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Man of mysteries

John Sutherland revisits the sensational world of Wilkie Collins, father of the detective story

3 March 2012

10:00 AM

3 March 2012

10:00 AM

Wilkie Collins Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp.199, 12.99

It was always William Wilkie Collins’s good luck — though in later life something of a humiliation — that he was dragged along on Dickens’s coat-tails — not least in this bicentennial ‘year of Dickens’. In December, the BBC will be showing a dramatisation of The Moonstone. T. S. Eliot (no less) called that tale of theft, somnambulism, Scotland Yard, opium and wily Indian thugs ‘the first and best of detective novels’. That, one imagines, would have elicited a snort of contradiction from the author of Bleak House, but the compliment is not far off the mark. Andrew Lycett is currently at work on a full-length biography and, in the meantime, Peter Ackroyd offers us this elegant extended essay between hard covers.

‘We shall probably never know anything about Wilkie except his dates of birth and death’ lamented the distinguished American biographer Gordon Ray. That we do know relatively little is measurable in the sizes of Ackroyd’s 1,000-page biography of Dickens and the less than 200 pages he manages to squeeze out of Wilkie’s longer life.

It was, by Victorian standards, a disreputable one. But he was careful to cover his tracks. His letters survive to furnish only a measly two volumes. His monument, he ensured, should be his 30 published works of fiction. Ackroyd restricts his discussion to 15 of these, on the wholly plausible grounds that many of the later ‘novels with a purpose’ are not much good. As, indeed, they are not.

The outlines of the life are familiar enough, although the anecdotal evidence on which every biography of Collins depends for colour and detail is shaky. He was born the son of a second-rate Royal Academician, from whom he inherited his first forename, and was known as Willie throughout his childhood. His second name was in honour of a better artist, David Wilkie, who was a family friend (and his godfather). In his twenties he chose to be ‘Wilkie Collins’ tout court — a small, but telling, Oedipal act. William Collins was a very moral man.
Wilkie was a happy child, except when at school, and the formative event in his life was the two-year period he spent with his family in Italy. He told Dickens that he lost his virginity in Rome at the age of 13. True or false, the Italian experience confirmed a lifelong distaste for English institutions (most spectacularly that of marriage).

He was, in the term favoured by the Dickens circle, ‘bohemian’. But, nonetheless, a cunning bohemian: the research for his later novels was done in the library of the Athenaeum. Of the many fascinating dark patches in Collins’s life those one would like to know most about are the jaunts he and Dickens took to Paris. They did not, one presumes, linger too long in the Louvre.

After false starts in the tea-importing business and the law Wilkie came under Dickens’s wing; first as a hack on the Great Inimitable’s Household Words, then as a novelist. In the way of patrons, Dickens came to resent his apprentice’s runaway success after The Woman in White (Miss Havisham—the character he devised a year later — is clearly a demonstration of how women in white should be done by masters of the craft).

Collins may or may not have first met Caroline Graves as a spectral woman in white on Hampstead Heath. The story is a good one, but like much else in his life, dubious on close inspection. Caroline would — in between her own entirely mysterious marriages — warm Wilkie’s bed for the rest of his life. Later on, Martha Rudd, a humble Norfolk girl, of whom little is known other than that she bore him three children, would also be incorporated into the Collins ménage. As Ackroyd drily observes, it was common enough for Victorian men to have a mistress, but to keep two on the go at the same time was precarious.

In middle age, the diminutive Collins (at 5’6” he was relatively short even by Victorian standards) was crippled with ‘rheumatic gout’ — a Victorian cover-all term which meant less than ‘colly-
wobbles’ and may well have been venereal. He upped his intake of laudanum to levels that would have killed other men,varying it with pints of champagne (‘refreshing’, he said). His eyes, after a particularly heavy binge, resembled ‘bags of blood’.

There is more relishable sex in Collins’s fiction than anywhere else in the period outside pornography. Topping the list, for me, in what critics of the time called his ‘foulness’ (while lapping it up) is the scene in Basil where a maddened husband listens through a thin wall to his wife (whom he falsely believes still virginal) being noisily diddled by the villain of the piece. There is also a charming preposterousness in Wilkie’s plots. Topping that list is the moment in Poor Miss Finch when the blind heroine recovers her sight, only to find that her lover (as a result of being dosed with silver nitrate, a Victorian remedy for epilepsy) has turned blue.

There is nothing new to be found in this book. What we are offered is that quality of Ackroydism which has always made him the most readable of writers. It opens with a portrait of Wilkie as vivid as if it had been done ‘from the life’. Ackroyd has a hawk’s eye for detail. He sees the future of detective fiction in the fact that Sergeant Cuff, in The Moonstone, wields a magnifying glass (I edited the novel, and missed that fine point).

Above all, it is Ackroyd’s feel for Victorian London which animates his text. He evokes the vulgar new terraces of Marylebone, and what it was like to reside in St John’s Wood when that name was not a misnomer. Many writers, of course, have a feel for place. None but Ackroyd, however, could convey it from the knifeboard (smoking deck) of a lurching, horse-drawn mid-Victorian London ‘omni’(bus).

The book is a pleasure, and will keep Collins where he has always been — just a little way behind Dickens.

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