Lost debut novel of Wilkie Collins in print at last

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THE LOST first novel of Wilkie Collins, one of the 19th century's most popular and influential writers, is to be published for the first time this spring. Iolani; Or, Tahiti As It Was, written by Collins when he was 20, is a gory historical romance about child sacrifice in Polynesia. The book will be published by Princeton University Press and is radically different from the crime thrillers for which Collins is best known - novels such as The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

Iolani was written in 1844 when Collins was apprenticed to Antrobus and Co, a company of tea merchants in the Strand. His letters indicate that he was not a model employee, since much of his writing was done during office hours. He submitted his exotic tale to several publishers, but the bloodthirsty subject matter was too much for conservative firms such as Chapman and Hall: "My youthful imagination ran riot among the noble savages," he recalled in 1870, "in scenes which caused the respectable British publisher to declare that it was impossible to put his name on the title-page of such a novel."

He locked it away and made no further attempt to get the story into print. But when his library was sold at auction after his death in 1889, Iolani was nowhere to be found.

For many years it was thought lost. Then, in 1991, it resurfaced in an antiquarian bookshop in New York. The story of how it got there is as complex as one of the novelist's own plots. It seems he gave the bound holograph to his friend Augustin Daly, an American theatrical impresario and an avid collector of such material. After Daly's death in 1899, it was sold for $23 to bookseller George D Smith, who re-sold it for $100 to a wealthy Philadelphia collector, Howard T Goodwin. He didn't live long to enjoy it. On his death in 1903, the manuscript was bought at auction by an amateur cricketer named James M Fox. It stayed in his family - but his relatives had little idea of its significance until they took it to a Manhattan bookseller, Glenn Horowitz, who put it on the market for them.

Iolani's new owners, who have released the text for publication, are insisting on remaining anonymous.

Professor Ira Nadel of the University of British Columbia has edited the text for publication. "It was a fabulous experience seeing the manuscript for the first time," he said. "I couldn't believe that this had just been sitting in a drawer for so many years.

"The first effort by any major writer is always crucial. You can see within it elements which are refined and developed in the later fiction. Just for the purposes of comparison, it's exciting to be able to see the first finished work by a novelist of his stature."

Iolani is also notable, Professor Nadel argues, for its unusual setting. "If you go back to early Dickens, for instance, his novels are set very much in a London world. From the first, Collins was interested in the exotic and the romantic."

In his later novels, these exotic elements were transplanted to Victorian England, which, in Collins's fiction, became an alien environment populated by poisoners, freaks and madmen.

In recent years, there has been a boom in Collins's critical stock. Nearly all of his fiction is back in print, and he is a firm fixture on university syllabuses. The Woman in White and The Moonstone have been adapted for BBC Television, and a film adaptation of his 1852 novel Basil, starring Christian Slater and Sir Derek Jacobi, is awaiting distribution.