“To Mr. Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.”—Henry James
Illegitimacy, mistaken identity, insanity, inheritance, drugs, adultery, crimes of passion—all of these lurid features of Victorian life were Wilkie Collins’s stock in trade. In The Moonstone he single-handedly developed most elements of the classic detective story. With The Woman in White Collins created the archetypal sensation novel, spawning generations of imitators. But perhaps his greatest genius was his capacity to reveal the exotic amidst the commonplace, the “mysteries which are at our own doors.”
Collins composed his masterworks during one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of English literature. England’s cities and industries were booming, poverty and crime filled the news, melodrama ruled the theaters, and newfound wealth made class barriers increasingly permeable. Dickens had just started his periodical All the Year Round, which helped to bring literature to a mass audience and blur the boundaries between highbrow and middlebrow culture. The new audience demanded a new type of novel, a novel as compelling as the scandalous headlines it competed with at the newsstands, able to keep readers in suspense from month to month and eager to buy the next issue.
Dickens launched the magazine, and the golden decade of the serial novel, with A Tale of Two Cities in the spring of 1860, and Collins followed with The Woman in White in the fall. The plot of Collins’s novel had its origins in a French crime in which a Marquise was drugged and held prisoner under a false name so that her brother could inherit her estate. The midnight apparition of the title character—which Dickens called one of the two most dramatic scenes in literature—had its origin much closer to home.
While walking a friend home one night Collins had heard a piercing scream from a nearby villa, then saw dashing from the house “the figure of a young and very beautiful young woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight. She seemed to float rather than to run . . . in an attitude of supplication and terror.” Caroline Graves, recently widowed with an infant daughter, said she had been held captive at the house for several months “under threats and mesmeric influence.”
The details of what followed are unknown, but before long she and Collins had made a home together and she had adopted a story about her origins more suited to Collins’s social position. Her father had been transformed from a carpenter to a “gentleman” and her former husband from an accountant’s clerk to a captain in the army. It has been argued that the two faces of Caroline—the newly respectable lady and the abused women of questionable background—are reflected in the look-alike characters in The Woman in White, Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick. Certainly the tension between appearance and reality that was central to the mystery had a powerful salience for Collins at the time, defying as he did the social expectations that he marry Caroline but also refusing to keep their relationship secret.
The Woman in White was an enormous success, prompting long lines at the publisher’s offices and even inspiring a popular song, the “Woman in White Waltz.” Collins earned a large advance for his next novel, securing his financial independence from his mother (who was the model for Hartright’s impulsive, childlike mother in the book, just as Hartright was modeled in part on Collins’s anxious, conventional brother). Readers were especially intrigued by the character of Marian Halcombe, whose charm, wit, independence, and ugliness probably have their roots in Collins’s friendship with George Eliot. Throughout his work Collins created strong female characters that defy Victorian mores and gender roles, assertive women with a calculating streak. Imitators took the notion to an extreme, creating anti-heroines that resorted to murder and bigamy to achieve their wicked ends. By the time Collins started writing The Moonstone in 1867, the outcry over “the fair-haired demon of modern fiction” had grown so shrill and the clichés of the sensation novel so tired that he decided to try something quite different. In so doing he invented the detective novel as we know it today.
For the mystery aficionado, the list of detective-story conventions that were first conceived by Collins for The Moonstone is truly remarkable. In Sergeant Cuff we meet the prototype for the eccentric, canny detective in conflict with the bumbling local police authorities. (Even Cuff’s passion for roses presages Sherlock Holmes’s beekeeping.) Multiple equally plausible suspects are introduced, each with motive and opportunity. Consciously withholding key pieces of information, Collins introduces the rules of “fair play,” which dictate that the detective should know no more than the reader. The summation of the crime before the gathered suspects, the revelation of the least likely suspect as the villain (albeit with a surprising twist), the confluence of multiple viewpoints to assemble the truth, a reconstruction of the crime, and the ultimate triumph of law and order were first formulated in The Moonstone in 1868.
Synthesizing several legends of cursed Indian jewels, Collins also drew on the famous Road Murder case of 1860 for several details of the plot, including a paint-stained nightshirt and a tell-tale laundry book. The Shivering Sand portrayed in the book’s most chilling passages is based on a childhood journey to the Scottish coast. Sadly, the opium-induced experiences of Ezra Jennings describe Collins’s own illness. As he was writing The Moonstone, the painful gout from which Collins had long suffered began to attack with increasing frequency and severity. No effective treatment was known at the time. He could find relief only in increasing doses of laudanum, an opium derivative. Collins soon required doses that would have killed anyone not habituated to the drug, first to get through the night, then increasingly in the daytime as well. Indeed he claimed that after he first outlined the book’s plot, opium wiped it almost entirely from his memory. Only his careful notes allowed him to proceed with the composition.
As in The Woman in White, the solution to the mystery in The Moonstone is pieced together from the accounts of multiple narrators. This technique, which Collins first adopted after he witnessed the testimony in a trial, allows the author both to withhold key pieces of information from the reader and to adjust the pace as the plot demands. In the opening chapters, the discursiveness of chatty, avuncular Gabriel Betteredge sets the scene and introduces characters. Mathew Bruff’s lawyerly account moves the action along factually and quickly. Rosanna Spearman’s letter creates a peak of emotional intensity. The overall effect is to call into question the reliability of any one narrator’s version of events. Truth is elusive, although if everyone told what he or she knew, the solution to the mystery could be found close to home.
