications of gaining an inheritance by marriage

In Wilkie Collins’s novel Armadale (1866), an unscrupulous adventuress named Lydia Gwilt marries one man named Allan Armadale, so as to pose as the widow of a different man named Allan Armadale, who is not yet dead. Her aim is to claim an income of £1,200 a year to which Armadale’s widow (were such a person to exist) would be entitled, out of the estate entailed on him.

The man she has married goes by the name Ozias Midwinter and she is one of only two people apart from himself who know that the name he was given at birth is Allan Armadale. Midwinter is particularly keen that the wealthy Allan Armadale (his friend, but no relation) should never find out Midwinter’s real name as that might reveal that Allan’s mother had deceived her father in order to marry a scoundrel (also named Allan Armadale, but going by “Fergus Ingleby”). Ingleby was murdered 23 years earlier by Midwinter’s father (Allan Armadale, né Wrentmore), a fact that becomes known to Midwinter, strengthening his desire that Allan should not find out who he really is.

When the time comes for Lydia Gwilt to make her claim, she is told that having married a man with a genuine claim to the name “Allan Armadale” doesn’t help her case in the slightest. Any man willing to sign the register with that name would have done equally well.

I felt my temper going at this. “Any other man would not have done just as well,” I rejoined instantly. “But for the similarity of the names, I should never have thought of the enterprise at all.” (Armadale, Penguin Classics edition, 1995, p. 591)

Although she is unwilling to admit it, the effort that Lydia Gwilt has put into marrying a man genuinely named Allan Armadale has been wasted (at least insofar as getting her hands on the £1,200 a year is concerned). What she needs is an apparently credible witness who will swear to have seen her marry the right Allan Armadale. At this late stage, it will cost her £600 — half her first year’s income — to procure such a witness.

In Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith (2002), Richard Rivers (known to his criminal associates as “Gentleman” and originally to his parents as Frederick Munt) is the approximate male counterpart to Lydia Gwilt. Like her, he hopes to get his hands on a substantial inheritance by marrying someone who isn’t who she seems. 17-year-old Maud Lilly appears to be a potentially wealthy heiress, the daughter of Marianne Lilly. She is actually a different young woman, no relation to Marianne (but nevertheless entitled to half of Marianne’s fortune). Marianne’s actual daughter, it is eventually revealed, is known as Sue Trinder, a dependent of a baby farmer, Mrs Sucksby, a malevolent criminal who gives her babies gin to keep them quiet, but whom Sue loves as a mother.

Sue is approached by Gentleman, with a plan to marry Maud Lilly, take possession of her fifteen thousand pounds inheritance, and have her locked up in a madhouse, so that he can enjoy her fortune unimpeded. He offers Sue £2,000 (she eventually settles for £3,000) to take the role of lady’s maid and help him to persuade Maud to elope with him. Maud’s inheritance is conditional on her marriage. If she remains unmarried she will get nothing.

All goes according to plan and Maud is married to Gentleman in a near-clandestine ceremony with just Sue and one other witness present. The newlyweds and the lady’s maid set off for London but there is one stop to be made on the way. The heiress is to be involuntarily committed to the “care” of the doctors who run the madhouse. To Sue’s shock and distress, she (not Maud) is the woman who is handed over to the doctors. She is to pass as Maud Rivers, née Lilly, while Maud is to go to London with Gentleman, where she will take on the role of Sue Trinder.

It turns out that the brains behind the plot are not those of Gentleman but rather Mrs Sucksby’s. She is far from being the benevolently maternal figure that Sue has believed her to be. Grace Sucksby’s apparent solicitude to the girl she has brought up is not motivated by kindness but purely by the desire to protect her investment. Seventeen years earlier, she helped the fleeing Marianne Lilly to evade her pursuing family. The plan involved substituting the real Maud Sucksby for the real Susan Lilly, and Marianne splitting her large estate between the two children. Mrs Sucksby has spent the years of Sue’s minority plotting how she can keep Sue’s inheritance for herself, and it is her plot that Gentleman implements when he asks Sue to help him trap and ruin Maud Lilly.

