Many years ago, I was in crisis. As a result of university, I had come to hate reading, an experience all too familiar to those who study literature. What saved me was picking up an unfashionable Victorian novel in a bookshop: Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860). A short way into its opening, in which the hero Walter recounts how, returning from his mother’s cottage in Hampstead he is accosted from behind by a mysterious and terrified young woman in white, assists her, then learns that she has escaped from an asylum, I was gripped. The story, filled with vivid characters, satirical observation and a captivating mystery returned to me the powerful pleasures of fiction, and eventually enabled me to become a novelist myself.
Collins – who turns 200 years old this month – was the creator of what TS Eliot called “the first and best detective novel” in 1868’s The Moonstone. Every subsequent writer in this genre, from Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers to Abir Mukherjee and Mick Herron is indebted to his instinct for meticulous plotting and psychological complexity. Equally enthralling, The Woman in White has been transmuted (with a lesbian riff) into Sarah Waters’s best-selling ingersmith, which in turn inspired the erotic Korean film The Handmaiden. The Moonstone, which outsold his close friend and collaborator Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, is the foundation for Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart novels. However, his influence is even more widespread.
As the UCL professor and author of The Artful Dickens John Mullan says, Collins “is simply one of the most influential of all English novelists” because he invented the genre to which contemporary audiences of film and television as well as literature, are addicted. Today, we are accustomed to television cliff-hangers, body doubles, gaslighting, adultery, secret identities and murder: essential components of the place where, as Mullan puts it, “genre fiction and literary fiction overlap”. The psychological thriller is the thinking person’s entertainment of choice. Yet this very popularity also suggests why the leading exponent of what the Victorians called the ”sensation” novel is not as esteemed as he ought to be.
Punch magazine in 1863 described sensation fiction’s purpose as “Harrowing the Mind, Making the Flesh Creep, Causing the Hair to Stand on End… and generally Unfitting the Public for the Prosaic Avocations of Life.” Some, such as Bulwer-Lytton were even more brutal, describing Collins’s work as “trash”. The Victorian public, however, went wild for Wilkie’s work, and there was Woman in White perfume and the Woman in White dance. Even the zenith of the literary or “emotion” novel, Henry James, saw his originality, writing in The Nation in 1865: “To Mr Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.”
Many still believe, like Jane Austen’s Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, that bad things cannot possibly happen in England, and even suggesting that they might is somehow bad form in a literary work. Yet it is my contention that almost all the fiction that lasts does so because it combines the “sensational” with the “emotional” genre, and that Collins, like Dickens, does both.
It is easy to overlook how brilliantly his best fiction is written. He did not write in a single style that we recognise as “Collinsian”, in the way we instantly recognise Dickensian. Instead, his two best novels give each narrator a different and distinctive tone, vocabulary, and attitudes; others, like Armadale, are formally inventive in including letters and diaries as well. Collins conceals his own feelings and opinions, but we as readers must deduce the truth from a series of contradictory stories. Which of the narrators of The Moonstone – servant, solicitor, gentleman, apothecary, police detective – can we trust? Is Count Fosco in The Woman in White, a devil or benign?
It’s no surprise that Collins, like Dickens, was fascinated by doubles and contradictions. A strikingly un-Victorian Victorian, he never married but kept two households for two mistresses, and was one of the few to whom Dickens confided his love affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. He was also one of the first to hear of Dickens’s death in 1870, and his anguished scrawl to the family at Gad’s Hill can be seen in the exhibition Mutual Friends, at the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury (until February 25) which explores Dickens and Collins’s unique relationship as friends, collaborators and in Dickens’s case, publisher.
Despite Wilkie being 12 years younger than the famous Dickens, the two men became fast friends in 1851 due to their mutual passion for theatricals. Appearing in an amateur production of Bulwer-Lytton’s comedy, Not So Bad As We Seem, Dickens took the lead role of Lord Wilmot, and Collins played his valet. Queen Victoria was amused by it, and from 1852, Collins began to contribute to Dickens’s journal Household Words and its successor All the Year Round, producing stories and articles for an annual payment of £275 over five years (about £37,485.89 in today’s money). He was eventually put on a salary of five guineas a week when he joined the editorial staff after nearly five years.
Collins never missed a deadline, even when bedridden by gout. A charming man, he was loved by all.
