Authors: Wilkie Collins

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and short-story writer

January 8, 1824

London, England

September 23, 1889

London, England


In his own time William Wilkie Collins was regarded by many persons as the equal of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, and in at least two novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, he was their superior in terms of sheer popularity. In retrospect, his best work can be admired for the very elements that Collins himself esteemed: his emphasis on “the Actual” (his own term) and the element of suspense. Modern readers may qualify their admiration by finding “the Actual” strangely mixed with the melodramatic and the sentimental, and they may find that the suspenseful in Collins has suffered from the widespread imitation of his devices by generations of writers of mystery stories. In fairness to Collins, it must be realized that precious gems that bear a curse, unjust confinement in lunatic asylums, and false marriages were more novel literary devices in his day than they are today. In his service to “the Actual” he gave expression to his own contempt for many of the Victorian taboos to which Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray submitted. Collins was a pioneer in anticlericalism and other attacks on British complacency and insularity. He also took up, as in Armadale and The Fallen Leaves, such forbidden themes as prostitution and marital infidelity. Regarding both these points he displays a boldness that is today thought to have its origin in Samuel Butler and George Bernard Shaw. It is not strange that these historically important elements in Collins are overlooked; they cannot be detached from the coldly calculated sensationalism with which he kept his immediate public breathless. {$I[AN]9810000241} {$I[A]Collins, Wilkie} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Collins, Wilkie} {$I[tim]1824;Collins, Wilkie}

Wilkie Collins.

(Library of Congress)

The circumstances of his early life contributed to the coexistence in Collins of two opposing drives: a desire for material success and a desire to tell unpalatable truths about the society from which he wished to win this success. Collins’s father was William Collins, R.A., who rose in the British art world through careful cultivation of important persons. (These included the well-known artist David Wilkie, the godfather of Wilkie Collins.) The elder Collins united with his search for success Tory political beliefs and a repressive kind of piety. Collins, born in London in 1824, was a small, slightly deformed, weak child who soon learned to detect hypocrisy in his father and his other elders; he had, however, enough taste of comfort and foreign travel to determine to win his share of worldly goods.

Collins was, in his late teens, placed by his father in the office of a tea merchant in London, but he used his evenings and much of his employer’s time in literary self-cultivation; he was particularly inspired by the financial success of Charles Dickens. His own first novel, Antonina, was inspired by the grandiose view of the past to be found in such works as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). His turn toward “the Actual,” which he studied by riding in the London omnibuses, was encouraged by the beginning of his close association with Dickens in 1851 in an amateur theatrical production. Dickens, as editor of Household Words, had need of talented assistance; he also found in a man much his junior a stimulating and admiring traveling companion. Throughout their lives the two men abetted each other’s tastes in amusement and left their marks on each other’s novels. The growth of closely knit plot structure in Dickens (for example, the clues and false clues of Great Expectations, 1861) shows Collins’s influence on Dickens. Collins’s increasing use of humor and his more lively portraiture may be attributed to Dickens’s criticism of Collins’s self-conscious and pompous gloom in his early novels.

Collins, like most writers who have a reputation for being “inventive,” was always an industrious seeker of material; French police files, newspaper items, and encyclopedia articles aided him. He also exploited to the full, and quite explicitly, incidents in his own life. Probably in 1854 he met one of his lifelong companions, Caroline Graves, whom he never married. It is said that the meeting was a romantic night encounter along a suburban road; with such an incident The Woman in White begins. Caroline Graves had a child; the fate of an illegitimate child—its uncertain social position, the cruelty of the secure and righteous toward her—is one of the concerns of No Name. Collins’s own peculiar position and Caroline’s suggested several themes of women suffering at the hands of society. Collins’s relationship with his mother was particularly close. Another important relationship was with Martha Rudd, whom he probably met while on a sailing trip in the summer of 1864. Martha was the mother of three of Collins’s children.

Collins’s correspondence displays, among other concerns, a keen interest in copyright, the writer as a professional, and protecting the rights of authors. With a desire to extend his literary profits, he turned many of his novels into plays (usually with limited success), and he took an interest in the transatlantic publication of his novels and in their translation into many languages. He displayed kindness toward Hall Caine and was, in his last years, on friendly terms with Oscar Wilde. He was concerned, after Dickens’s death, with demonstrating the closeness of his relation to Dickens. But his last years were primarily a time of acute suffering from the pain of the gout, which Collins could relieve only by draughts of laudanum—to which he became addicted—and unremitting novel writing. (He had not only Caroline Graves but another “morganatic household” to support.) He died in London, his health wrecked by drugs and overwork, in 1889. In his will his estate was divided between Caroline Graves, his daughter Harriet, and Martha Rudd and her children.

Much contemporary criticism regarded Collins as a wonderful but unhealthy entertainer. His fiction was permeated with complex issues such as race, inheritance, insanity, property rights, divorce laws, illegitimacy, crime, addiction, and the rights of women. Collins’s greatest legacy is in the treatment of such concerns. His narratology, powers of suggestion, and social awareness place him among major Victorian writers such as Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot.

