Sensational Novelist -The mysterious mastery of Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins was quite literally a colorful character. His doctor described his attire at dinner as sometimes featuring “a light camel hair or tweed suit, with a broad pink or blue striped shirt, and perhaps a red tie." On another occasion he appeared wearing a low-cut shirt "dashed with great, gory squares" with a bright blue jacket and a rakishly-tied spotted neckerchief of the kind popularized by James Belcher, the bare-knuckle boxing champion.

His physique was as incongruous as his wardrobe. Five-foot-six, with a large head, acute myopia, and a weak chin (later masked with a bushy beard) he was apt when sitting to jiggle his knees nervously, "as if soothing invisible babies." He liked to party. Rebelling against the stolid English diet of gravy soup, mutton, and cabinet pudding as he rebelled against other stolid English conventions, he liked to indulge in Parisian pleasures: pints of champagne, paté de foie gras, garlic sauces, and sauciness.

Charles Dickens was friends with him, as a fellow author who collaborated in his plays and his magazine, but also partly because the younger man was an enthusiastic coadventurer on bachelor holidays that included whoring. The two shared "Haroun al-Raschid" expeditions, named after the Caliph in the Arabian Nights who each night goes slumming incognito in the streets of Baghdad.

Collins wrote over 20 novels, but today is chiefly remembered for two: The Moonstone (1868), arguably the first English detective novel, and The Woman in White (1859), a breathless mystery involving spousal abuse and attempted homicide, doubles, incarceration, madness, and a ground-breaking narrative method in which we hear from several different narrators in turn, as if they were witnesses in court, and piece the "truth" together from their fractured accounts.

These novels electrified 19th-century Britain and America. Indeed, the genre of which Collins was the presiding master became known as the "sensation novel." Thomas Hardy complained that such fiction contained "murder, blackmail, illegitimacy, impersonation, eavesdropping, multiple secrets, a suggestion of bigamy, amateur and professional detectives." The sales figures attest that being shocked was a guilty pleasure that thousands of Victorians relished.

Where the Gothic novels of the previous century had depicted horrors that occurred in the monasteries and castles of Roman Catholic Italy and France, Collins pioneered a domestic Gothic that played out in ordinary, contemporary British streets and houses: what he dubbed "the secret theatre of home." His novels suggest the possibility that we are all impersonating someone and we are all hiding something. Freudian psychoanalysis would develop these insights, arguing that what is unheimlich (uncanny) is precisely that which is heimlich (domestic). We are the monsters of whom we are afraid.

Peter Ackroyd's new life of Wilkie Collins is the latest in his series of Brief Lives, biographies that provide an account of their subject in around 200 pages. Ackroyd is an old hand at describing Victorian London; he has produced many noteworthy volumes including biographies of Dickens, of J.M.W. Turner, and of London itself. Given the depth and breadth of his knowledge, however, this digest of Collins's life is both more superficial, and more plodding, than one would hope.

It begins well enough, with Wilkie's birth to the artist William Collins and his vivacious, sharp-witted wife Harriet Geddes, a woman who had wanted to be an actress but heeded her family's moral objections and became a governess instead. Wilkie would inherit her passion for the stage. Like his father (as Ackroyd points out) he also "possessed a painter's eye" and learned the importance of connecting "figures with the landscape, making each of equal importance." In his novels, locations such as The Shivering Sands, a quicksand which swallows up one of The Moonstone's suspects, embody the nervous energy, the subconscious fears and desires of the characters.

William Collins needed to study the Old Masters in Rome and, accordingly, took his small family to live abroad when Wilkie was a teenager. Wilkie dived precociously into the cultural, gastronomic, and sexual embrace of Italy and found the material that would enable him to write his first published novel, Antonina: or the Fall of Rome, a toga-ripping melodrama set in the fifth century a.d., whose success would enable him to evade the dull but respectable professions (preaching, tea-dealing) that his father recommended.

Once Ackroyd begins on Collins's writing career, however, the difficulties of a potted biography of such a prolific author become apparent. Ackroyd is committed to giving us an outline account of each of the books and plays that Collins penned. This leaves comparatively little room for discussion of other important matters, such as Collins's interest in mesmerism and psychology; the landmark criminal cases, exhaustively reported in the newspapers, that influenced his writing; his friendships; and his complicated emotional life.

After his novels, the thing for which Wilkie Collins is now most famous is the scandal surrounding his domestic arrangements. He lived for much of his adult life with a widowed shopkeepeer, Caroline Graves, whom he didn't marry. In his forties, he took up with a barmaid, Martha Rudd, with whom he set up a second household and had three children. He didn't marry her, either.

Many 19th-century men ran two relationships in tandem. Dickens cast off the wife who had borne him 10 children and took up with a teenage actress called Ellen Ternan. Dickens's illustrator, George Cruikshank, had a childless marriage and a secret family with one of his servants. William Frith, the painter of The Derby Day and other Victorian crowd scenes, took the cake when it came to having it and eating it too: He fathered 12 children with his wife and 7 with his mistress.

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