“He is not put out by small matters… gets on very well everywhere, and is always in good spirits”, Dickens wrote in a letter to his wife Catherine. They enjoyed walking, and before long were taking holidays together by the sea and around Europe. Collins had experienced a far more cosmopolitan childhood than Dickens, thanks to his artist father taking the family to Rome (where, according to his boast, he lost his virginity aged 12 to a woman three times his age). On one holiday, according to Peter Ackroyd’s biography, they even even entered into a moustache-growing contest together (Dickens’s luxuriant, Collins’s “as scanty as the eyebrows of a child”). Their families were joined when Collins’s brother Charles married Dickens’s daughter Katie.
On other matters, however, they could hardly be more different. Collins hated religion; Dickens supported conventional Christian feeling. Dickens wanted perfect neatness and order; Collins was irritatingly messy, according to his friend’s letters. Dickens extolled the domestic and had ten children by his wife Catherine; Wilkie had just three by his two mistresses and “despised the claptrap morality of the present day,” as he puts it in Armadale. But when Collins produced his best-selling The Woman in White, and was given a contract for £5,000 for the next – a sum that no other living novelist save Dickens had ever received and which enabled Collins to leave Dickens’s employment – there was no apparent envy.
Unfairly overshadowed today by Dickens, Collins was more than a writer of melodramas. His ability to place his tales in a landscape is striking, and painterly – who can forget the handicapped maidservant Rosanna in The Moonstone describing her vision of the Shivering Sand (a stretch of quicksand on the Yorkshire coast) “as if it had hundreds of suffocating people under it – all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful deeps!” Collins gives dignity and agency to a character whom one suspects would have been sentimentalised by Dickens. Equally, the eponymous Woman in White, whose distressed appearance on the Hampstead Road at the start of the novel presages its themes of lunacy and innocence, is given pathos as well as horror. We feel these creations as more than mere puppets. It is my contention, as a writer of literary fiction with plot, that his work points the way for the novel to regenerate as something that feeds both the heart and the mind.
Collins was also very funny, as the critic Nicholas Lezard points out. When Walter Harcourt’s patron in The Woman in White recoils at the young drawing master being described as a genius: “We don’t want genius in this country unless it is accompanied by respectability,” it still elicits laughter. His characters are, variously, obsessed by Cap Ribbons, Robinson Crusoe and being cosmopolitan. Showing a story through the facets of very different characters gives his novels a diamond-like sharpness and was an original literary device of real artistic and psychological merit.
To read a Wilkie Collins novel is to confront received opinions. The enormous yellow diamond or Moonstone, ripped by a thieving British officer from the forehead of a Hindu god and brought back to England, has disquieting echoes of the ever-topical battle over the Elgin Marbles belong to Greece or Britain. Collins’s novel is also notable for being fair-minded towards its Indian characters in pursuit of the jewel. It is clear from the plot that Collins himself respects the Brahmin priests’ tenacity, courage and self-sacrifice. Ultimately, the Moonstone is returned to its rightful place on the statue’s forehead back in India: an unusual twist, given the prevailing attitudes of the 1860s. (Dickens, outraged by the Indian Rebellion of 1857, once wrote that he wished to “exterminate the Race… blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth”).
True, Collins does not write miraculous sentences like Dickens, but his plainer prose and empathetic sensibility is far closer to our own. When he begins The Woman in White with “This is a story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve”, it is not as resonant as “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but you know that what follows will be
absorbing. No snob, his heroes and heroines are not only drawn from the middle class but are servants, nurses and policemen. Several of his characters are disabled, yet treated to a full interior life – unlike Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. His women are strikingly strong, witty and intelligent. The ostensible heroine of The Woman in White is the pretty, feminine Laura, but it is her half-sister Marian, so “masculine” that she has “almost a moustache”, who steals the show. Collins’s heroine in Armadale (1866) is a murderess, and works such as The New Magdalen (1873) show sympathy for the “fallen woman” whom Victorian readers were supposed to despise. These were risky and radical choices.
Dickens’s work remains a touchstone of greatness for readers and writers alike. But Collins, alongside his utterly compelling stories, had an artist’s ability to show, rather than tell, his readers about the variety and complexity of the human condition. In the bicentenary of his birth, it’s high time he is given his due.