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 “admirable writing” and “delicate discrimination of character.” In Wilkie Collins, Collins’s latest biographer, the prodigious Peter Ackroyd, with his bent for hyperbole, calls it “a novel of fatality and obsession that might almost earn a place beside the great Russian novels of love and madness.” No, Mr. Ackroyd, not even “almost.” But it remains readable both for its realistic surface account of London life, anticipating George Gissing, and its highly charged melodrama. It’s very, very far from Dostoevsky, but it’s a respectable precursor of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.
These and Collins’s other early ventures into fiction reveal a hard-working, highly capable craftsman, but one still in search of his true métier. With the first installment of The Woman in White, his essential style and power broke through. Dickens (himself no slouch in the hyperbole department) hailed it as one of the two most dramatic scenes in literature, the other being the march of the women to Versailles in Carlyle’s The French Revolution.
Walter Hartright, Collins’s hero, is walking alone through London, late at night,
when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.
I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.
There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments; her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.
From here the novel rushes forward, inexorably unspooling its riveting story of mistaken identity, faked death, kidnapping, conspiracy, and lunatic asylums, all revealed in a series of interlocking narratives by the characters themselves, and all convincing because the voices are so natural; so normal. Nothing here of the high Gothic nonsense of Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and “Monk” Lewis, but a patina of domesticity laid over a cruel and vicious story. Henry James gave credit to Collins for
introducing into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors…. Instead of the terrors of Udolpho we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible.
Collins is generally regarded as the inventor of what came to be known as the “sensation novel”—a contemporary story crammed with lurid incidents and constantly building in suspense. (His principle in writing fiction, he liked to say, was “Make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em wait.”) At its most extreme, the melodrama is out of control, as in one of his later—and worst—novels, The Two Destinies, about which The Saturday Review said:
This is an amazingly silly book…. It records, if we have counted rightly, three attempts at suicide, two plots to murder, one case of bigamy, two bankruptcies, one sanguinary attack by Indians, three visions, numberless dreams, and one shipwreck.
But his four most considerable works compel belief because they’re anchored in credible characters and superbly crafted plots. And in The Moonstone there is practically no “sensation” at all. Instead, we identify it as the grandfather of all detective novels, featuring, as it does, a baffling crime, a handful of plausible suspects, a startling yet logical solution, and a perfectly conceived venue: an isolated English country house, complete with loyal old family retainer and ex-convict maid. Again, you accept the complicated story because you believe the voices of the narrators, from the mercurial hero to the elderly Gabriel Betteredge (with his conviction that everything worth knowing can be found in the pages of Robinson Crusoe), to the maddening religious crank, Miss Clack. Finally, in Sergeant Cuff (with his passion for roses), based on a famous Scotland Yard investigator, Collins created the template for the thorough, unflappable detective who would dominate the genre for decades.
The Moonstone, though less febrile and turbulent than The Woman in White, continues to hold the reader. T.S. Eliot, who twice wrote extensively about Collins, called it “the first and greatest of English detective novels.” And Dorothy Sayers (who should know) called it “probably the very finest detective novel ever written.”
Collins—who before he started writing a new book spent months working out, detail by detail, the intricacies of the story—has generally been seen as stronger on plot than on characterization. But what most forcefully grips the reader of The Woman in White are its two central and mesmerizing characters—who also mesmerize each other. Count Fosco, the villain, is corpulent, sensual, a tyrant to his wife, ruthless in pursuit of his goals, grotesquely attached to the pet canaries and white mice who run freely over his body, and with an insinuating feminine charm. The heroine is not the passive, pretty Laura Fairlie, victim of Fosco’s intrigues, but her older half-sister, Marian Halcombe. When Walter Hartright first sees Marian across a room he is “struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude.” When she turns toward him and begins to advance,
the easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body…set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, “The lady is dark.” She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, “The lady is young.” She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), “The lady is ugly!”
But Marian—as Walter, and Fosco, and the reader will discover—is resilient and courageous, with a strong mind and a loving heart. Indeed, Fosco himself is powerfully drawn to her, while Marian is both repelled and fascinated by him. “Something transsexual,” Catherine Peters suggests, “is hinted at” between the “feminine” count and the “masculine” Marian (with her famous trace of a mustache), whose appearance, it has been proposed, was modeled in part on George Eliot’s. Marian Halcombe is Collins’s first commanding female character, but her heroism is essentially reactive, prompted by her concern for her endangered sister.
