Biography: Wilkie Collins, By Peter Ackroyd

One for you quiz-show compilers: What's neat, informative, but incorrigibly sedate?

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The Independent Culture

Only the other day, in a box in the study, I turned up a sheaf of cuttings snipped out of The Spectator in the days when Peter Ackroyd wrote its weekly novel review. Incendiary stuff they were, too, including a demolition of Erica Jong's How To Save Your Own Life, a glutinous sexual odyssey from 1977, which ended with the words: "The book is so open that it leaves a gaping hole. Where it is situated I leave you to guess."

Of course, Ackroyd doesn't write like that now – what 62-year-old could? – and the tone of item No 5 in his series of "short biographies", is incorrigibly sedate. "Thus is the web of London formed," he writes of the early peregrinations of the Collins family; "In the schoolboy community ... success is not necessarily applauded," he remarks of Collins's time at Maida Hill Academy; and the general effect is of an Oxford don of the 1850s who fears that in his latest set of versifyings young Mr Tennyson may have gone just a little too far.

Why write about Wilkie Collins? It takes only a chapter or two of this elegant miniature to establish that Ackroyd is charmed by his subject's grotesquerie – the 5ft 6in tall ladies' man whose hands and feet were considered to be "rather like a woman's", continually unwell and, when it came to finishing one of his novels, rendered prostrate by sheer nervous agitation. To this can be added his cosmopolitanism – the juvenile trips around Italy, the painting tours with his artist father – and a rather characteristic form of subterranean Victorian racketiness that declared itself in mistresses, illegitimate children, and London pleasurings.

Finally, there is his status as the friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens, for whom he laboured on Household Words and with whom he co-wrote the three-act melodrama The Frozen Deep. Dickens's only complaint was that "he sometimes wants to give people too little for their trouble". On the other hand, as a literary man about town of uncertain health, operating in a volatile marketplace, Collins's reluctance to put his hand in his pocket may perhaps be forgiven him. Driven, indefatigable, a prime beneficiary of the mid-Victorian mania for "sensation" – Thackeray stayed up all night to finish The Woman in White (1860) – he went to his death in 1889 "hyper-excited" by the progress of his current work.

For all its brevity, Wilkie Collins is at its best when it starts to digress: a couple of pages on the early history of the London bus, which Collins thought "a perambulatory exhibition room of the eccentricities of human behaviour"; much bracing detail on the consequences of laudanum poisoning. The dozen or so novels that nobody now reads are dutifully mined for supporting evidence, even if some of the connections fail to convince. Noting that Collins's mother was once a governess and, additionally, thought to be independent-minded, Ackroyd then offers a description of a governess in No Name, "a woman who looked capable of sending any parents in England to the right-about if they failed to rate her at her proper value", but this doesn't mean that the one had anything to do with the other.

Neat and informative as these 183 pages are, you wonder who exactly this kind of book – at once too slight for the academic and too recherché for the general reader – is aimed at. I asked an Ackroyd-fan what he thought, and got the answer "the compilers of Radio Four books quiz programmes". A worthy constituency, certainly, but rather exclusive.