Books: The man who couldn't go to dinner

The letters of Wilkie Collins have been collected for the first time, and they reveal more about his digestion and his boils than his mysterious love life

The Letters of Wilkie Collins

eds William Baker and

William M Clarke

2 Vols, Macmillan pounds 95

The Victorians were passionate observers of their own bodies. Charles Darwin kept a detailed account of his chronic flatulence, logging his farts and digestive lurches in a neat ledger. Gerard Manley Hopkins used symbols in the margin of his diary to record moments when thoughts of Harry Ploughman's inscape moved him to acts of beastliness. The newly collected letters of Wilkie Collins reveal the author of The Woman in White as a man who turned his sickly constitution into a body of work in itself.

To Mrs W P Frith, declining a dinner invitation: "My native climate has made me so `bilious' that I can hardly see. My eyes are yellow, my head aches and the doctor positively forbids dinner today." To Mrs Elizabeth Benson, making similar excuses: "I am stabbed every night at ten with a sharp-pointed syringe which injects morphia under my skin - and gets me a night's rest without any of the drawbacks of taking opium internally." To his friend, Charles Ward, in a letter that begins with a request for the loan of a fiver: "I have been suffering torments with a boil between my legs, and write these lines with the agreeable prospect of the doctor coming to lance it. I seem destined, God help me!, never to be well."

Collins's collected letters have been a long time coming - he is the last Victorian literary heavyweight to have his correspondence published. This tardiness is a product of the recency of his critical rehabilitation. Before the 1980s, few academics took him seriously, and much of his fiction was out of print. These days, he's considered a sexy subject (despite the lumpy cranium and frizzy facial hair) and nearly all of his novels are back on the railway bookstands.

His fictions act upon the bodies of their readers: their high-impact plots aim to make you catch your breath, to make your heart pound faster, to offer you a troublingly morbid form of narrative pleasure. Their protagonists frequently suffer from strange ailments: Oscar Dubourg in Poor Miss Finch (1872) is an epileptic who turns himself blue by drinking silver nitrate; Robert Mannion in Basil (1852) has his face disfigured when the hero slams it into an unmade gravel road; Miss Dunross in The Two Destinies (1876) suffers from "a morbidly sensitive condition of the nerves near the surface to the action of light". (She confines herself to a darkened room, comforted only by her harp and the cats who dance about on their hind legs whenever she plays upon it.)

Much to the delight of anyone who likes to make pat comparisons between a writer's life and art, this pathological emphasis is taken up by the Letters. Not simply through their continual return to their author's "rheumatic gout", laudanum addiction, indulgence in "electric" baths and predilection for the therapeutic mesmerism of his feet, but because they form an account of his somatic, rather than his intellectual life.

There's little of that bluestocking boastfulness that you find in, say, the private papers of George Eliot. If Collins ever read six works of German critical theory before breakfast, he kept it to himself. Instead, his tone is much more earthy and Flaubertian. He enthuses about his collection of dirty postcards; he whoops up his own financial success; he barrages his correspondents with accounts of his adventures, agonies and appetites - clearly delighting in taking a louche, flirtatious tone with his female correspondents.

Most extraordinarily, perhaps, we can read, for the first time, his mischievously mock-amorous correspondence with a teenage girl named Annie le Poer Wynne, with whom - care of the GPO - he lived out a peculiar fantasy marriage: "No - I have not written about a murder in a cab. But if one of your young men (of whom I am jealous) should get murdered in a cab, I shall be interested in hearing of it."

Even his letters to his mother share this tone. One includes a casual description of a visit to gawk at Parisian corpses ("a dead soldier laid out naked at the Morgue; like an unsalable codfish"); another contains a length of smutty doggerel - "The virgin, She lept from her bed, / As solemn as usual, (confound her!) / With her nose looking devilish red, / And chemises by dozens around her."

Collins's candour, however, has strict limits. The two most important women in his life, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd - with whom he carried on an unconventional menage-a-trois for most of his adult life - are rarely alluded to in the extant letters. The editors, William M Clarke (who is married to Collins's great-granddaughter by Rudd) and William Baker, must content themselves with picking over odd references to his "morganatic" family, and his "womankind".

Despite this area of silence, the value of this collection is immense to anyone with a serious interest in Collins's work. There are, however, odd errors that should be corrected in any future edition. For instance, Baker and Clarke have misread the phrase "transpontine theatre" - a common Victorian euphemism for one of the rowdy melodrama houses on the south bank of the Thames - as "transpositive theatre", whatever that may mean. And there is a scattering of misspelt names.

Many of Collins's novels fantasised themselves as bundles of documents. The Woman in White and The Moonstone, for instance, appear as assemblages of letters, diaries, legal statements and prescriptions archived by their protagonists. The Letters seem to pursue the same process in reverse: They are a cache of disconnected papers which, under the editorship of Baker and Clarke, produce a narrative of their author's agonies, anxieties and pleasures. A body of work, with Collins's body as its central subject: a fleshly, desiring, unruly presence, drooling over dirty postcards, wracked in neuralgic agony, flirting whimsically with underage girls. Here he is, boils and all, embarrassingly human.

Matthew Sweet's new critical edition of `The Woman in White' is published by Penguin Classics in October

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