Book review: Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation, By Andrew Lycett

A biography that reveals the yin and yang of Victorian moral life – and a literary friendship
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Anthony Powell once suggested that the reason so many Victorians were so incorrigibly prim was that so many other Victorians were so horribly licentious. The high volume of black-coated non-conformist clergymen and child-quelling governesses at large in Victorian society was, he implied, a natural reaction to such highlights of the social calendar as Eton College's return from Paddington Station to its summer "half", when it was sometimes impossible to forge a path across the platforms to the waiting trains owing to the number of prostitutes.

The history of the mid-19th century Collins clan supports Powell's theory in excelsis. In certain lights it offers a kind of stereopticon treatment of the yin and yang of Victorian moral life: father a straight-laced, tract-reading painter of such pictures as Buying Fish at the Beach; son Wilkie (born in 1824) a tart-haunting, mistress-keeping, laudanum-quaffing pleasure-seeker, whose jaunts around the Continent with his fast friend Charles Dickens were attended by regular bouts of gonorrhoea.

If there was a prompt for this hereditary U-turn, it lay in Wilkie's introduction (courtesy of his unwitting papa) to the Bohemian artistic circles of the 1840s: one of his earliest exploits was to act as best man to his friend the artist Ned Ward, when the latter eloped with a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

Peter Ackroyd's miniature life, published last year, was charmed by its subject's grotesquerie: his supposed shortness (in fact five-feet-six was a respectable height for an early-Victorian; in Thackeray's Pendennis the hero's mother thinks her son a giant at five-feet-eight); the delicate hands and feet thought to be "rather like a woman's"; the nervous collapses that came on whenever there was a novel to finish.

Andrew Lycett, who has clearly laboured long among the historical context, is more exercised by the social and commercial changes of which Collins was able to take advantage, and in particular the rise of a crime-fixated, newly literate and often distinctly unliterary public that cleared a path for the "sensation" novels in which he came to specialise.

As Lycett adroitly shows, Collins tapped into a neurosis which lay at the heart of the Victorian moral project: the fear that amid so much outward prosperity and security lurked agencies and individuals who were not what they seemed. The man (and woman) pretending to be something else is a feature of Collins's novels and the veneer that separates "respectable" life from the brothel and the mad-house is sometimes horribly thin.

There were huge sums to be made by writers who ministered to these anxieties, and after one or two false starts Collins made a fortune out of The Woman in White (1860), for which the publisher George Smith offered £5,000, and The Moonstone (1868), while prudently keeping hold of his copyrights and writing light journalism on every topic from the width of crinolines to the rudeness of omnibus conductors.

Neatly written and diligently researched, Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation is not without its minor irritations. The blurb describes it as the first "fully-rounded portrait", which will be news to Catherine Peters, author of The King of Inventors (1991). Lycett also has a forgiveable habit of advertising his research: the trawl through the Garrick Club candidates' book is, you suspect, included merely to inform us that our sleuth has done the work.

Lycett's account of the celebrated Garrick Club Affair, in which Thackeray and Dickens went to war by means of their proxy, the muck-raking journalist Edmund Yates, is also slightly askew: Thackeray's real complaint was that, in writing about him in a society magazine, Yates had used information he could only have come across in the private sanctums of the club.

On the other hand, Lycett's subtle account of Collins's complicated dealings with Dickens, in which he accepted the role of protege while never allowing himself to be trampled underfoot, runs through the book. Dickens remarked that he "sometimes wants to give people too little for their trouble". Collins, who was once offered a job on Household Words at five guineas a week as an economy measure, may have thought the same.

DJ Taylor's new novel is 'The Windsor Factor' (Chatto & Windus)