Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation, by Andrew Lycett

Andrew Lycett: Wilkie Collins, A Life of Sensation (Hutchinson, 544 pp.)

A nondescript street near Regent’s Park in London bears a blue plaque. It uses the old, postwar style, with a minimum of information: ‘Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), novelist, lived here’. Whenever I pass it, I always wonder, if I only knew which corner to turn, would there be another sign that says ‘…and here’? For Collins was not merely peripatetic (Lycett lists 19 addresses in London alone), but for much of his adult life, he also maintained two families, in two houses.

Collins is less famous today than his slightly older contemporaries – Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and the Brontës Major and Minor. And, despite his thirty-some novels, he is really only remembered for two – The Woman in White, a terrific potboiler of a novel, and The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot called ‘the first and the best’ detective-novel.

‘First’ and ‘best’ can both be argued, but Collins was certainly a pioneer in the new genre that was only just appearing: crime-fiction. He was also a pioneer in the depiction of women detectives – amateurs, to be sure, but independent women who do things. The Woman in White’s Marion Halcombe crawls out on a roof in the dark to obtain proof of a crime; David Copperfield’s Dora finds a cookbook too difficult for her poor little brain.

As Lycett shows in this comprehensive new biography, women were Collins’, shall we say, forte. He claimed to have lost his virginity in Italy at the age of thirteen. The death of his rigidly religious father, a society painter of some fame, who had destined his son for a career as a tea-importer, left the still-adolescent Collins with an inheritance that enabled him to choose his own path, of fiction. He also chose his own life. Outwardly he was a conventional bachelor man-about-town, the man to know when it came to exploring the dives of Paris, or finding a doctor to treat the unfortunate side-effects of those explorations.

He was even less conventional at home. Caroline Graves was a lower-middle-class widow struggling to survive when Collins first met her; Martha Rudd a barmaid at a seaside resort. Although Collins married neither, Caroline lived as the first wife in the zenana, entertaining Dickens (who disliked her) and Collins’ other literary friends; Martha lived in more obscurity, but she and Collins produced three children.

All this despite the ill-health that dogged Collins’ life, and made him an opium addict of heroic proportions. He carried a hipflask of laudanum, and when in pain drank off an entire glassful – six to eight drops in water being the usual dosage.

With a private life as complicated as this, there are many gaps in the record. Some episodes remain cloudy. Collins had an apparently facetious correspondence with an eleven-year-old, but that he addressed her as ‘Mrs Collins’ does give the modern reader pause. His own letters presented this as a joke; if there was more, it remains unknown. But, short of a major discovery of papers, Lycett knows as much as anyone. He is also excellent on Collins’ friendship with Dickens, which he presents, convincingly, as much more of a relationship of equals than Dickens biographers allow.

And he answers the main question of any literary biography: why do we continue to read the novels. Neatly avoiding endless plot summaries, Lycett instead explores the themes that dominate Collins’ work: the duality of appearance and reality, the position of women, legal and medical advances.

And, finally, there is Collins’ sheer readability, his ability to make the reader turn the page, and then turn again, to long to know what it going to happen. Often derided as mere populism, story-telling and suspense are rare and precious gifts. Collins had them in spades.

Review first appeared in The Times