Black Silk and Red Paisley: the Toxic Woman in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale



Lydia Gwilt is an affront to common decency, a woman whom it is in the public interest to investigate and expose. Soon after she arrives in the Norfolk village of Thorpe-Ambrose to take up a post as governess, her reputation is thrown into doubt, and a succession of enquiries are instituted. Are her references to be relied upon, is her character really unexceptionable, is she ‘genuine’? As a confidence trickster, Gwilt seems inimical to her environment, betraying the trust of those who employ her, and exploiting those unfortunate enough to fall in love with her. She takes advantage of a society of confidence, and in doing so she flouts its codes. To operate under false credentials is the gravest insult to a speculative culture, as legal prohibitions show. Fraud, forgery, impersonation — the criminal staple of Wilkie Collins’s novels — attract the highest penalties. Even without recourse to the law, society has other, more diffuse ways of expressing disapproval, through exclusion and rejection. The lie goes against the public good in what Georg Simmel calls the modern ‘credit-economy’ and the ‘enlightenment which aims at elimination of the element of deception from social life is always of a democratic character.’1


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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