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illiam Wilkie Collins, inventor of the Sensation Novel, was born on 8 January 1824, the son of the popular landscape painter, William Collins, R. A. According to John Bowen, "Collins had an unusual childhood, as singular in its way as that of Dickens or the Brontës. . . . Although Wilkie had an affectionate childhood it was anything but bohemian or liberal, and his father's High Tory Evangelicalism gave him a distatste for respectable piety and organized religion that was to last his life" (4). At age 22, he became a law student at London's Lincoln's Inn. Collins was called to the bar in 1851, the same year in which he first met novelist Charles Dickens, with whom he is still so closely associated that he has been called "the Dickensian Ampersand." He never practised law, adopting literature as his profession instead. Between 1848 and his death in 1889, he wrote 25 novels, more than 50 short stories, at least 15 plays, and more than 100 non-fiction pieces. A close friend of Dickens from their meeting in March 1851 until Dickens' death in 1870, Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers.
In Dickens's second weekly journal, All the Year Round, in 1862-63 he published No Name serially. His best known works, immensely popular in the mid-nineteenth century, especially in the United States, are The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1867). After his death, his reputation declined, but Collins's work is currently enjoying a critical and popular resurgence. A continuing source of fascination for the reading public is the relationship between Wilkie's private life and his writing. The "original" for the woman in white was Mrs. Caroline Graves, with whom Collins lived for most of his life after 1859, though he had three children by Martha Rudd.
At the age of 28, in March 1851, Collins, then a law student at Lincoln's Inn, met the icon of Victorian popular culture, Charles Dickens, who knew Wilkie's father, the landscape artist and Royal Academician, William Collins. Dickens invited the young man to participate in his amateur theatricals, and in the middle of June, 1855, in the children's schoolroom which doubled as a theatre at Tavistock House, Dickens and company performed Collins's The Lighthouse as an adult-oriented entertainment, and so Collins helped to set Dickens on the trajectory which would lead to the full-scale melodrama The Frozen Deep and a young actress named Ellen Lawless Ternan. By the end of August 1855, Collins finished almost five months' work on the play. In February 1856, Collins visited Dickens in Paris. That summer, Collins was Dickens's premier visitor at the pair collaborated on the writing of a new play for Dickens's amateur theatricals, The Frozen Deep, finished in draft by mid-September. Dickens then proposed a walking tour of Cumberland to furnish material for a travel article for Household Words When both became lost in the dark and the mists as they were descending a mountain, Collins sprained his leg and had to be carried down by Dickens.
Throughout the next few years, Collins and Dickens collaborated on short stories such as The Perils of Certain English Prisoners for Household Words (Christmas 1857). After breaking with the publishers of Household Words , Dickens founded a similar weekly journal accessible to all classes of readers, All the Year Round , in 1859, and he first weekly serial instalment of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White appeared in the same edition of All the Year Round as the last instalment of A Tale of Two Cities: 26 November, 1859. By the time that Collins had finished writing the sensation novel in July 1860, despite a mixed critical reception, it had considerably boosted the journal's sales. In volume form, the novel from its initial publication as a triple-decker brought out by London's Sampson Low, Son, and Company, in mid-August, 1860, broke all previous sales records for novels.
Throughout the 1860s Collins enjoyed a literary celebrity and an affluence almost equal to Dickens's because the Victorian reading public appreciated his subtlety of characterization, his realistic psychological portraiture, and his ingeniously involved plotting. For the elder novelist, plot arose from the interaction of deeply felt characters; for the younger novelist, an apparently random chance (in fact, Providence) outside individual characters control seems to animate and direct the plot. Together, Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote such Christmas stories for the annual seasonal issue of All the Year Round as A Message from the Sea (1860), Tom Tiddler's Ground (1861), Somebody's Luggage (1862), Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings (1863), and Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy (1864). In March, 1862, he fulfilled his last contractual obligation to All the Year Round with the serial publication of No Name , which Dickens thought extremely clever. Wilkie's sale of the novel's copyright earned him the enormous sum of £ 4,600. At this triumphant point in his career, Wilkie was compelled by a painful combination of gout, rheumatism, and laudanum addiction to visit continental spas in order to recover his health. Before the age of 40 (in April, 1861) he had signed a literary contract for £ 5,000 with Smith, Elder — either for a complete novel or a serial to run in the Cornhill (then edited by W. M. Thackeray), chief rival to All the Year Round .
