William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was a novelist, playwright and short story writer and the father of the modern English detective novel. Dorothy L. Sayers credited his masterpiece The Moonstone as ‘probably the very finest detective story ever written’. Though he wrote thirty novels and more than sixty short stories, The Moonstone and The Woman in White have emerged as giants in the Sensational genre characterized by sinister Italian counts, haunted mansions, abductions, insanity and mistaken identity.
Collins was born in London and named after his father the landscape artist William Collins and his godfather Sir David Wilkie. He credited his genius for storytelling to a boy at Reverend Cole’s boarding school who wouldn’t let Collins sleep until he had invented an original yarn to send the chap to sleep. As he said, ‘it was this brute who first awakened in me, his poor little victim, the power of which but for him I might never have been aware’. He also credits family trips to Italy for educating his imagination writing ‘(Italy) has been of use to me among the scenery, the pictures, and the people, than I ever learned at school’.
Though his family wanted him to enter the priesthood – a vocation he was supremely unsuited for – instead Collins studied law at Lincoln’s Inn. He was called to the bar in 1851 but never practiced. In the same year he was introduced to his mentor Charles Dickens by mutual friend Augustus Egg with whom he would collaborate for the rest of the great man’s life. Dickens, thirty-nine, was already a famed novelist and proprietor of literary journal Household Words. Apart from a memoir of his late father and a smattering of journalism, Collins, then twenty-seven, was unpublished. Collins’ debut short story, A Terribly Strange Bed, was a tale of terror and the supernatural that was published in 1852.
Collins was inducted into Dickens’ amateur theatrical company and performed Bulwer-Lytton’s Not So Bad As We Seem with Dickens at Devonshire House in front of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort in 1851. They performed on tours of Italy, Switzerland and France, holidayed together and were a familiar sight in the West End dining at Verrey’s on Regent Street, haunting the music halls and café-concerts and holding court at the Garrick Club. Collins grew in stature writing first short stories then novels serialized in Dickens’ Household Words.
Like Dickens, Collins was a bohemian at heart with an unconventional private life. He was a gourmand, drank deep, wore flamboyant costume and formed two long-term relationships with women that he did not marry. The first, Caroline Graves, was a widow with a daughter Collins treated as his own. Graves would remarry when it became clear that Collins would not make an honest woman of her. She soon tired of her husband and returned to live with Collins in Gloucester Place until the author’s death. Collins maintained a separate household with Martha Rudd who he’d met when he was forty and she was nineteen. They lived under the pseudonym Mr and Mrs Dawson and gave the surname to their three illegitimate children.
The Woman in White was published in 1859 and Collins’ major novels Armadale, No Name and The Moonstone were all completed within the following decade. Not coincidentally, Collins began to take laudanum (a mixture of alcohol and opium) in 1860 to treat chronic arthritis and became addicted. Laudanum-induced hallucinations were a major plotting device in The Moonstone and Collins admitted to writing the novel under the influence of the drug. Collins has Miss Gwilt in Armadale asking ‘who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart’.
With Dickens’ death in 1870, Collins’s dependence on laudanum overwhelmed him and his novels of the following two decades were undistinguished. He was lauded by literary lions such as George Eliot, Ford Maddox Brown, William Holman Hunt and Anthony Trollope though Collins would never again receive the acclaim that greeted The Woman in White. Collins became increasingly desperate about his maladies and would say that he took more laudanum per day ‘than would have sufficed to kill a ship’s crew or a company of soldiers’.
Collins died in 1889 at his Wimpole Street townhouse of a paralytic stroke. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery and would be joined in death by Caroline Graves. His four great novels are classics of sensational Victorian fiction with The Moonstone and The Woman in White being adapted many times for film and television. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of The Woman in White briefly played in the West End and on Broadway in 2004-5. Wilkie Collins first patronized Henry Poole & Co in 1863, the year his novel No Name was serialized. He placed a further order in 1867, the year he co-wrote the book No Thoroughfare with Charles Dickens that was dramatized and performed at the Adelphi Theatre.