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Collins, Wilkie

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years, 10 months ago

Wilkie CollinsWilliam Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) was an English novelist, playwright, and writer of short stories. He was hugely popular in his time, and wrote 27 novels, more than 50 short stories, at least 15 plays, and over 100 pieces of non-fiction work.

 

Collins was born in London, the son of a well-known landscape painter, William Collins. At 17 he left school and was apprenticed to a firm of tea merchants, but after five unhappy years, during which he wrote his first novel Iolani, he entered Lincoln's Inn to study law. (Iolani remained unpublished for over 150 years, finally seeing print in 1999.) After his father's death in 1847, Collins produced his first published book, Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. (1848), and also considered a career in painting, exhibiting a picture at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1849, but it was with the publication of his first published novel Antonina in 1850 that his career as a writer began in earnest.

An instrumental event in Collins' career occurred in 1851 when he was introduced to Charles Dickens by a mutual friend, Augustus Egg. They became lifelong friends and collaborators; several of Collins' novels were serialised in Dickens' weekly publication All the Year Round, and Dickens later edited and published them himself.

 

Collins suffered from a form of arthritis known as 'rheumatic gout', and became severely addicted to the opium that he took (in the form of laudanum) to relieve the pain. As a result he experienced paranoid delusions, the most notable being his conviction that he was constantly accompanied by a doppelganger he dubbed 'Ghost Wilkie'. His novel The Moonstone prominently features the effects of opium, and opium addiction. While he was writing it, Collins' consumption of Laudanum was such that he later claimed to have no memory of writing large parts of the novel.

 

Collins was never married, but lived, on and off from 1858, with a widow, Mrs Caroline Graves and her daughter. He also fathered three children by another woman, Martha Rudd, whom he had met after Mrs Graves left him in 1868. Mrs Graves returned to Collins after two years and he continued both relationships until his death in 1889.

 

He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, West London.

 

His works were classified at the time as 'sensation novels', a genre seen nowadays as the precursor to detective fiction and suspense fiction. He also wrote penetratingly on the plight of women and on the social and domestic issues of his time. Like many writers of his time, he published most of his novels as serials in magazines such as Dickens's All the Year Round, and was known as a master of the form, creating just the right degree of suspense to keep his audience reading from week to week.

 

His early novel The Woman in White (1860) deals effectively with issues relating the women's roles and class issues in Victorian society, as well as establishing a fine set of villains and innocent, female victims. It shares with The Moonstone (1868) an unusual narrative structure, somewhat resembling an epistolary novel, in which different portions of the book have different narrators, each with a very distinct narrative voice.

 

Many of Collins's works are available from Project Gutenberg.

 

Mike Grost on Wilkie Collins

 

Far and away the best of Wilkie Collins' mystery short stories is "A Plot in Private Life" (1858). Written a year before his great novel The Woman in White, it has much of the same feel. It clearly shows Collins "warming up" in the same mode as his novel, and serves as an overture to Woman's grand opera. "Plot" shows Collins' interest in detective work, and his way of having such work turn up the most interesting and surprising revelations about his characters.

 

We can have some mild applause for "The Diary of Anne Rodway" (1856), which contains both a pioneering woman detective, perhaps the pioneering woman detective in all literature, according to Collins scholar Robert Ashley, and some interesting detective work. It is noticeable as a story set among the very poor, and contains a powerful portrait of what life was like for the typical member of the 19th Century. Conservative propagandists, who are always setting up the Victorians as a model for the radical right, should read this tale, and see what these allegedly glorious times were really like. It makes an interesting companion piece to Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron Mills" (1863), a remarkable look at the lower rungs of the Victorian ladder. Davis' mainstream tale in fact does have some mild crime elements in it, but it is not a mystery by any means.

 

"The Dead Hand" (1857), a sensation tale, not a mystery, combining lurid discoveries with Collins' use of doubles, is not a bad work. I also rather liked Collins' "The Captain's Last Love" (1876), a non-mystery set in the South Seas, which seems like a definitive version of the Pacific island tale, anticipating Murnau's film Tabu (1931).

 

For the rest, I am not thrilled with Collins' short tales. Their quality seems way below that of Collins' longer works. Many are extremely fatalistic, wherein people lie back and accept the terrible tragedy to which they are predoomed. There are often strong supernatural elements, which is very chic today, with the current enthusiasm for Stephen King and horror fiction; but anything supernatural in fiction has always been anathema to me. It offends both my scientific and religious sensibilities, and also somehow personally repulses me.

 

Collins' American tale, "John Jago's Ghost" (1873), startles as being about the same plot as Abraham Lincoln's non fiction account, "The Trailor Murder Mystery" (1843). Collins at least supplies a full solution to the mystery, which was left ambiguous and open ended by Lincoln. Otherwise, I think Collins' lengthy story seems padded and over long compared to Lincoln's version. Collins based his work on a purportedly "true crime" case, written by another author, and I have been unable to trace back the tangle of Lincoln's involvement, and the real life history behind these works. Collins' tale is the opening salvo in a series of 1870's mysteries by him, including The Law and the Lady (1875), "My Lady's Money" (1877), and The Haunted Hotel (1878), after a long series of mainstream works. Most of these are of at least novella length.

 

Bibliography

Antonina (1850)

Basil (1852)

Mr Wray's Cash Box (1852)

Hide and Seek (1854)

The Dead Secret (1856)

The Woman in White (1860)

No Name (1862)

Armadale (1866)

The Moonstone (1868)

Man and Wife (1870)

Poor Miss Finch (1872)

Miss or Mrs? (1873)

The New Magdalen (1873)

The Law and the Lady (1875)

The Two Destinies (1876)

The Haunted Hotel (1878)

The Fallen Leaves (1879)

A Rogue's Life (1879)

My Lady's Money (1879)

Jezebel's Daughter (1880)

The Black Robe (1881)

Heart and Science (1883)

I Say No (1884)

The Evil Genius (1886)

The Guilty River (1886)

The Legacy of Cain (1889)

Blind Love (1889)

 

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