The central character of No Name, the book that followed The Woman in White, is totally proactive. In the face of disaster, a young and cosseted gentlewoman, Magdalen Vanstone, assumes control of her life, lying, cheating, assuming a false identity—even taking to the stage!—and marrying a man she loathes (who conveniently dies), all in order to regain her situation in society. Her beloved parents, it transpires, had not been able to marry legally until shortly before her father was killed in a train crash and her mother died in childbirth. Whereupon Magdalen and her sister were, under the current laws, labeled illegitimate and brutally thrown upon the world.
Magdalen’s behavior is both heroic and dismaying; we admire her boldness and audacity while nervously acknowledging that her actions border on the criminal, and are certainly far from ladylike. That she prevails—eventually marrying an admirable man who cherishes her strength of mind and purpose—is the first sign we have that Wilkie Collins’s view of morality is radically different from that of his Victorian contemporaries. There is no woman in Dickens remotely like Magdalen Vanstone, and Thackeray’s Becky Sharp is a conniver, not a triumphant woman warrior who can finally gloat:
I am a respectable married woman, accountable to nobody under heaven but my husband. I have got a place in the world, and a name in the world, at last….[My wickedness] has made Nobody’s Child, Somebody’s Wife.
No Name is not only an unsettling drama centered on a powerful woman, it’s also the first of Collins’s agenda novels, in which he challenges Victorian legal and cultural injustices, almost always from a strongly feminist viewpoint, although he firmly resisted being labeled a feminist. (“He is the most genuinely feminist of all the 19th-century novelists,” wrote Sayers, “because he is the only one capable of seeing women without sexual bias and of respecting them as human individuals in their own right, and not as ‘the ladies, God bless them!’”)
The Law and the Lady features a resolute and brave young woman successfully defying convention—and risking her skin—in her determination to remove the stigma of the deplorable Scottish verdict of “not proven” after her husband’s trial for murdering his first wife (who—spoiler!—had actually committed suicide). Heart and Science is a fierce crusade against vivisection. Man and Wife has two agendas: it’s an attack both on the confusing and unfair marriage laws and on the “muscular Christianity” of Charles Kingsley and his followers: the heroine, at bay, has been betrayed by the handsome young athletic luminary the world worships. (He’s found out. She’s saved.) The Evil Genius takes on divorce and the custody of children. The Black Robe is anti-Jesuit. The New Magdalen and The Fallen Leaves deal with redeemed, or redeemable, prostitutes. It was novels like these that prompted Swinburne’s much-invoked couplet, “What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition?/Some demon whispered—‘Wilkie! have a mission.’”
Not only did Collins’s novels grow less convincing as they grew more missionary, but their melodrama grew coarser as he more and more frequently conceived them in relation to potential stage adaptations—his passion for the theater was lifelong. But he could be unconvincing even without an agenda on his mind, or a dramatization in view. Poor Miss Finch, written soon after The Moonstone, has a crackpot plot involving a rich blind girl who despite her blindness has an unconquerable aversion to the color blue; her doting suitor, Oscar, who turns blue from a medical procedure; and his identical-twin brother, Nugent, who also falls in love with Miss Finch. (He intrigues to marry her in place of his blue brother but—defeated and remorseful—dies on a polar expedition, “found dead,” as Ruskin put it, “with his hands dropped off, in the Arctic regions.”)
I can confirm that The Woman in White and The Moonstone remain irresistible, and that the other two Collins novels that can still be read with considerable pleasure are those that came between them: No Name and Armadale, his longest and most extravagantly plotted book. (T.S. Eliot wrote that Armadale “has no merit beyond melodrama, and it has every merit that melodrama can have.”)
Peter Ackroyd, however, repudiates the idea that the great majority of Collins’s novels are without real value. “All of his work remains powerful and ingenious, striking and persuasive,” he sums up. “It is true that his later novels are no longer widely read, but modern taste is not impeccable.” Can he and I have read the same thirty novels? This is Ackroyd at his most provocative and least plausible, comparable to the near-fanatic insistence—which mars his magisterial biography of Dickens—that, despite both the evidence and common sense, Dickens never consummated his years-long liaison with Ellen Ternan.*
The hard truth is that if Collins had not written his four major novels, no one today, with or without impeccable taste, would have heard of him. His minor books are far inferior not only to the Big Four but to a number of other sensation novels of the day: Mrs. Braddon’s wildly successful Lady Audley’s Secret and Aurora Floyd, for instance; even Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne. Whereas within the ten-year span of his finest work, he was a major force in British fiction, remaining highly popular until the end of his life. That is enough to justify a biographer of Ackroyd’s stature devoting a book to him.
