BORN: 1824, London, England
DIED: 1889, London, England
The Woman in White (1860)
The Moonstone (1868)
Wilkie Collins. Collins, William Wilkie, photograph. The Library of Congress.
Wilkie Collins combined the romantic and the realistic in his mystery stories and provided a model for subsequent suspense and mystery fiction. He experimented with existing genres by introducing the principle of fair play, the formula of the least likely suspect being the criminal, multiple narrative styles, and the depiction ofthe crime as flowing naturally from the personality of the criminal. He also developed the character of the eccentric detective, accompanied by a faithful chronicler, who succeeds through rational methods where the police have failed.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Italian Travels Lead to Critical Attitude Toward Victorian England. William Wilkie Collins was born on January 8, 1824, in London, England, to William Collins, a successful painter, and Harriet Geddes Collins. His father emphasized the importance of religious faith and aristocratic connections, but the biting attacks in Collins’s novels upon religious hypocrisy and social pretentiousness reveal a break from his father’s principles. From 1836 to 1838, he and his family traveled through Italy. This glimpse of Italian culture was a vivid alternative to the narrowness of British Victorian society and perhaps provided a basis for the critical attitude toward that society he was later to display.
Collins lived most of his life in a time known as the Victorian era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories. Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with advances in industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in urban factories instead of on farms as in the past. The era was also marked by a preoccupation with proper behavior in society and domestic life, a topic that figures prominently in the works of Collins and other Victorian writers.
In 1841, after he had finished school, Collins was apprenticed to a firm of tea merchants. Two years later, his first short story was published. At his father’s prompting, he began to study law in 1846, which later would influence the narrative structures of his two best-known novels.
Collins and Dickens. Early in 1851, Collins and Charles Dickens became close friends, and Collins became a paid contributor to Dickens’s Household Words magazine in 1853 and an editor in 1856. Dickens considered Collins the most promising young writer of his time, and his encouragement and the association with Household Words were influential in shaping Collins’s approach to fiction and his career as a popular author.
Early Novels. Basil is Collins’s most significant novel of the 1850s. It concerns a man who becomes infatuated with a woman below his social station. The novel was condemned by many contemporary critics because it did not ‘‘elevate and purify’’ the reader. With The Dead Secret (1857), Collins moved closer to sensation fiction, a genre critic Kathleen Tillotson has aptly christened the ‘‘novel- with-a-secret.’’ Two volumes of short fiction, After Dark (1856) and The Queen of Hearts (1859), display Collins’s increasing preoccupation with suspense and an innovative approach to detection.
Unconventional Personal Life. In 1859 Collins began living with Caroline Graves, a widow with a daughter. This was a highly unconventional choice and was met with the disapproval of the majority of his friends. In 1868, Graves married Joseph Clow, a plumber, and Collins began a relationship with Martha Rudd, with whom he would have three children. By the early 1870s, Graves was again living with Collins. He never married either woman but kept two separate households. At his death he left the income from his estate divided between the two women and his three children, who were acknowledged in his will. Collins’s sympathetic fictional treatment of illegitimacy and the problems of fallen women, as well as his frequently cutting comments about those who confused morality with respectability, no doubt reflect his personal situation and his sensitivity to the difficulties faced by the two women in his life.
The Woman in White. The Woman in White (1860) was Collins’s most popular book and one of the most popular novels of the century, although it was not reviewed positively by critics. Collins’s use of a witness as narrator not only enriches the novel but also emphasizes the legal predicament of the female protagonist and the desperate position of married women who were, as Victorian philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill said, ‘‘legal slaves.’’ As well as being superb suspense fiction, it embodies serious comment on contemporary society. Deception is the key to its mystery, as it is in his next two novels, No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866).
The Moonstone. In 1868 the second of Collins’s great novels, The Moonstone, appeared. No novel considered a detective story has received such praise or held its public over such a long period of time. Again using multiple narrators, Collins limited the focus of this novel to one event, the disappearance of the fabulous Indian diamond of the title.
