Spotlight On: Wilkie Collins

Hi everyone,

Today I’m writing another one of my “Spotlight On:…” series. If you want to, you can check out my other posts on: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, and Mary Shelley.

As always, the blog post will be divided into 6 different parts.

1. A little bit about their life

2. Their works I have read

3. Their works I am yet to read

4. Great film/TV adaptations based on their works

5. Quotes

6. An author biography recommendation

So without further ado…


A Little Bit About Their Life

William Wilkie Collins was born on 8th January 1824 on Cavendish Street in Marylebone, London. He was the eldest son of two. His father, William Collins, was a landscape artist and member of the Royal Academy, and his mother, Harriet Gedes, was a former governess. Wilkie Collins was named after David Wilkie, a Scottish painter who was also his godfather.

Wilkie Collins spent one year at Maida Hill Acadmey and then moved to Italy with his family from 1837-1838. Whilst there, the family visited Rome, Naples, Sorrento to see the archaeological ruins and museums. The Collins family returned home and Wilkie was enrolled at a school in Highbury from 1838-1841. Wilkie Collins was bullied by his schoolmates into telling stories at night.

At the age of 17, Wilkie Collins started work with a tea merchant called Edward Antrobus whose shop was located on The Strand in London. The Strand was a haven for all sorts of different characters heading into the law courts, the theatres, the pubs and the newspaper editorial offices. This provided Wilkie with a lot of material to begin writing articles and short stories. His first article The Last Stage Coachman was published in Illuminated Magazine in 1843.

In 1846, Wilkie Collins became a law student at Lincoln’s Inn. He was called to the bar in 1851 though he never actually practiced law.

Collins first novel, Iolani, was rejected and did not resurface again until 1995. His second novel, Antonina was only one-third of the way finished when his father died. After his father death, he started to write a biography of his father’s life. This two-volume biography was published in 1848 and began his popularity in the literary world.

1851 marked the start of his friendship with Charles Dickens. Dickens was believed to have acted as a mentor, supported and colleague of Collins’. According to scholars of Victorian literature, Dickens and Collins influenced one another and even co-wrote several short stories. Dickens supported Collins by publishing some of his stories. Under Dickens’ influence, Collins developed a talent for characterisation and humour, while Dickens learnt suspenseful plot from Collins. Though Collins was always called William or Willie as a child, as he rose in popularity in the literary world he became known as Wilkie.

Wilkie Collins is often known as the creator of the “sensation novel” – a hybrid of domestic fiction, melodrama, sensational journalism and gothic romances. Plots often contained elements of bigamy, identity fraud, theft, drugs… all set within a middle-class setting. The Woman in White (1860) is perhaps the most famous sensation novel. Other practitioners of the sensation novel include Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Reade and Ellen Price Wood. Among his most successful subsequent books were No Name (1862), Armadale (1866), and The Moonstone (1868). A master of intricate plot construction and ingenious narrative technique, Collins turned in his later career from sensation fiction to fiction with a purpose, attacking the marriage laws in Man and Wife (1870) and vivisection in Heart and Science (1883).

Wilkie Collins never married and it is often speculated that Charles and Catherine Dickens’ unhappy marriage influenced this. In the mid-1850’s, Collins began to live with Caroline Graves who left him in 1868 when she realised that Collins would never marry her. Graves went and married someone else. Whilst Graves was away, Collins became involved with Martha Rudd, a former servant. Rudd was 19 years old and Collins was 41. Together they had three children: Marian, Harriet Constance and William Charles. The children were all given the surname “Dawson” as Dawson was the name he gave when buying his house. He often referred to them as his “morganatic” family – meaning the family members of a lower rank had no claim to the possession or title of the family member of a higher rank.

By this time, Collins was addicted to laudanum which features as a plot point in many of his novels, most notably in The Moonstone (1868). He travelled extensively throughout Europe and lived a very luxurious life.

Over his lifetime, Collins wrote 30 novels and over 50 short stories, some of which were published in magazines edited by Charles Dickens. He died in London on 23rd September at the age of 69 after suffering a stroke. After his death, sensationalism lost popularity. However, scholars often credit Collins and sensationalism with the re-imagining of the Victorian family amidst the social and political upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. He commonly wrote strong women who overcame everyday injustices, and developed plot devices that next-generation authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle would adapt for their mystery genre.

T.S Elliot said that Collins was the “first and greatest of modern English novelists”.


Their Works I Have Read/Their Works I Am Yet To Read

Of Wilkie Collins’ works the only books I have read are: The Woman in White and No Name. I haven’t read The Woman in White for quite a while now so I’ll definitely be looking at re-reading soon as well as reading some of his popular works for the first time like The Moonstone, Armdale, Jezebel’s Daughter, The Dead Secret, The Haunted Hotel…


Great Film and TV Adaptations

I remember watching a 2018 BBC adaptation of The Woman in White starring Ben Hardy, Jessie Buckley and Olivia Vinall and I loved that! Besides that one adaptation I haven’t seen many others but if you do have any recommendations then please let me know!


Quotes

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”
“No sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with a woman.”

“The best men are not consistent in good—why should the worst men be consistent in evil?”

“Let the music speak to us of tonight, in a happier language than our own.”

“We had our breakfasts–whatever happens in a house, robbery or murder, it doesn’t matter, you must have your breakfast.”

“There are three things that none of the young men of the present generation can do.They can’t sit over their wine;they can’t play at wist;and they can’t pay a lady a compliment.”

“My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.”


A Biography Recommendation

If you would like to read more about Wilkie Collins’ life and his wonderful books, I would recommend Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd and Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett.


Thanks for reading!

Love, Zoë xx


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