Writing about Collins in the late 1920s, Eliot complained that there was no “adequate biography” of him. Since then, as The Moonstone and The Woman in White have stubbornly refused to go away, the literature on him has swelled, and today there are at least a dozen substantial books, apart from Peters’s and Ackroyd’s, ranging from general biographies (The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins; Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation) to specialist academic literature (Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety; Wilkie Collins’s American Tour). But it’s not only Collins’s achievement that has fascinated so many writers. It’s also the complicated, almost brazenly unconventional life he chose to lead—and that he got away with.
His father, William Collins, through heroic diligence rather than extraordinary talent, became one of England’s most successful painters. He was a benign and loving parent, though somewhat strict and relentlessly narrow-minded in religious matters. (He “would not shake hands with a Unitarian”!) And he adored his wife, Harriet, a clever, fun-loving, sociable woman of relatively good birth who had once worked as a governess. After her husband’s death she remained the central figure in the lives of her two sons, who made their official home with her well into their adulthood.
But Wilkie was also out on the town. After a desultory dip into the legal profession—disappointing his father, who had hoped he would go into the church—he flirted with painting but soon realized that what he wanted to do was write. Soon enough, when he was only twenty-four, he published a very well-received two-volume biography of his father that launched him into the London literary world. At the same time he was launching himself into the life of a young voluptuary, having (he boasted to Dickens) enjoyed his first sexual adventure with a much older woman when he was thirteen or so while the family was living temporarily in Italy. Was it true?
Certainly Wilkie admired women, pursued women, and succeeded with women, despite the fact that he was physically unprepossessing—quite short and (writes Catherine Peters) “oddly disproportioned, with a bulging forehead, head too large for his body, short arms and legs and ‘pretty little hands and feet, very like a woman’s.’” It was his charm and vivacity that attracted women to him, plus their appreciation of how much he appreciated them.
His unembarrassed sexual activity—to one correspondent he wrote, “I have had between 40 and 50 years Experience of women of all sorts and sizes”—was one of the many things about him that appealed to Dickens, who was not only twelve years older than he was but, publicly, far more straitlaced. The aggressively domestic Dickens relished adventuring with Wilkie both on their long nighttime traipses through the slums of London and on their stays together in Paris, where lads could be lads, even though Dickens was a lad with ten children. The relationship between the two men was crucial for Wilkie—Dickens would become mentor, intimate friend, collaborator (they wrote plays and fiction together), boss (when Wilkie worked as well as wrote for All the Year Round), and publisher. They also became related by marriage, when Wilkie’s artist brother, Charley, whom he loved deeply, married Kate Dickens, her father’s favorite child.
The marriage was a disaster: Charley was physically fragile and sexually ambivalent, if not asexual, and Dickens came to despise him. This did not help the Dickens–Collins friendship: Wilkie, always fiercely protective of his younger brother, began distancing himself from The Inimitable, and when Dickens died suddenly in 1870, at the age of fifty-eight, Wilkie took the death coolly. (He was certainly cool in his description of the unfinished Edwin Drood as “Dickens’s last laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn-out brain.”)
The death he had not taken coolly was that of his mother, which had occurred two years earlier while he was struggling to finish The Moonstone and suffering agonies from the rheumatic gout that tormented him throughout his adult life. He was in his mid-forties when Harriet died, and again and again, through the following years, he would refer to her death as “the greatest sorrow” of his life. She had moved out of London sometime before dying, but by this time he had a home of his own—two homes, in fact, and two “wives.”
Almost all the major Victorian novelists had irregular private lives. (Trollope was the great exception: he lived, apparently happily, with his wife until he died, and we know almost nothing about her.) Bulwer-Lytton so hated his wife that he once had her confined to a lunatic asylum. Thackeray’s wife, depressed and suicidal, spent most of her life in an institution. George Eliot lived in solemn sin with the married George Henry Lewes, whom, due to the complicated divorce laws, she couldn’t marry. About Dickens’s double life and wreck of a marriage we now know a great deal.