Later Work and Death. After Charles Dickens died, Collins’s work declined in quality, although it was still popular. Integrating suspense and social criticism proved a difficult and often impossible feat. A continued decline in his health, constant pain relieved only by laudanum—a derivative of opium—and the effects of long-term addiction resulted in increasing reclusiveness in the late 1870s and 1880s.
Despite the inferior quality of Collins’s later works, he continued to be popular with the public and was widely reviewed in influential periodicals and newspapers. His last years, marred by deteriorating eyesight and the constant pain of gout, were not happy, but he continued working until his death on September 23, 1889, from a stroke.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Collins's famous contemporaries include:
Charles Dickens (1812-1870): Considered the leading Victorian novelist, Dickens integrated social criticism into his popular books; his best-known works include Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930): Scottish writer who created the Sherlock Holmes detective stories.
Stonewall Jackson (1824-1863): American Confederate general during the Civil War; one of the Confederate army's best generals, his death by pneumonia was a severe blow to their cause.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863): British novelist famous for Vanity Fair, a satirical look at English society.
Jules Verne (1828-1905): French writer who helped pioneer the genre of science fiction; novels such as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea explored underwater and space travel before either was technologically possible.
Works in Literary Context
Domesticated Crime The significance of Collins’s work lies in its fusion of the romantic and the realistic and its creation of suspense and terror in ordinary, middle-class settings. Collins’s influence on mystery and detective fiction, from writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to the present, reveals the crucial importance of his domestication of criminal activities and the great debt that subsequent authors owe to his emphasis upon the actual.
E. F. Bleiler writes: ‘‘While Collins was aware of the work of Poe and Gaboriau, he paid little heed to their contributions and worked in the mainstream of Victorian domestic and social fiction.’’ By integrating accurate depictions of contemporary manners and customs with the secrecy and romance of crime, he established a pattern that modern writers of mystery fiction still follow.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Collins examined social issues within the mystery story, expanding its range as a tool for social criticism. Here are some other works that do the same:
Blanche Cleans Up (1999), a novel by Barbara Neely. In this novel, an African American housekeeper working for a wealthy white family gets involved in a murder case affecting her employers; along the way to solving the crime, she comments on race and class issues in contemporary America.
The Dead Sit Round in a Ring (2004), a novel by David Lawrence. In this novel, a London detective must find the link between a group suicide and eastern European human trafficking.
The Ghostway (1992), a novel by Tony Hillerman. In this story, a Navajo detective must solve a shooting and must also decide between moving off the reservation because of his love for a white woman or becoming more deeply involved in his Navajo culture.
Hard Time (1999), a novel by Sara Paretsky. A Chicago- based private investigator ends up in jail in this novel, revealing what life is really like on the inside of a women's prison.
''The Yellow Wallpaper'' (1861), a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A ''diary'' of a woman slowly going mad, this short story examines both the medical profession and women's subservient role in Victorian society.
Works in Critical Context
The obituaries that followed Collins’s death emphasized his skill as a storyteller and expressed gratitude for the delight he had given audiences for forty years. Algernon Charles Swinburne called him a ‘‘genuine artist’’ of the second rank, comparable in merit to novelists Anthony Trollope and Charles Reade. Although his reputation, like that of many other Victorian writers, was in eclipse during the early twentieth century, it began to revive in the 1920s when T. S. Eliot turned critical attention to his work. Today Collins’s reputation is secure with both academic critics and the mystery story-reading public. According to E. F. Bleiler, ‘‘Wilkie Collins is generally considered the greatest Victorian master of mystery fiction.’’ Critic and poet T. S. Eliot and mystery writer Dorothy Sayers have called The Moonstone the best-ever English detective story.
