Wilkie Collins: Master of Mystery & Suspense

After reading a recent fascinating biography of the Victorian writer Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), I was inspired to search out what Collins items we have in our collections.

Collins was one of the most famous, and well loved Victorian fiction writers and is now probably best known for his sensation novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White. A literary phenomenon, sensation novels drew on the influences of melodrama and the gothic style to explore themes considered provocative by societal norms. In the 1860s, sensation novels and theatrical productions became closely linked with many of the famous sensation novelists, including Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, writing for the stage. Typically the sensation novel focused on controversial subjects such as murder, adultery, bigamy, insanity, forgery, identity-theft or prostitution. They were devised to give readers a thrill and to play on their anxieties, especially as many of these scenarios were played out in a domestic setting, bringing these issues to the heart of the Victorian home.

Titlepage & Frontispiece of Antonina; or the Fall of Rome. Sp Coll Z4-c. 1&2

Titlepage & Frontispiece of Antonina; or the Fall of Rome. Sp Coll Z4-c. 1&2

William Wilkie Collins was born into the family of popular landscape painter William Collins R.A. (1788-1847) in Marylebone, London. His father wanted him to be a clergyman but Collins showed no enthusiasm. Instead, in 1846, having spent five years in the tea business, he studied for the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, where he gained the legal knowledge that was to give him much material for his writing. His first novel; Iolani, or Tahiti as It Was; a Romance, was rejected by publishers in 1845 but he had more success with his next novel, Antonina, Or the Fall of Rome, published in 1850. This is a ponderous work set during Alaric’s siege of Rome in 410 and very different to the later novels that would bring him recognition and fame.

A meeting with Charles Dickens, who was to become a lifelong friend, in early 1851, led to a number of Collins’ works being serialised in Dickens’ journals All the Year Round and Household Words. In May, 1851 Collins acted with Dickens in the play Not So Bad as We Seem with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the audience, and, the next year he went on tour with Dickens’ company of amateur actors, performing the same play. Collins’ second published novel Basil: A Story of Modern Life appeared in November 1852 and received a mixed review. The Athenaeum described it as ‘a tale of criminality, almost revolting from its domestic horrors’

Early in 1853, Collins suffered what was probably his first attack of gout which would plague him for the rest of his life. He was ill from April until early July, and afterwards, went to stay with Dickens in Boulogne until September, when Augustus Egg joined them on a tour of Switzerland and Italy until the end of that year.

Frontispiece & titlepage of Basil. Sp Coll z4-c.2

Frontispiece & titlepage of Basil. Sp Coll z4-c.2

During this period Collins increased the variety and scope of his writing, publishing short stories and essays, dramatic criticism, and the travel book Rambles Beyond Railways. His first play, The Lighthouse was performed by Dickens’ theatrical company at Tavistock House in 1855. His first collection of short stories, entitled After Dark was published in February 1856 and his novel A Rogue’s Life was serialised in Household Words in March 1856. He joined the staff of Dickens’ periodical Household Words in October 1856 and worked closely with Dickens on the play The Frozen Deep. It was during the tour of The Frozen Deep that Dickens would meet the young actress Ellen Ternan with whom he had an affair, leading to the breakdown of his marriage. The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, based on Dickens’ and Collins’ walking tour in the north of England was serialised in Household Words in October 1857. At around this time, Collins began using laudanum to treat the pain from his gout and developed an addiction to the drug.

Outwardly, he was a member of the Establishment, belonged to the Garrick Club and appeared to be the typical Victorian gentleman but we now know that Collins was living an unconventional, quite bohemian, lifestyle. While his books were full of dark family secrets being uncovered, he was determined to keep his own unconventional domestic arrangements hidden from the outside world, much in the same way as his friend Dickens was determined to keep his relationship with Ellen Ternan a secret. In 1858 Collins began living with Caroline Graves and her daughter Harriet. Caroline kept a small shop nearby Collins’ home. She had married young, had a child, and been widowed. He treated Harriet, whom he called Carrie, as his own daughter, and helped to pay for her education. Collins and Caroline stayed together for most of the rest of his life although he refused to marry her as he disliked the institution of marriage.

