Wilkie Collins, By Peter Ackroyd

 

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The Independent Culture

Wilkie Collins was not quite respectable. Nor is his literary legacy. As a novelist, he's best-known for The Woman In White (1860), a masterpiece of sensation fiction that spawned a host of lesser imitations, and The Moonstone (1868), one of the first and most influential detective stories. Genre fiction, perhaps - but neither book has ever been out of print.

In his private life, Wilkie Collins cultivated a bohemian disdain for the standard Victorian pieties. In his thirties, he set up house with a widowed shopkeeper, Caroline Graves, and her young daughter. He never married Caroline but, in every other way, he treated her as his wife and her child as his daughter. After a dozen years or so, he took up with Martha Rudd, a much younger and less ladylike woman, whom he set up in a parallel establishment to Caroline's and with whom he had three children. In a way, the two semi-secret households seem entirely appropriate for an author fascinated by what he once called "the secret theatre of the home".

To some extent perhaps Wilkie - everyone called him "Wilkie", even children - was reacting against the influence of his father, a desperately respectable professional artist. Wilkie, by contrast, liked nothing better than a jaunt to Paris with his friend and mentor Charles Dickens. He loved the good things of life, including cigars and very dry champagne. In this biography we glimpse him convalescing after a long illness with Dickens in Boulogne, where he was once discovered eating pâté-de-foie gras for breakfast.

Wilkie was born in Marylebone in 1824. At 17 he was apprenticed to a tea merchant but he found the work deadly dull. Later he read for the bar, or at least ate the requisite number of dinners to become a barrister. All this time he was writing fiction and journalism. Literary success came early, not least because of the patronage of "the Inimitable", Charles Dickens. But it was only in the 1860s, with The Woman In White and The Moonstone, that Wilkie became one of the most successful novelists of his day.

During the 1870s and 1880s, he continued to make a very good income. But much of his later work is overdependent on sensational effects and marred by a tendency to use the fiction as a vehicle for social issues. His own life, too, was blighted by mysterious illness, perhaps some form of arthritis, which led to dependence on laudanum. He died in 1889.

Peter Ackroyd has not set out to write a full-scale life. Nor does this book overturn the standard view: it contains little not covered in rather more detail in Catherine Peters's The King of Inventors, now more than 20 years old. Though Ackroyd provides a brief bibliography, the absence of source notes is a minor irritation.

That said, there's a great deal to like here. Ackroyd gives a brief but effective outline of Collins's life. He's unfailingly perceptive about Wilkie as a novelist, stressing not only the "genius for construction" but also the lifelong support of the underdogs of Victorian society: women, the poor and even the Indians who figure in The Moonstone. Ackroyd also makes a very good case why we should explore some of the lesser works as well as the two masterpieces. That, surely, is what a literary biography should do above all: send you back to the work.

Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'The Anatomy of Ghosts' (Penguin)

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