Book review: Wilkie Collins
WILKIE Collins was a little man who made a big impact. He pioneered the English detective novel, but was also an iconoclast who deliberately crafted stories that took aim at the restrictive, deeply unfair mores of the Victorian age, especially concerning women.
A friend and colleague of John Millais and Charles Dickens, he kept two mistresses happy, travelled regularly, and worked tirelessly, winning popular and critical success as a prolific novelist, journalist and dramatist despite his interminable bad health.
This brief biography is a perfect starting point for those who love the novels but know little about their author. Peter Ackroyd is Collins’s perfect match. His sprightly tone engagingly achieves the very effect Collins was renowned for: he keeps us turning pages at a furious rate, keen to discover what happens next. At every twist and turn, Ackroyd highlights the interplay between Collins’s life and literary themes.
Born in 1824, Collins was the son of cultivated parents. His religious and ultra-respectable father, William, was a painter, but Collins always claimed that the poetry in his soul came via his mother, Harriet, and Ackroyd reckons she was the prototype for the novelist’s spirited, independent heroines. Nevertheless, he accompanied his father on a painting tour of Scotland in 1842, and this, says Ackroyd, influenced his future fiction. “He learned how, in narrative terms, to set off mass and detail on his canvas, and how to fix the proportions of light and shade or comedy and pathos.”
His brother Charles was born in 1828, and would go on to marry Dickens’s daughter, though the great man couldn’t stand his son-in-law, dismissing him as a waste of space, in part because Charles, like his elder brother, was prone to nervous disorders.
A tiny man, Collins had an abnormally large head with a pronounced bump on his right temple. He was shortsighted and wore spectacles, and in his thirties grew a beard. He was attracted to colourful clothes – pink shirts were favoured – but loved to write wrapped up in his dressing gown.
Famously amiable, “he was perhaps the sweetest-tempered of all the Victorian novelists”. Ackroyd also writes: “His susceptibility to women is obvious throughout his life, and he seems to have been in love with half of his female acquaintances.”
The feeling was mutual, which proved useful later when he was maintaining two households. He would even take them away on holiday “together”, establishing the women and their children at opposite ends of various seaside towns.
Paris also captured his heart – his passion for French cuisine and wine was legendary – but Collins spent most of his life in and around the Marylebone district of London. Outwardly respectable, the neighbourhood harboured its fair share of reprobates and scallywags, and Collins was attuned to their less-than-savoury antics. He loved riding the omnibus, seeing it “as a perambulatory exhibition room of the eccentricities of human nature”.
When he began writing seriously, in the 1840s, the world was in flux. The audience for fiction was growing, and the novel gaining importance as a literary form. But his first success was a biography of his father, published in 1847, a year after the painter’s death. In 1850 he published Antonina, an historical novel set during the Roman empire. It was an instant smash, with one reviewer comparing Collins to Shakespeare. It also prompted some journals to warn readers about “strong effects” and “revolting details”.
When Collins met Dickens, 12 years older and already a literary lion, it was in the context of the amateur dramatics they both enjoyed, not only as writers, but as performers. The two writers became fast friends. Ackroyd, never one to miss a telling detail, describes Collins accompanying the Dickens family during a stay in France, where he was discovered, one morning, nibbling foie gras for breakfast. Ackroyd delves into the origin of The Woman in White, revisiting the story that has Collins strolling with John Millais and hearing a scream. Then a beautiful, young woman flew past dressed in flowing white robes. Collins took off in pursuit, and so met Caroline Graves, one of the women who would be his companion for the rest of his life, apart from the two years when she was married to another man. Dickens dismissed the relationship as a ploy to get Collins’ attention, but the what and why of it remain a mystery.
Graves was a widow with a daughter, Carrie, whom Collins educated. In turn, she was his amanuensis throughout her life, until she married and began her own family. Collins himself never fancied marriage, partly because he felt it was full of injustices, especially for women.
The Woman in White was serialised in All the Year Round, from November 1859, and proved so popular that people queued outside the magazine’s offices when new episodes were due. Rumour had it that Gladstone cancelled a theatre engagement in order to carry on reading. It sparked fashion trends, perfumes, and themed dances, not to mention books about women wearing every other colour of the rainbow.
Bolstering his thesis that injustice toward women is Collins’s great theme, Ackroyd writes: “Collins is able to dramatise the plight of Victorian women in memorable form; they had no property rights and were deprived of their identity, as wives, while at the same time they were incarcerated in a domestic world. Woman in White thereby became the subject of unsurpassed interest and even fascination.”
Every novel was plotted in the minutest detail, with Collins working backwards to ensure that the mechanism hung together. He revised incessantly, but also studied fashions and trends because he aspired to rule the marketplace.
It worked. By the time he was 35, one reviewer had dubbed him the fourth most important contemporary English novelist after Dickens, Thackeray, and Charlotte Brontë.
Ackroyd suggests that only George Eliot was his superior at creating complicated female characters. But Collins wasn’t a proto-feminist. As Ackroyd points out, he “was more willing to champion women as outcasts rather than to praise those who had achieved independence. He preferred the female penitent to the female professional.”
The death of his mother devastated Collins and signaled the arrival of Martha Rudd, who seems to have been Mrs Collins’s housemaid. He set Rudd up in a flat and over the years had two daughters and a son by her. Although these children were most welcome in the home he shared with Caroline Graves, Collins’s two lovers never met.
Ackroyd says: “To have two mistresses was, even by the standards of the 19th century, a precarious situation; but Collins seems to have adapted to it quite naturally and cheerfully. In his fiction he explored interesting or difficult relationships; in his life he remained inscrutable and imperturbable.” Despite the irregularity of his living arrangements, Collins was the sole of probity, financially speaking, and established allowances for both households and made provisions for everyone in his will.
His next masterpiece, The Moonstone, describes a jewellery theft at a country house. It appeared in 1868 and has never been out of print. It is, acknowledges Ackroyd, “the true source and spring of the English detective mystery,” and opened the way for an entirely new direction in literature.
Collins’s lifetime of ill health – which eventually included a prodigious laudanum habit – ended in September of 1889. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. Caroline Graves tended his grave until her death in 1895, and was buried there. Martha Rudd took over the grave tending duties until her own death in 1919.
So it seems that even when the novelist is Wilkie Collins, truth is stranger than fiction.
• WILKIE COLLINS
by Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 208pp, £12.99
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