Double life, singular fiction

THE SECRET LIFE OF WILKIE COLLINS by William M Clarke, Alan Sutton Publishing pounds 9.99
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Like some literary Nimrod, Wilkie Collins brought the mysterious terrors of the Italianate Gothic down from the Alps and into the the drawing rooms and back kitchens of Victorian England. Behind closed suburban doors, scenes of the bizarre, the painful and criminal are played out in "the secret theatre of home". Instead of the crumbling castle, Collins's characters suffer their dark anxieties in the modern housing development, facing horrors in anonymous new buildings that sometimes turn out to be private lunatic asylums or vivisectories. Such scenarios were the source of the nervous sensations that his novels famously engendered in their contemporary readers, apprehensive pleasures that some commentators believed to be "unfitting the public for the prosaic actions of Life".

William M Clarke's revised edition of The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins juxtaposes the writer's unconventional domesticities with those staged within his fiction. The novels are rich with eccentric households: in The Woman in White (1859) Collins assembles a fraudulent aristocrat, an obese, mouse-fancying Italian count and a moustached lady under one roof; The Law and the Lady (1875) offers a disconcerting relationship between a cross-dressed female servant and the legless Miserrimus Dexter (who, when not leaping about on his hands, is careering around in his wheelchair claiming to be Napoleon); Poor Miss Finch (1872) features the widow of a South American republican, a blind heroine, a brutish German oculist and a pair of identical twins, one of whom has turned himself blue by drinking silver nitrate. Within these intensely odd domestic spheres, Collins constructs paranoid personal relationships through which secrets are obssessively concealed, told or discovered. The biographical details collected by Clarke are no less unheimlich.

Collins's first long-term relationship was with Caroline Graves, a young widow whom he claimed to have met at midnight in much the same circumstances as the hero of The Woman in White first encounters the ghostly Anne Catherick. Graves, the story goes, had been kept an unwilling prisoner in Regent's Park "under threats and mesmeric influence". She was soon sharing Collins's home. About ten years later, Collins was extending what he liked to call his "morganatic family", taking on on a second mistress, Martha Rudd, and installing her in Bolsover Street. At around the same time, Caroline left Collins to marry a young distiller, one Joseph Charles Clow. Collins and Rudd had two children, christened under the novelist's regular nom- de-plume of "Dawson", but the pair never married and, some two years later, Caroline abandoned her new husband and returned to Collins's official residence in Gloucester Place.

Clarke's marriage to Wilkie's great-granddaughter has allowed him access to anecdotal heirlooms with which he generates a warm fireside intimacy. Although the intimate specifics of the Collins-Graves-Rudd menage are irretreivably lost, Clarke does not abuse his privilege by engaging in fanciful second-guessing. Instead, he diverts his energies into evoking the opaque strangeness of their domestic history. Mulling over a million- pipe problem with persuasive authority, he colours these affairs with a vivid evocation of more solidly known areas of Collins's life: his agonising neuralgic illnesses and his addiction to laudanum (Clarke quotes Sir William Fergusson's after-dinner calculation that the novelist was taking enough of the drug to kill every one of the guests around his table).

Clarke avoids trite notions about the double standards of Victorian life, and in this he is winningly post-Foucauldian. He illustrates the domestic life of the Collins family - its legitimate and illegitimate members - with a generous understanding of the rituals of 19th-century propriety. (Generous, considering that his wife's family suffered badly from the novelist's unwillingness to make a legal commitment to Martha Rudd.) However, while Clarke sidesteps cliche in this strand of the story, his revisions take no account of the vast new body of scholarship on Victorian gender and sexuality that has emerged since the late Eighties. This academic project is partly responsible for a revival of interest in Collins's fiction, and certainly the fact that undergraduates are now working on his novels has assisted Alan Sutton's attempts to bring these texts back into print.

So while Clarke pulls a tight focus on the sexual plot of Collins's life, his conception of what that sexuality might constitute is troublingly ahistorical. From sound evidence, he makes a plausible suggestion that the young Wilkie became seriously infatuated with one of his mother's best friends. He makes a good case for a precocious sexual experience while on holiday with his family in Southern Italy. We learn of Collins's friendship with Sarony, king of 19th-century dirty postcards, to whom he confessed, "I think the back view of a finely formed woman the loveliest view." We are treated to Collins's back-slapping comments on the wedding night of his friend John Millais: "May he consummate successfully! And have the best cause in the world to lie late on Wednesday morning!" As if he's in the pub playing "Who's the Hardest Victorian Novelist", Clarke champions his subject's virility and continues with the wistful observation that "One can only marvel at his stamina in keeping his two women reasonably content."

It's a view of Victorian male sexuality that is decidedly less interesting than that offered in work by critics such as Elaine Showalter and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. One only has to read the memoir My Secret Life or Flaubert's account of his Egyptian brothelling holidays to register that the sexual tastes of 19th-century men were unrestricted by social attitudes that took until the time of the Wilde trial to crystallise. Men like Collins, argues Sedgwick, swashed about in a "rich agolagnia" of proclivities and mores. Moreover, it's a view that is offered by Collins's fictions themselves, narratives populated by characters involved in relationships that are are as difficult and transgressive as those in the novelist's life. While Clarke is content to reduce Collins's male companions to laddish drinking mates, Collins's narratives often focus on intense relationships between men. The conclusion of Armadale (1866) has the two male leads considering their future together, with the child-bride heroine firmly sidelined. In The Black Robe (1881), a young woman and a Catholic priest vie for the loyalties of a landed nobleman. Basil (1852) charts a rivalry between two men for the sexual possession of a 17-year-old girl. The eponymous hero marries her on the condition that the union remains unconsummated for one year. When young Margaret spends an adulterous night in a hotel room with Mannion, her father's confidential clerk, Basil listens to them through the wall of the next room, and then brutally disfigures Mannion by smashing his face into an unmade road. Margaret is forgotten, and the novel becomes an account of the obsessive relationship betwen these men, as Mannion is driven towards Basil by "something less earthly and apparent" than simple revenge.

These erotic ambiguities are key aspects of Collins's fictive method, and have contributed to his rehabilitation: it's a pity that Clarke has chosen not to bring such ambiguities into contact with events from Collins's biography (for instance, his late friendship with Wilde). Instead, he shys away from making a "literary judgement" on the fiction, and opts for contrasting the severely marshalled networks of the novels with a private life that was improvisational and misdirected.

Surprisingly, Clarke seems to lack a comprehensive insight into the fictional secret lives to which the title of his biography alludes. Family connections haven't prevented him from making annoying misreadings of Collins's texts. Some are niggling: he describes a central incident of Basil as taking place "on the top of an omnibus", when it clearly takes place down below. Others, however, are more major: Clarke misnames Collins's blindness-and- silver-nitrate novel as Poor Miss French. For literary acuity, Catherine Peters's biography The King of Inventors is much superior, effortlessly cross-referencing between the life and the art. While Clarke's errors reduce the authority of some of his insights, his enthusiasm for the puzzles in Collins's life makes some amends for his theoretical naivety.