Subjectivity and Individual Perception The Victorian distinction between the novel of incident and the novel of character worked to Collins’s disadvantage, and although he himself professed contempt for such criticism, it is significant that in the preface to The Moonstone he wrote that he was attempting ‘‘to trace the influence of character on circumstances’’ rather than ‘‘the influence of circumstances upon character’’ as he had previously done. Modern criticism, following Henry James, sees plot and character as inseparably interrelated and is perhaps better able to understand Collins’s achievement than either Collins or his contemporaries. This is especially true of the narrative technique used in both The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Contemporaries recognized that multiple narrators contributed to the dramatic development of the story and to its ‘‘lifelike’’ quality without, apparently, seeing that Collins, in making subjectivity and individual perception central to his method, had made not only a major advance in the possibilities of narrative but had also devised a method for the revelation of personality that is inextricable from plot.
The Woman in White. When it was published in 1860, The Woman in White brought sharply divided reviews. An unnamed reviewer for Dublin University Magazine, for example, states that the author’s work is ‘‘nothing that would entitle him to a higher place among English novelists, than the compiler of an average school-history would enjoy among English historians.’’ The reviewer also states, ‘‘There is not one lifelike character: not one natural dialogue in the whole book. Both hero and heroine are wooden, commonplace, uninteresting in any way apart from the story itself.’’ The author’s attempts at modern realism are compared to ‘‘the pages of a nursery tale.’’ In contrast, a reviewer for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine calls it a “remarkable novel,’’ and ‘‘the elaborate result of years of labor.’’ The reviewer concludes, ‘‘[Collins] has improved upon all his early works to an extent which proves in only too edifying and complete a way the benefits of perseverance and painstaking.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Do you think that current detective shows on TV examine social issues as they examine crime, like Wilkie Collins did in his work? Does the current focus on the scientific side of crime solving take away from the psychological side, or does it add to it?
2. Collins’s personal life was scandalous for his time, with his long-term relationships with two women, neither of whom he married. Yet his fiction was still extremely popular, and the public probably did not know many personal details about his relationships. How does knowing the messy details of an artist’s personal life affect how you view their work? Do you think it should be public knowledge, or should domestic issues remain private?
3. Collins used multiple narrators with shifting points of view. Do you find it effective when movies or TV shows present various points of view, making the truth more difficult to figure out, or do you find it confusing?
4. Mystery and detective fiction are hugely popular genres. Why do you think that is? What makes reading about crime so popular? How is our reaction to crime different today than it was in the Victorian period?
5. Collins examined crime as following naturally from someone’s personality. There have been many theories of how criminals are created, from genetics to social conditions. Using your library’s resources and the Internet, research some theories of criminality and write an essay comparing and contrasting them. Which makes the most sense to you? Why?
Bleiler, E. F. ‘‘Wilkie Collins: Overview.’’ In St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. Detroit: St. James, 1996.
Eliot, T. S. ‘‘Wilkie Collins and Dickens.’’ In Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.
Ousby, Ian. ‘‘Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists.’’ In Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Page, Norman, ed. Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.
Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life ofWilkie Collins. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.
Sayers, Dorothy. Wilkie Collins: A Critical and Biographical Study. Toledo, Ohio: Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries, 1977.
‘‘(William) Wilkie Collins (1824-1889).’’ In Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Edited by Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.
Ashley, Robert. ‘‘Wilkie Collins and the Detective Story.’’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 6 (June 1951): 47-60.
Booth, Bradford A. ‘‘Wilkie Collins and the Art of Fiction.’’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 6 (September 1951): 131-43.
Hyder, Clyde K. ‘‘Wilkie Collins and The Woman in White.’’ PMLA 54 (March 1939): 297-303.
Lonoff, Sue. ‘‘Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.’’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (September 1980): 150-70.
MacEachen, Dougald B. ‘‘Wilkie Collins and British Law.’’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 5 (1950): 121-39.
Muller, C. H. ‘‘Victorian Sensationalism: The Short Stories of Wilkie Collins.'' Unisa English Studies 11, no. 1 (1973): 12-24.
Rycroft, Charles. ‘‘A Detective Story: Psychoanalytic Observations.’’ Psychoanalytic Quarterly 26 (1957): 229-45.
Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins Information Pages. Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.wilkie-collins.info/.
Lewis, Paul. The Wilkie Collins Pages. Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.wilkiecollins.com/.