There is nothing like a good read. And Wilkie Collins was the master of the Victorian page-turner, the long, heavily plotted “sensation novel” that revealed the secrets lurking beneath the surface of seemingly placid households, each chapter irresistibly leading to the next. In the words of a contemporary critic, “Nobody leaves one of his tales unfinished.” Collins was the ultimate craftsman of the controlled ratcheting of suspense and surprise. Who can ever forget the build-up to Walter Hartwright’s first breakfast room meeting with Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White: “The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!”
In the burgeoning world of Victorian print, Collins pioneered the English detective novel, cleverly framing the twisting storyline by passing the narrative from one hand to another, enticing his reader into following every clue to solve the mystery alongside the protagonist. In the words of an appreciative T. S. Eliot, Collins was a “master of plot and situation, of those elements of drama which are most essential to melodrama” at a time when “highbrow” and “melodrama” were not ineluctably opposed. But Collins also had the faults of a genre writer who was not especially strong in the creation of character. As that anonymous critic also said, once the reader’s curiosity is satisfied, “the charm is gone” and “all that is left is to admire the art with which the curiosity was excited.” Of Collins’s novels, “very few feel at all inclined to read them a second time.” Or, as T. S. Eliot remarked with deadly accuracy, Collins “was a Dickens without genius.”
William Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824, the eldest son of the successful landscape painter William Collins, and grew up in a household well-connected to literary and artistic circles, as well as to the world of conservative Anglicanism. He spent his childhood on the move between houses in Italy and England until his family returned to London for good in 1838. An indifferent student, Wilkie left school at seventeen and was apprenticed by his father to a London tea merchant who was apparently unperturbed by the fact that his clerk spent much of his time writing a novel about child sacrifice in Tahiti. In 1846, the young Collins moved on from tea to law and entered Lincoln’s Inn, where he gained the legal knowledge that served him so well in his literary career, both in plot devices and in negotiations with publishers. Although he never practiced, he was called to the bar in 1851. At about the same time, Collins made a half-hearted stab at a career as a painter—he exhibited a landscape at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1849, and many of his literary descriptions retain a painterly quality—but after the 1848 publication of a biography of his recently deceased father and the 1850 publication of a well-reviewed novel,Antonina, or the Fall of Rome, he set upon life as a writer.
In 1851, while still basking in the success of Antonina, Collins met Charles Dickens; they were both acting in a production of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’sNot So Bad As We Seem. This was the turning point in Collins’s career. The two became professional collaborators, close friends, traveling companions, confidants, and partners in visits to the demi-monde of Paris. In the ensuing decade, Collins produced novels at the rate of one every two years and contributed short fiction, travel pieces, and journalism to Dickens’s periodicals, Household Words and its successor, All the Year Round. The two even published an account of their rambles in rural England as The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices (1857).
Collins’s great breakthrough came when Dickens commissioned The Woman in White to run as the successor to A Tale of Two Cities in Household Words. The novel was a runaway success. The future Prime Minister William Gladstone cancelled a theater engagement in order to continue reading it. Trollope spent a day devouring it. The book spawned a merchandising boom: Readers could douse themselves in Woman in Whiteperfume, adorn themselves in Woman in White fashions, and dance toWoman in White quadrilles. Capitalizing on its popularity, Collins quickly followed with some of his best known works, No Name (1862–63),Armadale (1864–66), and The Moonstone (1868), each of which ran as a serial and was then published in the inexpensive multivolume format favored by popular lending libraries.
Collins’s public reveled in a world of the outré and he met its tastes amply. The books are replete with exotic households. The Woman in Whiteassembles a dubious aristocrat, a mustached lady, an effete hypochondriac who winces at every sound, and an obese Italian count with a fondness for jam tarts, canaries, and white mice. The Moonstone features a trio of clairvoyant Brahmin priests disguised as jugglers, a hunchback maid with a criminal past, a gem looted in India from the head of an idol, and a houseguest gone rogue. Poor Miss Finch (1873) gathers under a single roof the widow of a South American Revolutionary, a congenitally blind heroine, a nasty German oculist, and a pair of identical twins, one of whom has turned himself blue by drinking silver nitrate to cure his epilepsy (hence the blind heroine). They are also filled with indispositions to rival Collins’s own. Apart from the aforementioned characters, there is the telepathic Scotswoman inThe Two Destinies (1876), whom daylight burns like acid after a mysterious illness; the terminally ill doctor, Ezra Jennings, whose opium-fuelled nightmares drive The Moonstone; and the legless Miserrimus Dexter, who holds the secret of The Law and the Lady (1875), spending much of his time cavorting about on his hands claiming to be Napoleon or Shakespeare. Even ordinary spaces turn against their occupants; “The room would have given a nervous man the headache, before he had been in it a quarter of an hour,” complains the hero of Basil (1852).
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