In April, 1861, despite the fact that the publication of No Name in All the Year Round would run into 1862, Collins signed with Smith and Elder. However, periodically, Dickens lured Collins back, most notably for the serial publication of The Moonstone (1867). In the late 1860s, estranged from Dickens, Collins began to decline in health. Distressed by his corpulence, he often went abroad to take the cure at various continental spas. In print as in life secrets and double identities held a fascination for Collins. In 1868, Caroline married — Wilkie even attended the wedding — probably in response to his taking up with Martha Rudd. However, after her marriage she returned to live with Wilkie, who from then on maintained two separate households. Moreover, owing to Wilkie's odd domestic arrangements and his growing opium addiction, Wilkie Collins and his mentor became estranged in those final years of Dickens's life. After Dickens's death in 1870, Collins remained a prolific writer, despite continued ill health. However, his addiction to laudanum had a negative impact on his productivity for the last two decades of his life. Collins, the inventor of "Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait" books, died on 23 September 1889.
Bibliography for Works on the Life of Wilkie Collins
Ashley, Robert. Wilkie Collins . London: 1952.
Baker, William, et al. Eds. The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters. 4 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2005 [added by GPL].
Bowen, John. "Champagne Moments" [review of Collins's letters above]. Times Literary Supplement. (February 3, 2006): 4-5.
Clarke,William M. The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins . London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1989.
Davis, Noel Pharr. The Life of Wilkie Collins . Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1956.
Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins — An Illustrated Guide . Oxford: Oxford University,1998.
Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Minerva (Martin Secker & Warburg), 1992.
Robinson, Kenneth. Wilkie Collins . London: 1951.
For a more complete list of biographical works, see "Books" (p. 230-231) and "Articles" (p. 232) in the Clarke biography.
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Last modified 12 November 2012
Wilkie Collins (1824–1889), English author and master of the detective novel wrote numerous essays, short stories, more than a dozen plays, and published twenty-three novels including The Woman in White (1860).
Collins' father William John Thomas Collins (1788–1847) was a well-known landscape artist, producing over 200 major works and whose patrons included King George IV, aristocrats and members of the clergy. William became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1820. [William] Wilkie Collins was born on 8 January 1824 at 11 New Cavendish Street, St Marylebone, England, and was baptised on 10 February at the parish church of St Mary-Le-Bone, an area of London where he would live for most of his life. His mother Harriet (1790–1868) was a daughter of Captain Alexander Geddes of Alderbury.
At the age of twenty-nine Collins had a bout of rheumatic inflammation in his eyes that, along with gout, would afflict him off and on for the rest of his life. Among his future reading audience there developed a fascination with the parallels between his private life and his stories. Collins and his brother Charles led a relatively happy childhood being home schooled, though under the heavy hand of their mother and father's evangelical Christianity. Including his distaste for formalities, Collins would soon adopt unconventional attitudes and dress; he sported a long beard and spurned bourgeois society.
He looked forward to summer jaunts in the countryside with his father who's artistic eye for painting landscapes lead his son to garner a fine appreciation for nature. Starting in 1826 the Collins family left London and lived for a time in a house on Pond Street, Hampstead Green. In January 1828 Collins' brother Charles was born. The family travelled to Boulogne, then settled near Hyde Park at 30 Porchester Terrace, Bayswater. During the Reform Bill controversy Collins amazedly witnessed rioters breaking the windows of houses not showing their support with a candle in the window. After a tour of Wales with his father, Collins entered the Maida Hill Academy where he earned the prize of two volumes of Essays Moral and Political by Robert Southey.
The Collins left Porchester Terrace in September of 1836 for Italy. It was there that Collins developed his own sense of aesthetics, learned Italian, and probably found inspiration for his well-received novel Antonina (1850). He also started to write his travel book Rambles beyond Railways (1851).
Back in London in 1838, Collins attended Mr. Cole's boarding-school but found it tedious and fraught with humiliating corporal scenes of chastisement from the headmasters in front of the other students. His knowledge of Italian and French probably brought unwanted attention from the less educated students--one bittersweet result being that he developed the art of story-telling after being bullied at bedtime, under threat of a whipping, to amuse the other boys with his tales. He had no interest in enrolling at Oxford to enter the Church as his father suggested, so he obtained a position with tea merchant Edward Antrobus, until 1846, though he would turn to writing to ease his ennui. After the death of an uncle, Collins painted "Seaford - Sussex" which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844. It was bought by a Mr. John Sheepshanks for 170 guineas. It is now hung in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Collins' first published short story was The Last Stage Coachman (1843) in Illuminated Magazine. His father died a year later when he was twenty-three. Collins' first published book was Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., RA (2 vols., 1848). Collins entered Lincoln's Inn to study law and was called to the bar in 1852; though he never practiced, his legal knowledge would play heavily in his future stories.