When I first read Fingersmith, I suspected that the plot was too elaborate. Was it really necessary to have the “wrong” Maud Rivers, née Lilly (who, ironically, was the true Lilly heiress) locked up in the madhouse? The whole idea of the committal (according to the plan that Gentleman originally outlined to Sue) was to get his wife out of the way so that he could spend her money without hindrance. Yet he was going to London in the company of the woman he had actually married, a willing participant in the plot, who still believed herself to be Marianne’s daughter. Why was Sue’s incarceration needed?

It was necessary (as I saw more clearly on a second reading) because Sue could not be expected to hand over her riches uncomplainingly to Mrs Sucksby, however much affection she might feel for the older woman. The plotters had to keep Sue out of the way while a more biddable, dependant young woman took her place to claim the inheritance. That woman was Maud, now complicit in the plot, and incapable of surviving in London on her own (as she learns when she tries to run away). Sue, though unable to read or write, is intelligent and resourceful, and can live in the city on her own, as we see when she manages to escape from the madhouse. (In contrast, Maud’s literacy is the very skill that has left her exposed to her uncle’s abuse and cruelty.)

So, the plot of Fingersmith does not, after all, have any extraneous or ill fitting elements, as I had first thought. Yet, it seems cumbersome, inelegant, even brutal, particularly at the moment when Sue is kidnapped and dragged screaming and swearing into the madhouse. In contrast, Armadale frankly acknowledges the infelicities of its plot when, late in the story, it becomes clear that Lydia Gwilt has not been a preternaturally farsighted schemer but rather an unusually cold-blooded and decisive opportunist.

The combined effect of both plots is to show us that the schemes of such manipulators as Lydia Gwilt, Gentleman and Grace Sucksby tend not to be neat and elegant designs in which every element fits smoothly into its predetermined place. Conspirators take precautions that prove unnecessary and prepare for contingencies that never come to pass, and base their plans on attempts to predict the behaviour of unknowable humans. They change direction in the face of the unexpected and may leave any number of loose ends behind them.

Ultimately, both of these novels are about more than their plots. Each is, at least in part, a love story. In Armadale, the story is about the failure of love. Lydia Gwilt initially wants to marry Allan Armadale (though she despises him, believing him an insupportable idiot). As his wife, she hopes to enjoy a life of wealth and leisure in the big house. He is at first taken with her but his lawyer raises suspicions about her past and Allan’s affections revert to the daughter of his tenant. In the meantime, Gwilt has noticed that Midwinter has fallen in love with her. She cultivates his affections, hoping to use them as part of her scheme, and only later develops feelings for him. She decides that if one Allan Armadale won’t have her, she can marry the other one and use him to pass as the widow of the first. But, by the time she comes to marry Midwinter, she has become attached to him and resolves to abandon her plot against Allan. She will treat her union with Midwinter as a real marriage.

The marriage is not a success, however, and a number of factors combine to induce her to resurrect the original scheme. The account of her deteriorating relationship with Midwinter may be the strongest and most affecting part of the story.

The love story in Fingersmith is between Maud and Sue. Sue had been willing to play her part in Maud’s ruin. Now, Maud will play hers in having Sue locked up, perhaps permanently. Maud tries to explain, not to Sue, but to the reader:

I wait, but she does not look — I think she will never look honestly at me, again. I meant to save her. Now I see very clearly what will happen, if I do — if I draw back from Richard’s plot. He will go from Briar, with her at his side. Why should she stay? She will go, and I shall be left — to my uncle, to the books, to Mrs Stiles, to some new meek and bruisable girl … I think of my life — of the hours, the minutes, the days that have made it up, of the hours, the minutes that stretch before me, still to be lived. I think of how they will be — without Richard, without money, without London, without liberty. Without Sue.
And so you see it is love — not scorn, not malice; only love — that makes me harm her, in the end. (Virago paperback edition, 2003, p. 285; ellipsis original)

I didn’t get around to reading Fingersmith till last year, 18 years after it was first published. It reminded me of Armadale, but I hadn’t read that since the mid 90s, though I’d been meaning to reread it ever since. Reading the two in quick succession has illuminated both for me.

Updated 6 November 2021 to add page number and edition details for quotation from Armadale.

Next issue, in 2 weeks’ time, is probably going to be about Ian McEwan’s unfulfilled professionals: the judge of the Family Court in The Children Act, the brain surgeon in Saturday and the scientist manqué in Enduring Love.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 28–Mar-2021.