Serialisation of The Woman in White in All the Year Round. Sp Coll z10-o.2

Serialisation of The Woman in White in All the Year Round. Sp Coll z10-o.2

Collins published his best known novels in the 1860s, achieving financial stability and an international reputation. At this time, he enjoyed a literary celebrity and an affluence almost equal to Dickens.  The Woman in White first appeared as a serial, in 40 parts, in Dickens’ periodical All The Year Round beginning with the issue dated Saturday 26 November 1859 and ending with the issue dated 25 August 1860. It was the archetypal sensation novel, partly based  on a real-life eighteenth century case of abduction and wrongful imprisonment.

During the planning of his novel, No Name, Collins continued to suffer the effects of gout; this time it especially affected his eyes, so, at the beginning of 1863 he travelled with Caroline Graves to German spas and to Italy for his health. In 1864 he began work on his novel Armadale. In August, his search for background material for his story took him to a small village in the Norfolk Broads where he first met and began a relationship with Martha Rudd, a 19-year-old girl from a large, poor family. A few years later she moved to London to be closer to him. Collins’ and Martha Rudd’s daughter Marian was born in 1869.

His play No Thoroughfare, co-written with Dickens, was published as the 1867 Christmas number of All the Year Round, and dramatised at the Adelphi Theatre on 26 December. The play ran for 200 nights before it was taken on tour. This was the last stage production to be associated with Dickens before his death.

Cover of No Thoroughfare. Sp Coll q.196

Cover of No Thoroughfare. Sp Coll q.196

Collins’ next novel The Moonstone was serialised in All the Year Round from January to August 1868. It is viewed by many to represent the birth of the detective story within the tradition of the English novel. One of the more sensational aspects in The Moonstone was the depiction of opium addiction which his readers would not have known was written from personal experience. During the writing of the bookwhile he was suffering an attack of acute gout and the effects of his laudanum intake, Caroline left Collins and married a younger man named Joseph Clow.

After two years of marriage, Caroline left her husband and returned to Collins so he divided his time between Caroline, who lived with him at his home in Gloucester Place, and Martha who was living nearby. When he was with Martha he used the alias William Dawson, and she and their children used the surname of Dawson themselves. This unusual arrangement lasted for the rest of Collins’ life.

Serialisation of The Moonstone in All the Year Round. Sp Coll z10-o.19

Serialisation of The Moonstone in All the Year Round. Sp Coll z10-o.19

1870 saw the death of Charles Dickens, which caused great sadness for Collins. He said of his early days with Dickens, “We saw each other every day, and were as fond of each other as men could be.” Collins’ second daughter with Martha Rudd, Harriet Constance, was born in 1871. The Woman in White was dramatised and produced at the Olympic Theatre in October 1871.

Poor Miss Finch, a novel about a young blind woman who temporarily regains her sight while finding herself in a romantic triangle with two brothers, was serialised in Cassell’s Magazine from October to March 1872. Collins continued to publish novels and other works throughout the 1870s and 80s, but the quality of his writing declined along with his health and failing eyesight. He was often unable to leave his home, and had difficulty writing. 1873 also saw the death of his younger brother Charles Allston Collins, who had married Dickens’ daughter Kate.

Frontispiece of Poor Miss Finch Sp Coll z4-c.12 & 13.

Frontispiece of Poor Miss Finch (Sp Coll z4-c.12 & 13).

During these last years Collins focused on helping younger writers, including the novelist Hall Caine  and was active in helping to fight copyright infringement of their works. His last novel, Blind Love  was completed by Walter Besant after Collins’ death and posthumously published in 1890. The novel relates the story of Lord Harry Norland, a member of a group of political assassins; and Iris Henley, an Englishwoman who falls in love with him despite his criminal activities, illustrating the “blind love” of the title.

Illustration from Blind Love. (Sp Coll z7-c.25)

Illustration from Blind Love. (Sp Coll z7-c.25)

Over his lifetime Collins published 23 novels, several collections of stories, a biography, and a travel book. He also published numerous short stories, several plays and countless articles in periodicals.

Collins suffered a paralytic stroke and died on 23 September 1889, at 82 Wimpole Street. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, West London. Caroline Graves died in 1895 and was buried with Collins. Martha Rudd died in 1919.

Further information on our holdings of novels by Wilkie Collins and many others can be viewed on our 19th Century Novels page.



Categories: Library, Reflections, Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    Do love a bit of Wilkie Collins.

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