On 12 March 1851 Collins embarked on his lifelong love of the theatre when he was recruited to act in one of Charles Dickens's amateur theatre productions. He and Dickens, twelve years his senior, became great friends and would collaborate on articles for Dicken's periodical Household Words and other journals. It is said that the popular Victorian writer Dickens appreciated Collin's upbeat and slightly rebellious attitude towards Victorian life's conventions. He was a great supporter of his writing and became somewhat of a mentor to Collins. Mr. Wray's Cash Box was published in 1852. Collins drew heavily on his legal background for the mystery Basil (1852) which opens with the lines;
"What am I now about to write? The history of little more than the events of one year, out of the twenty-four years of my life. Why do I undertake such an employment as this? Perhaps, because I think that my narrative may do good; because I hope that, one day, it may be put to some warning use."
Hide and Seek (1854) was not surprisingly dedicated to Dickens;—"To Charles Dickens this story is inscribed as a token of admiration and affection, by his friend, the author."
George Eliot, Ford Maddox Brown, Charles Reade, William Holman Hunt, and Anthony Trollope were also among Collins' friends, as well as the artist Augustus Egg with whom he and Dickens travelled to Switzerland in 1853. Collins' first play was The Lighthouse (1855) which was initially performed in Dicken's children's schoolroom at his home, Tavistock House. In 1857 Collins wrote his best-known play The Frozen Deep of which Dickens would later play the lead role. Writing A Rogue's Life (1856) during a stay in one of his favourite cities, Paris, Collins suffered an attack of rheumatism. He turned to the opiate laudanum for relief which would slowly become an addiction.
Having previously lived with his mother, in 1856 Collins started living together with the widow Caroline Elizabeth Graves, née Compton, and her daughter Harriet. They would never marry. The Queen of Hearts was published the following year but it was The Woman in White (first serialised in Dickens' journal All the Year Round) which caused a sensation and brought fame and fortune to Collins. There was some speculation as to whether Graves played a role in its writing. In 1860 Collins' brother Charles (who died of cancer in 1873) married Dickens' daughter Kate, which was a likely cause of strain on the two author's friendship.
Dickens, who wrote in the profoundly emotive language of his characters and Collins, who excelled in spare and lean psychological analysis, continued to collaborate for All the Year Round until 1862. Armadale was published in 1866. No Thoroughfare (1867) was his first commercial success in the theatre. Much of No Name (1862) is based on a trip of Collins' to the sea coast village of Aldeburgh [Aldborough]. Collins' detective novel featuring the negative effects of opium addiction The Moonstone (1868) was second only to the Sensational Novel The Woman in White which was adapted to the stage in the 1870s. Sergeant Cuff was to become a prototype of future detective heroes. The term 'sensation novel' was coined by reviewers to describe Moonstone,The Woman in White, and others.
It is said that during a holiday of sailing in Norfolk in August 1864, Collins first met Martha Rudd (1845–1919) of whom he'd never marry but had three children with: Marian who was born on 4 July 1869, Constance Harriet on 14 May 1871, and their son William Charles Collins Dawson, born Christmas day in 1874. Too ill to attend his mother's funeral in 1868 Collins said of her death that it was the bitterest of all afflictions he dealt with in his life.
During the 1870s Collins continued to maintain separate households with Caroline and Martha while continuing his writing to support them financially with such titles as Man and Wife (1870), Poor Miss Finch (1872), and The New Magdalen (1873). The same year he would tour the United States and Canada where he read from his works and met Mark Twain. Titles to follow were The Law and the Lady (1875), The Two Destinies (1876), The Haunted Hotel (1879), The Fallen Leaves (1879), A Rogue's Life (1879), and Jezebel's Daughter (1880). While trying to alleviate the pains of his worsening gout by visiting spas like Aix-la-Chapelle and Wildbad, his addiction to laudanum was taking its toll on his health.
Collins' final play Rank and Riches produced in 1881 was a failure though he published many works in the 1880s including The Black Robe (1881), The Evil Genius (1886), The Guilty River (1886), The Legacy of Cain (1889), and his last novel Blind Love (1890).
Collins was becoming a recluse and starting to suffer from heart and chest pain though he still entertained his friends in his customary lavish yet informal ways. He suffered a stroke and a few months later contracted bronchitis which would lead to his death. On 23 September 1889, Wilkie Collins died at his home on Wimpole Street. Caroline Graves attended his funeral and is buried beside him in Kensal Green cemetery, London, England.
Collins was the first author to use a literary agent, Alexander Pollock Watt, and was involved in the initial formation of the concept of intellectual rights for authors, a cause he championed during his lifetime. In 1884 Collins helped found the Society of Authors.
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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