Wilkie Collins by Andrew Lycett - review

21 September 2013 9:00 AM

A Punch caricature of Wilkie Collins, emphasising his sensationalism

In the outrageous 2010 press hounding of the innocent schoolteacher Christopher Jefferies over the murder of his young female tenant (of which a neighbour, Vincent Tabak, was later convicted and over which the guilty newspapers later shelled out punitive sums), the Sun produced, as suspicious facts, that Jefferies was ‘obsessed by death’, and ‘scared the kids’ in his classroom. He had, for example, exposed his pupils to the ‘Victorian murder novel’ The Moonstone.

As an English teacher at a high-ranked school, Jefferies would surely have prescribed my edition of Wilkie Collins’s novel— the only one, if I may toot my trumpet, to make comprehensive use of the manuscript. Pulp the edition, I thought with a shudder, before it kills again.

The Victorians believed that crime novels could, indeed, be crime-inducing things.  In 1840, the Swiss valet François-Benjamin  Courvoisier, slit the throat of his 70-year-old master, Lord William Russell. The motive was theft. The murderer was briskly tried, convicted and hanged outside Newgate prison on 6 July 1840. Forty thousand Londoners turned up to watch as the warm summer morning broke for the ‘Hang Fair’ (as such merry occasions were called). Also present were Dickens and Thackeray, who had bought themselves window views.  Why had he done it? Courvoisier pleaded it was a crime novel, Jack Sheppard, written by Harrison Ainsworth (a close acquaintance of Dickens and Thackeray), which had inspired him to homicide. It triggered a familiar English moral panic. Ainsworth’s novel, the papers thundered, was a ‘cut-throat’s manual’.

Such panics bubbled up through the century. It would be preferable, the Times said, to throw acid in a child’s face than for Zola’s filthy French fiction to be translated into English. The publisher, Henry Vizetelly, who had committed the dire offence against British decency, was sent to prison. The cruel sentence killed the decent old bookman.

It’s a ‘poisonous French novel’, Huysman’s À rebours, which corrupts Wilde’s Dorian Gray and drives him to murder and, worse than murder, sins that dare not speak their name. Hardy despaired of English fiction when his work was publicly burned by a bishop for its offences against the seventh commandment.


Wilkie Collins has a prominent place in the Victfict poison cabinet. Andrew Lycett quotes a wonderfully enraged critic of The New Magdalen who bluntly accused the author of ‘opening a recruiting office for prostitutes’. (The novel is about a fallen woman, Mercy Merrick, who atones by going as a nurse to the Franco-Prussian war, where she is shot and left for dead, but isn’t. Things get complicated thereafter.)

‘Sensation fiction’ — of which Collins was the living embodiment — carried within it a number of specifically Victorian meanings. It was called ‘fiction founded on fact’ — as topical as the morning’s newspaper. But it was also, with the high-impact narrative which, again, Collins perfected, a brutal assault on the senses. It was ‘nervy’ and made its readers nervous. ‘Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait’ was Collins’s slogan. ‘Edgy’ would be our word, as in ‘edge of the seat’.

Doctrinally it was a school of fiction which deliberately opposed ‘domestic’ fiction — the Thackeray-Trollopian stuff. ‘Domestic’, sneered Wilkie’s fellow sensationalist Charles Reade, came from the Latin for ‘tame’. The sensation novelists — ‘Dickens’s young men’ — were bohemian: outsiders and flagrant deviants from house-and-home sexual morality. When Dickens (with young Wilkie as his aide-de-camp) dumped the mother of his ten children in favour of an 18-year-old professional actress, he was merely behaving like the leader of his pack.

The little we know about Wilkie makes one hungry to know more. What we do know could fit inside a Christmas cracker. He was born the son of a distinguished, but second-rate, artist, and named after his godfather, the first-rate David Wilkie. Collins Sr was a religious crank and straitlaced. But the high art milieu gave Wilkie an open door to the morally relaxed bohemian world. After the usual false starts — painting (he was third-rate with brush and palette), the tea import business and law — he was sucked, as by magnetism, into Dickens’s orbit on his serial-carrying weekly newspapers, Household Words and All the Year Round. It was in the second he published his three masterworks: The Woman in White, No Name and The Moonstone.

Wilkie’s private life was beyond irregular but hermetically discreet. In his prime he ran in tandem a maîtresse-en-titre, in whatever fine apartments he was currently occupying, and, round the corner (where he was ‘Mr Dawson’) a working-class lass who humbly warmed his bed and bore his illegitimate children. He chose to be buried alongside the classier of his ladies.

Despite appalling health (about which Lycett is informative) Collins had a long and productive career, leaving some 30 novels for us to enjoy. All are good. Those he wrote between 1850 and 1870 are better than good.

Lycett’s style is familiar from his lives of Dylan Thomas, Ian Fleming, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle. What he offers are clean outlines, crystal clear English, and a clear-eyed picture of his subject, cap-a-pie. He’s a terrific narrator. Academics (I plead guilty) get lost in their footnotes and footling ‘discoveries’. Lycett keeps it simple — he’s the Hemingway of biographers.

This is not to deny that he offers new things. Wilkie’s early life (his mother is central) is told more fully than any other account I’ve read. He is sensitive, grown-up and unsensational on Collins’s drug habit, and its effects. The heart of the book is not Wilkie’s sex life (a lost cause; he covered his tracks too well) but his relationship with Dickens. Here again Lycett is freshly informative on their jaunts (principally to Paris), both of them ending up with doses of the clap and possibly syphilis for which treatments were punitively primitive (as the Victorians gloomily jested, ‘A night of Venus. A lifetime of mercury’).

Having read Lycett we understand more fully the complex relationship between the writers, and how they played off each other. Dickens, for example, hailed the moment in The Woman in White in which the hero first sees the spectral lady on night-time Hampstead Heath as ‘the second best scene in literature’. He didn’t say what the best was but, odds are, it was his recycling of Collins in the opening, graveyard, scene of Great Expectations. He also trumped Wilkie’s mad woman in white with his own mad woman in bridal white, Miss Havisham.

One sees Collins more clearly having read Lycett. There are cavils. Professor Dryasdust might complain, with a flurry of academic dandruff, that he hasn’t always looked at the manuscripts, and there are occasional minor errors. I’ll send my little nit-pickings to Mr Lycett via his publisher.  They don’t matter. What does matter is that this is a fine, and pre-eminently useful, biography of the most elusive character in Victorian literature.