The excitement generated by The Moonstone boosted circulation of All The Year Round above the level set by Dickens’s Great Expectations. Critics praised the skillfully woven plot, the colorful characters, the high drama that kept readers in suspense to the last. But Collins was more than just “a master of plot and situation,” as T.S. Eliot once described him. His best work displays a depth of social and psychological insight that was extraordinary for his time or his genre.
Collins’s novels are peopled with the outcasts of society—ex-prisoners, servants, addicts, the ugly, and the deformed—portrayed in all their humanity, often with greater color and sympathy than the heroes and heroines. Ever a rebel against social pretension, Collins once skipped a formal dinner party to which he had been invited in order to put on casual clothes and stand with the laborers watching the festivities from the street. “In the course of a long experience of Society I never enjoyed a party half as much as I have enjoyed this,” he recalled. The same note of social defiance rings in The Moonstonewhen Rosanna, despite her class, her physical handicap, and her prison record dares to love and hope for love from the well-heeled hero of the story, Franklin Blake, in competition with the beautiful and wealthy Rachel Verinder. “Suppose you put Miss Rachel into a servant’s dress and took her ornaments off?” Rosanna challenges.
Throughout Collins’s fiction, appearances and ornaments mask a darker reality. The respectable middle-class home hides unspeakable secrets. Wealth is rooted in plunder or deceit. Gossip parades as piety, embezzlement as charity. People are not who they appear to be. Reality is built on shivering, shifting sand. In many ways Collins is a master magician, using his craft to keep our rapt attention on the unfolding drama while revealing, with a sleight-of-hand, the mysteries that lie just beneath the surface of our ordinary lives.
Born in London in 1824, William Wilkie Collins grew up in the company of artists and writers. Naming their son after his godfather, the popular artist Sir David Wilkie, the Collinses counted Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth among their acquaintances. Collins’s father, a respected landscape artist, was hardworking and intensely religious, though probably not as severe as the ostentatiously pious Christians that Collins would later lampoon in his fiction.
When he began attending private school at age 11, Wilkie was a good student but not a happy one. Small and clumsy, he was an easy victim for bullies. But he would later credit one of his boyhood tormentors with cultivating his narrative powers. The captain of his dormitory, a “great fellow of eighteen,” was fond of hearing stories at night. As Wilkie later recalled: “On the first night, my capacity for telling stories was tested at a preliminary examination—vanity urged me to do my best—and I paid the penalty. . . . I was the unhappy boy appointed to amuse the captain from that time forth. If I rebelled, the captain . . . ordered me to be brought out in words I have never forgotten: ‘Bring Collins out to be thrashed.'”
The brutality of his education was mercifully interrupted by a two-year family trip to Paris and Italy that was a great revelation for the boy. Liberated from the blinders of his parents’ earnest religiosity, Collins reveled in the spicy food, the street life, the horse races, the opera, and the gaudy splendor of Catholic churches. What he learned in Italy seemed more valuable to him than all of his schooling. His return after the trip to an English boarding school was so miserable that his family withdrew him at age 17.
Apprenticed by his father as a clerk for a tea company, Collins showed little interest in commerce, preferring to spend office hours writing poems and plays. He was released from the apprenticeship and sent for legal training in London, but the law, too, was to serve primarily as grist for the literary mill rather than a means of earning a living. When his father died in 1847, Collins kept a promise he had made to write his biography, which received good reviews and was even a modest financial success. Encouraged by the experience, he published a novel set in ancient Rome and a travel book before he met the man with whom he would achieve widespread literary success.
Collins met Charles Dickens when performing in an amateur production of the play Not So Bad As We Seem in 1851. (Dickens, already one of England’s most popular authors, was both director and lead actor, while Wilkie played the part of his valet.) As a director Dickens was a notoriously tough taskmaster, but when rehearsal was over he had an equally inexhaustible taste for recreation. In Collins he found his equal for both work and play. Collins had inherited his father’s Herculean work ethic and attentiveness to the craft of his art, but like Dickens had rebelled against moral prudishness. Within a few years the two writers were companions on an acting company tour, a journey to Switzerland and Italy, and visits to the music halls and brothels of London’s Haymarket. Collins became one of the most hardworking and reliable contributors to Dickens’s Household Words and was soon appointed one of the its editors. It was for this magazine’s successor, All the Year Round, that Collins wrote the novels that made his reputation.
Their personal lives became even more intertwined when Wilkie’s brother Charles married Dickens’s youngest daughter Kate. Eventually the marriage would strain relations between the two men, for Dickens came to see Charles Collins as weak and the marriage as loveless. Wilkie Collins’s household arrangements were another source of contention, since Dickens disapproved of his relationship with Caroline Graves. It seems to have been a loving relationship, for Collins defended it openly against the harsh criticism of family and friends, doted on Caroline’s daughter, and looked after them his entire life, even after she left him to remarry. His passionate opposition to the institution of marriage made him an outcast in “good society,” but for a man who detested the social rituals of the elite as much as formalistic displays of organized religion, it was not an entirely unwelcome exile.
The year 1868 marked both the height of Collins’s literary powers and the beginning of his decline. With the serial publication of The Moonstone, Collins’s monthly following reached, by some estimates, half of London’s population. But as he describes in the book’s preface, the painful gout and the opium required to relieve it were taking an increasing toll on his health. Caroline left him in that same year, probably because he had begun seeing Martha Rudd, a dark, strong-minded, working-class girl who would become the mother of his three children but never his wife. His last collaboration with Dickens, a work entitled “No Thoroughfare” for the Christmas issue of All The Year Round, was published in 1868 as well, just two years before Dickens’s death. Although Collins lived twenty more years and published nineteen more books, their increasingly moralistic tone showed only glimmers of his former mastery.
Collins died in 1890 and divided his estate equally between Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd.
The Woman in White