Lisa Niles, "Owning 'the dreadful truth'; Or, Is Thirty-Five Too Old?: Age and the Marriageable Body in Wilkie Collins's Armadale" (pp. 65––92)

Wilkie Collins's Armadale (1864––66) offers a sensational critique of the increasing popularity of cosmetics usage in 1860s London and its relationship to perceptions of aging and the marriage market. Looking younger than her thirty-five years, Collins's antiheroine Lydia Gwilt challenges the terms upon which Victorian society constructed a middle-class, marriageable female identity. In Lydia, Collins produces a character that succeeds in a competitive marriage market by performing a simulacrum of youth. And the narrative suggests that her beauty depends not merely upon Nature but also upon her knowledge of the arts of its preservation, particularly as Gwilt is associated with Mother Oldershaw, a fictive double for Madame Rachel, the infamous London cosmetics purveyor who stood trial for fraud in 1868. By examining the novel alongside Punch cartoons, trial transcripts, beauty manuals, and reviews, I claim that Lydia Gwilt's character resists a simplistic cosmetics-as-fraud reading and exposes a public whose desires are predicated upon the fraudulent practices it critiques. The artificial threat that cosmetics serve functions as a site through which to explore the real threat——the criminality of a body that successfully passes as younger in a marriage market dependent upon regularizing youth and demarcating age. To be thirty-five and look it is unremarkable, perhaps pitiable; to be thirty-five and not look it is a crime.

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