One hundred and fifty years ago, The Woman in White was serialised in Dickens' periodical All the Year Round, following hot on the heels of A Tale of Two Cities. It was so successful that it helped raise circulation of the magazine from 38,500 to 100,000 a week, peaking at 300,000 over Christmas, and started a jittery mania for "sensation fiction", ensuring that society's nerve endings would be jangled more efficiently over the coming decades than the bells of St Paul's. Its author, the 35-year-old Wilkie Collins, bestrode with tiny feet and vast imagination a nightmarish gothic dystopia that was also recognisably modern Victorian England. In the well-papered living-room and behind the antimacassar lay the dark seething forces of madness, bigamy, poison and murder.
In 1859, society was hooked. Britain was all aquiver for Miss Marian Halcombe, literature's first hirsute heroine – evidently based on the (in the words of Henry James) "magnificently, awe-inspiringly ugly" George Eliot. It was nervously agog over the villainous traditore, Count Fosco, whose gaudy waistcoats spewed white mice. Though critics such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton sniffed that Collins wrote "great trash" ("for the back kitchen", added others), his followers were legion: Prince Albert was charmed, sending off copies as gifts, the poet Edward FitzGerald named his sail boat "Marian", William Gladstone cancelled a theatre engagement to continue reading, and Thackeray was mesmerised. A whole generation of felines from high and low rank were christened Fosco, and Oscar Wilde took it as his nickname some years later. There were Woman in White perfumes and Woman in White nighties. The new railway bookstores of WH Smith were piled high with gaudy "yellow-back" reprints to jangle the commuter's nerves on his way home from the office. Triple-decker editions were conveniently home-delivered by Mr Mudie's Circulating Library so that Victorian ladies could delight to the thought of midnight escape without having to leave the house. And doctors and critics debated the moral and physical effect of Collins' reckless "preaching to the nerves"; one Dr George Black prophesying increased menstruation as a side-effect.
But what of the life of the man who so thoroughly engaged society for two decades? If we consider his snobby establishment roots, we see that he wasn't much of a lawyer, nor much of a businessman and, by all accounts at the Royal Academy, nor much of a water colourist. However, he was every bit as much of an operatic character as those who peopled his novels. He has been named by successive generations a feminist, a Frenchie, a fornicator, a fop, a subversive, a drug addict and the bad boy of Victorian literature. Dickens' daughter said "he was as bad as could be". Dr Catherine Peters, his biographer, hints of secret Sapphic passion in Marian.
Collins was a bag of contradictions. He was not a conventionally attractive man. "Ordinary men could pick him up and carry him about like a child," according to his 1956 biographer, Nuel Pharr Davis. A bulge on the upper right of his head made him self-conscious, and his beard may have been an attempt to distract from the deformity. Gout and rheumatism plagued him. Indeed, his gout was so bad that his myopic eyes looked latterly like huge bags of blood. He hated religion and snobbery, yet he was not immune to the lure of fame. Though Dickens complained of Collins' immaturity and cheap ways upon their initial acquaintance, when he became successful Collins filled his cellar with fine wines, hired French cooks, donned camel-hair coats and pink shirts and established one of the most open households in London. It included two mistresses, Martha Rudd and Caroline Graves, and their respective offspring. Rumour has it that Caroline Graves inspired the Woman in White's famous opening when she ran screaming up to Collins in 1850 one dark north London night, having fled from a gentleman-fiend who supposedly had enslaved her with only the might of a kitchen poker and the power of hypnosis.
Although Collins holidayed in expensive resorts, he spent hours riding around in omnibuses, eavesdropping on conversations and scribbling notes on the "eccentricities of human nature". His Parisian perambulations and "nightly wanderings in strange places", many with his lifelong friend Dickens, and his reading of "immoral" French novels, lent him a literary largesse that was considerably at odds with buttoned-up English propriety.
