Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist and short-story writer
January 8, 1824
September 23, 1889
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. Wilkie Collins.
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.