Author Works Long Fiction: Antonina: Or, The Fall of Rome, 1850 Basil: A Story of Modern Life, 1852 Hide and Seek, 1854 The Dead Secret, 1857 The Woman in White, 1860 No Name, 1862 Armadale, 1866 The Moonstone, 1868 Man and Wife, 1870 Poor Miss Finch: A Novel, 1872 The New Magdalen, 1873 The Law and the Lady, 1875 The Two Destinies: A Romance, 1876 Percy and the Prophet: Events in the Lives of a Lady and Her Lovers, 1877 A Rogue’s Life, 1879 The Fallen Leaves, 1879 Duel in Herne Wood, 1880 Jezebel’s Daughter, 1880 The Magic Spectacles, 1880 The Black Robe, 1881 Heart and Science, 1883 I Say No, 1884 The Evil Genius: A Dramatic Story, 1886 The Legacy of Cain, 1889 Blind Love, 1890 (completed by Walter Besant) Short Fiction: Mr. Wray’s Cash-Box: Or, The Mask and the Mystery, 1852 The Seven Poor Travellers, 1854 After Dark, 1856 The Wreck of the Golden Mary, 1856 The Queen of Hearts, 1859 Christmas Stories, 1862 (with Charles Dickens) Miss or Mrs.?, and Other Stories, 1873 The Frozen Deep, 1874 My Lady’s Money, 1877 A Shocking Story, 1878 The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice, 1879 Love’s Random Shot, and Other Stories, 1883 The Ghost’s Touch and Other Stories, 1885 The Guilty River, 1886 Little Novels, 1887 The Lazy Tour of Two Apprentices, 1890 (with Charles Dickens) Drama: The Frozen Deep, pr. 1857, pb. 1866, 1875 No Thoroughfare, pr., pb. 1867 (with Charles Dickens) Black and White, pr. 1869 The New Magdalen, pr., pb. 1873 Man and Wife, pr. 1873 The Moonstone, pr., pb. 1877 Nonfiction: Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, R. A., 1848 (2 volumes) Rambles beyond Railways; or, Notes in Cornwall Taken A-foot, 1851 The Letters of Wilkie Collins, 1999 (William Baker and William M. Clarke, editors) Miscellaneous: My Miscellanies, 1863 The Works of Wilkie Collins, 1900, 1970 (30 volumes) Bibliography Bachman, Maria K., and Don Richard Cox, eds. Reality’s Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003. Collection of fourteen essays analyzes Collins’s novels, focusing on the themes and techniques that he introduced to the genre. Includes analysis of The Moonstone and The Woman in White as well as some of his lesser-known novels. Clarke, William M. The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 1991. Collins, Wilkie. The Letters of Wilkie Collins. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Collected correspondence between Collins and his friends, family, and business colleagues. “Collins, Wilkie.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins: An Illustrated Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Well-illustrated volume provides an alphabetical guide to the characters, titles, and terms in Collins’s works. Also includes a chronology, the Collins family tree, maps, and a bibliography. Nayder, Lillian. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1997. Good introductory study of the author features analysis of his novels and other works, placing them within the context of the political and cultural issues of Collins’s time. O’Neill, Philip. Wilkie Collins: Women, Property, and Propriety. New York: Macmillan, 1988. Seeks to move the discussion of Collins away from popularist categories by using modern feminist criticism deconstructively to open up a more considered version of his thematic material. Contains a full bibliography. Page, Norman, ed. Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. Collection reprints critical responses to Collins’s works from 1850 through 1891. Includes a short bibliography. Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Comprehensive biography draws on a newly discovered autobiography by Collins’s mother and on thousands of Collins’s unpublished letters. Supplemented by detailed notes and bibliography. Pykett, Lyn. Wilkie Collins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Traces the various debates that have arisen since 1980, when literary critics began seriously reevaluating Collins’s work. The essays focus on Collins’s preoccupation with the themes of social and psychological identity, class, gender, and power. Pykett, Lyn, ed. Wilkie Collins. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Provides an excellent introduction to Collins for the beginning student. In addition to essays that discuss Collins’s place within Victorian detective fiction and the “sensation novel,” some essays analyze his individual works, including The Woman in White. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Salatto, Eleanor. Gothic Returns in Collins, Dickens, Zola, and Hitchcock. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Analysis of the nineteenth century employment of the gothic in fiction, as well as its twentieth century reincarnation in Alfred Hitchcock’s cinema. Includes discussion of Collins’s work. Bibliographic references and index. Smith, Nelson, and R. C. Terry, eds. Wilkie Collins to the Forefront: Some Reassessments. New York: AMS Press, 1995. Compilations of essays seeking to reevaluate Collins’s place within the literary canon and within the history of detective fiction. Taylor, Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth Century Psychology. New York: Routledge, 1988. The subtitle of this study suggests its perspective. However, it deals as fully with social structures and how these shape the structures of Collins’s major fiction. Contains full notes and an excellent select bibliography of both primary and secondary material. Taylor, Jenny Bourne, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. All aspects of Collins’s writing are discussed in this collection of thirteen essays. His common themes of sexuality, marriage, and religion are examined, as well as his experiences with publishing companies and the process of adapting his works for film. Includes a thorough bibliography and index. Thoms, Peter. The Windings of the Labyrinth: Quest and Structure in the Major Novels of Wilkie Collins. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992. Focuses on seven major novels, analyzing the theme of the quest in Basil, Hide and Seek, The Dead Secret, The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone.

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