‘Make ’Em Cry, Make ’Em Laugh, Make ’Em Wait’

National Portrait Gallery, London
Wilkie Collins, circa 1873–1874; photograph by Napoleon Sarony

There are novels that grip you despite inconsistencies of plot, failures of tone or characterization, lack of depth—you may not even like them, but you have to go on reading: their sheer force and urgency are irresistible. The Three Musketeers and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are not Middlemarch or Proust, but they’ve thrilled generations of readers. And regardless of its distressing historical attitudes and mundane prose, Gone with the Wind goes on selling in the tens of thousands because Margaret Mitchell just sweeps you along.

One of the most enthralling of all popular novels is Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which began serial publication in 1859—to almost frenzied success—in All the Year Round, the new magazine founded and edited by his close collaborator and friend, Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities had been the cornerstone of the opening issues; The Woman in White, which followed it, did even better—“Queues of eager readers formed outside the offices on press days,” Collins’s finest biographer, Catherine Peters, reports in The King of Inventors. It was like the good old days of The Old Curiosity Shop almost twenty years earlier, when the whole world waited desperately to learn whether Dickens would really allow Little Nell to die.

There was a “Woman in White Waltz” and a “Fosco Galop” (named for Collins’s spellbinding villain, Count Fosco). There was merchandise—“Woman in White” bonnets, shawls, perfumes. And when the novel was published in book form, new readers were captivated: Gladstone canceled an evening at the theater to keep reading it; Thackeray stayed up all night to finish it. At least one of Collins’s other novels rivaled it in popularity—The Moonstone, written a decade later—but the epitaph he devised for his tombstone reads: “Wilkie Collins—Author of The Woman in White and other works of fiction.” He knew.

Collins was thirty-five when he began writing The Woman in White, with four novels, an estimable biography, a great deal of excellent journalism, and two successful collections of short stories behind him; his reputation was rapidly growing. But the new book instantly placed him among the leading novelists of the day.

His first novel, Antonina: Or, The Fall of Rome, was a mishmash—an “impossibly melodramatic and impossibly dull” rip-off of Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii, as Dorothy Sayers called it.

His next, Basil, was so much better than Antonina—and so different—that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same writer. Basil is markedly personal in tone—the story of an upper-class young man who disastrously falls in love at first sight with a young woman, from a lower class, whom he encounters on a bus, and who deceives him and blights his life. It’s a stab at realism, and it was much admired: Dickens, for instance, foreseeing a major career for its author, praised its…

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