But Wilkie Collins was violently opposed to marriage, so that his double life was both more and less scandalous than the others. He simply practiced what amounted to legal bigamy, setting up two women in separate establishments, each knowing about the other and known about (and known to) his friends. To his male friends, that is: neither Caroline Graves, who lived with him on and off for more than thirty years, nor Martha Rudd, who came along later and bore him three children, could be acknowledged by the ladies of his acquaintance, beginning with his mother. Harriet Collins had simply refused to acknowledge the existence of Caroline, a respectable and intelligent lower-class woman who acted as Wilkie’s hostess, dined out and traveled with him, and was a recognized and constant part of his life—more a common-law wife than a disreputable mistress, as Catherine Peters puts it.
When they met, Caroline was a widow with a young child whom Wilkie raised, educated, and loved. In later years, this girl, Carrie, functioned as his secretary—he even dictated parts of his later novels to her—and he gave her in marriage to a young attorney whom he then (disastrously) employed. Wilkie spoke of Carrie as his adopted daughter, and she and her children remained central to his life.
The most dramatic story told about Wilkie has to do with his first encounter with Caroline Graves. Supposedly, he, Charley, and their great friend the artist John Everett Millais were walking through the streets late one night when a woman—dressed, of course, in white—darted out of a house in terror and fled into the dark. Wilkie, consumed with curiosity, followed her and claimed her.
This story, so conveniently reflecting the opening of The Woman in White, seems to have no basis in fact—it was spun by Millais’s son years after all the players in the drama were dead. More prosaically, it appears that when she and Wilkie met, Caroline was running a small marine shop near where the Collins family lived.
The origins of Martha Rudd are equally obscure. The daughter of a shepherd, she came from a small fishing village in Norfolk, where Wilkie often spent time sailing, and where he discovered her and attached her to himself, again for life. (It’s also been suggested that he came upon her when she was working as a housemaid in his mother’s home—to me, a more plausible story.) Martha was an attractive young woman, modest, capable, and practical, who seems not to have minded her irregular situation—no doubt she saw it as a big step up in the world: a good man, a famous man, security, affection. Certainly Wilkie treated her generously, lived with her—often under an assumed name—when he wasn’t living with Caroline, and loved their children.
Although the two “wives” probably never met, Martha’s children mingled happily with Caroline and with Carrie’s children, and they were all treated equally and fairly in Wilkie’s will. After Wilkie died, Ackroyd tells us, Caroline “took care of the grave at Kensal Green until her own death in 1895 placed her in the same earth. Martha Rudd then tended the grave until her death in 1919.” So who are we to bridle at these unusual arrangements?
Wilkie’s openly unorthodox domestic life, his peculiar appearance (“flamboyant…eccentric rather than dandyish”), and his championship of unpopular causes in his novels all went to sustain what Peters calls his “more or less conscious decision to be not quite a gentleman.” But none of this had a negative effect on those who knew him. He had to an abundant degree the gift of being loved—by colleagues and friends, by men and women, by young and old. Nina Lehmann, a superb pianist and for decades with her husband at the center of London artistic life, said of him and the twenty years of what she called their “steady friendship”: “always the same, always kind, always earnest, always interested, always true, always loving and faithful…. I value my Wilkie and I love him dearly.” Her son, Rudy, reminisced about “our dear old Wilkie Collins, the kindest and best friend that boy or man ever had.” Even George Eliot was conquered, remarking on “a sturdy uprightness about him that makes all opinion and all occupation respectable.”
When Wilkie died, in 1889, at the age of sixty-five, his health had entirely given way from the combination of his agonizing arthritic gout and the immense amount of laudanum (a liquid tincture of opium) that he had taken through the years to combat the pain. He was unable to finish his final novel (his friend Walter Besant did it for him), and one feels he was surprised that he had survived as long as he had. He had no reason, however, to regret his life—he had successfully flouted convention, was fulfilled sexually and emotionally, and had enjoyed an immensely successful and well- rewarded career from start to finish.
Of course we recognize the limits of his accomplishment—Dickens, wrote T.S. Eliot, is “separated from Collins by the difference between pure unaccountable genius and pure consummate talent.” But to be mentioned in the same breath with Dickens is a remarkable tribute. As Dorothy Sayers put it, “When we have said that he cannot equal the giants of his age, the fact remains that it is with giants that we compare him.”