However, by the 1880s, Collins' prodigious output was waning. His health was deteriorating and he was imbibing laudanum, or Mother Bailey's Quieting Syrup as it was known, in ever greater quantities. His laudanum-laced imaginings are evident in Poor Miss Finch, a novel about the love between an almost-blind girl who couldn't bear the idea of the colour blue and a man who stained his skin blue by drinking silver nitrate. But even when he was working on The Woman in White at the height of his creative powers, Collins was plagued by hallucinations. "I often used to take up my work a little before midnight and work into the small hours of the morning," he was quoted as saying in the Pall Mall Gazette in February 1888. "Then the most horrible monsters with green eyes, frightful fangs and lolling tongues, would meet me on the staircase and follow me to bed, not once, but night after night." Green monsters spring up all over the few contemporaneous accounts of Collins' life. They are one of the constants in the life of this literary enigma who kept few diaries, wrote few letters and whose descendants scorned him.
By 1889 he was dead, leaving an estate of only £10,000 and three illegitimate children. Friends tried to erect a memorial for him in Westminster Abbey but were unsuccessful after The Daily Telegraph and the Dean of St Paul's pointed out its unseemliness, given his eccentric private life. Many of his novels have faded into obscurity, but The Woman in White and The Moonstone remain cornerstones in the billowing narrative of Victorian fiction. Both are published by Vintage, and two new editions are being released to mark the 150th anniversary of the former's serialisation. One will be published in January as a Pocket Penguin Classic in a new series of "Victorian bestsellers"; the other, appropriately, will be serialised, this time in electronic form, by the Wilkie Collins Society, at womaninwhite.co.uk.
Collins influenced writers as diverse as Hardy, Conan Doyle and Du Maurier. Contemporary novelists such as Sarah Waters and Michael Cox have acknowledged his power. Though dispossessed hysterical heiresses and supernatural jewels may be dated, those blood-filled and myopic eyes of his proved far-sighted indeed. He took the measure of the immeasurable and parcelled out the dark forces of crime, death and desire as if he had a tape measure and a T-square. Nothing in the world was alien to him, and in what seemed most alien lay what was most truthful.
The Woman in White, By Wilkie Collins (Vintage Classics £6.99)
'...In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop... There, as if it had at that moment sprang out of the earth... stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white'
It's no mystery: Why Collins still appeals
"I first read The Woman in White when I was on a gap year, working as a temp at my father's office in Chichester. On my lunch break I lay down on the cathedral steps with the novel and was so drawn in that I returned to the office an hour late to my exasperated father. The Woman in White stands alone as a classic Victorian text. Everyone should read it at least once."
"Collins, Conan Doyle and Poe invented just about everything you need to make horror, mystery and detective fiction. Poe's work is more emotional, and Conan Doyle's work is so picked over by others that there's no inspiration there for me. But Collins has a taste for the grotesque. He's like a mash-up of Kate Greenaway and Edvard Munch. In his writings lie the beginnings of modernism."
"I read The Woman in White when I was 15; I borrowed it from the school library, one of those hardback Everyman editions with white covers and red lettering on the front and spine. I didn't want to give it back. I was horrified and thrilled by its nightmarish aspect – the way everything became possible behind closed doors."
"I was mesmerised by The Woman in White: its polyphonic structure was extraordinarily innovative, and Collins uses it so deftly to establish the personalities (and prejudices) of the different narrators; and the atmosphere manages to be creepy and uncanny. He provides a place where we can confront things that haunt us, but are seldom given expression: archetypal ideas (all those spectral nuns and headless women) that resonate deeply with our culture."
James Wilson is the author of 'The Dark Clue', which uses Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe to investigate a mystery involving JMW Turner
Dr Catherine Peters
"The Woman in White is a great mystery story, with suggestions of ghosts and the enduring fascination of 'domestic gothic'. Collins appeals to succeeding generations according to their preoccupations. In the 1920s-1930s, he was seen as a detective story writer; feminism claimed him as a champion of women; now there seems to be a return to ghosts, vampires and other aspects of the uncanny."
Dr Peters is the author of 'The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins' (Secker & Warburg, 1991)