Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Compulsive Storyteller: Wilkie Collins

The high Victorian age saw the rise of the novel as we know it. Taxes on paper had been abolished and advances in printing technology led to an increase in book production. Circulating libraries and monthly magazines offered affordable access to literature to the masses. "Shilling Shockers" were hawked for reading on the trains. Millions of working men and women were buying up cheap penny journals.

The new class of readers wanted a new kind of novel. Sensationalism, sentimentality, and melodrama were in demand, and stories about crime and murder. They wanted Genre fiction that took readers on a wild ride, with great plots to keep things moving along.


And Wilkie Collins was a genius at just this kind of novel.

Peter Ackroyd's short biography Wilkie Collins, A Brief Life succinctly covers the life and art of the author of The Women in White and The Moonstone

With a "painter's eye" and brilliant plotting he became the fourth greatest writer of his generation. He wrote the first English detective story and created the first female detective. A social liberal who disdained Victorian values, he tackled controversial issues, writing about the underclass, vivisection, illegitimacy, and 'fallen women'. His female characters were strong and self sufficient, the opposite of the idealized Victorian female.

He suffered from bad health and was in pain most of his life. He used laudanum in ever increasing doses, grateful for the relief it brought. Later he added calomel and colchicum and inhaled amyl nitrite. Wilkie Collins used a cane in his thirties and by his sixties his health was so deteriorated people thought he looked twenty years older. And yet when working on a book he kept up a diligent pace, even dictating from his sick bed.

Collins determined not to marry, but had a long term mistress Caroline Graves (who already had a child) and later a second mistress who bore him children. The two women never met although their children sometimes mingled at his home.
Caroline Graves, from The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William Clarke
At university I had a Victorian Studies course in which we read the important books published in 1859. That was the year in which Charles Dickens, in his magazine All the Year Round, published his serialized A Tale of Two Cities. The November issue saw the conclusion of Two Cities and the first installment of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. (This was also the year Origin of Species was published!)

I later read The Moonstone. I also read a lot about Charles Dickens and learned about his collaboration with Wilkie Collins to write The Frozen Deep, inspired by the lost Franklin expedition which never returned from the frozen north. Franklin's widow didn't give up hope and sent an expedition to find her husband. Collins and Dickens were great friends and collaborated in other plays as well, even acting.

But I knew nothing of the man Collins. And what an odd man he was! He was completely unconventional. He wore flashy clothes, was oddly proportioned, and loved French cooking. Medical science could only offer him remedies that today we shudder to consider, and likely ruined his health even more.

I am left wanting to explore his life in greater depth, to know him more vividly. I also an curious to re-read again Women in White, which spawned quite a fan club, and books I have not read especially Heart and Science which Ackroyd contends is one of Collin's "most unjustly neglected novels" with more characterization.

I thank the publisher and NetGalley for the free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Wilkie Collins, A Brief Life
by Peter Ackroyd
Doubleday Books
$12.99 ebook
Publication date: October 6, 2015
ISBN: 9780385537407