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(William) Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)


English novelist and short story writer, whose unconventional private life and determination to tackle social issues disconcerted his contemporary audience. Many of Wilkie Collins' stories contain sympathetic portraits of physically abnormal individuals. Critics often credit Collins with the invention of the English detective novel. While he was aware of the work of Poe and Gaboriau, he restricted in the mainstream of Victorian domestic and social fiction. Sergeant Cuff from Collins' novel The Moonstone (1868) became a prototype of the detective hero in English fiction. Dorothy L. Sayers has called it "probably the very finest detective story ever written."

--"Good night, Mr. Betteredge," he said. "And mind, if you ever take to growing roses, the white moss rose is all the better for not being budded on the dog rose, whatever the gardener may say to the contrary!"
--"What are you doing here?" I asked. "Why are you not in your proper bed?"
--"I am not in my proper bed," answered the Sergeant, "because I am one of the many people in this miserable world who can't earn their money honestly and easily at the same time."

(from The Moonstone)

Wilkie Collins was born in London into an artistic family. His father was William Collins, a well-known landscape painter and a full member of the Royal Academy. Harriet (Geddes) Collins, his mother, was the daughter of a painter. Wilkie was named after the friend of his father, the famous genre painter Sir David Wilkie. His parents were a devoted couple, and young Wilkie grew with his brother in a secure household. However, Collins never outgrew his childhood sickliness, he was small and had a slightly deformed skull. One of his father's friends was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Collins was educated privately, he studied painting for several years. At the age of eleven he began attending school, but at the end of the year the family moved to Italy, where William Collins studied the old masters and experienced his first love adventure.

After nearly two years abroad, the family returned to England. With the help of his father, Collins found work in the office of a tea importer (1841-46). During this period he began to write fiction. Collins' first story, 'The Last Stagecoachman', which owed a lot to Charles Dickens, was published in 1843 in The Illuminated Magazine. "I do not follow my father's profession," he wrote to the American novelist R.H. Dana, and added, "I live very much in the society of artists."

Without much enthusiasm, Collins studied law at Lincoln's Inn, but worked industriously on his first novel, Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome (1850), a historical story in the manner of Bulwer Lytton. His major source was Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Only modestly successful, Collins abandoned the historical mode and decided appeal "to the readiest sympathies and the largest number of readers, by writing a story of our own times". At the age of 27 Collins became a lawyer. He never practiced law but put his legal knowledge to work in crime fiction. His father died in 1847 and Collins set aside other literary aspirations to publish his father's biography, which appeared in 1848. Basil (1852), published in three volumes by Richard Bentley, London, was Collins' first novel based on crime, mystery, and suspense. Though it was criticized as having "revolting details", Collins proved that he could become a popular novelist. Basil was reprinted in 1856. A revised edition, which involved over a thousand deletions, came out in 1862.

Collins started in 1851 his long friendship with Dickens, while they were pursuing a mutual interest in amateur theatricals. Inspired by the success of Dickens's Christmas books, Collins produced Mr Wray's Cash Box in 1852. A few years later he joined the staff of Dickens's Household Worlds, and collaborated with him on pieces for the magazine. Dickens helped Collins bring humour and believable characters into his books and with the elder author he worked closely on his early play, The Lighthouse (1855), loosely based on the short story 'Gabriel's Marriage'. Collins' brother Charles Allston married Dickens' daughter; he was a close associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In 1858 Collins met Caroline Graves, a widow, who was his life companion until his death; she died in 1895. Collins saw her first at a mysterious midnight encounter of which he made use in The Woman in White (1860). Caroline's daughter became his amanuensis. He also had relationship with Mrs Martha Rudd ("Mrs Dawson"), the daughter of a shepherd, whose three children Collins acknowledged as his own. By 1868 she lived in London as Collins' mistress, Caroline Graves lived with him as a "housekeeper." In 1868 Caroline married Joseph Clow, but returned to Collins within two years.

The enormously popular suspense thriller Woman in White appeared first in Dickens's periodical All the Year Round in 1859-60. Using a multivocal narrative, Collins imitated the presentation of testimony from a number of witnesses in a court case. The story revolves around the evil Sir Percival Glyde's plot to steal his wife's inheritance with the help of a sinister Italian, Count Fosco. Walter Hartright goes to Limmeridge House in Cumberland as drawing master to Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. He sees Anne Catherick on the night she left an asylum to which she had been committed by Sir Percival. Anne knows a secret about his past – his illegitimacy. Sir Percival burns the parish registry and is killed in the resulting fire. Laura has been committed to an asylum as Anne, but Walter restores Laura to her true identity. Like in Basil (or in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans) Collins had two opposite woman characters, one dark and one light.

No Name (1862) tells of a young woman learns that she and her sister are illegitimate and penniless after the death of their father, but she starts her countermove to regain her inheritance. Armadale (1866) was a story of fate, criminal fraud, and an attempted murder. Its anti-heroine Lydia Gwilt has been called "the first femme fatale in the modern sense."

In Moonstone, the first English detective novel, Collins created Sergeant Cuff, whose numerous traits would turn up in detective fiction for generations to come. '"I haven't much time to be fond of anything," says Sergeant Cuff." "But when I have a moment's fondness to bestow, most times... the roses get it."' (The Moonstone, 1868) Moonstone unfolds through the words of its various characters. Cuff interviews people at a country house to discover who stole a huge diamond that has a violent history. The plot includes also somnambulism and experiments with opium, Oriental magic, and three mysterious Hindus. By making the criminal a member of the same class as the victim, Collins challenged the idea, that criminal behavior of the lower classes threatened the peace of the middle class. The crime is committed by one of the investigators unknowingly under the influence of opium.

In the short story 'The Terribly Strange Bed', which opens in Paris, the narrator is nearly killed because of his own activities. Shortly after finishing his college education, he seeks excitement in one of the gambling houses but finds it too fashionable and enters an obscure gambling-room. He has incredible luck, he wins all the time, and drinks much champagne. Then he meets an old soldier, who advises him to sleep comfortably in the house, it is too late to go home. In his room upstairs he rests in a four-post bed, and remembers a picnic party in a Welsh valley, and a young lady who quoted 'Childe Harold'. "Of all the wonderful faculties that help to tell us we are immortal, which speaks the sublime truth more eloquently than memory?" In the middle of his recollections he sees that that the bed top is silently coming down. The canopy is a thick mattress and the whole bed a machine for secret murder by suffocation. He escapes, goes to the police, and in the end the villains are arrested. Collins fills the story with forebodings – the reader knows that the narrator's luck is not natural, that he should not trust the old soldier, and there is something wrong with the room.

"What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition? / Some demon whispered ' Wilkie! Have a mission.' " (Charles Swinburne, 1889)

Collins, who suffered severely from the rheumatic pains, became addicted to laudanum, a form of opium; it was used perhaps even more heavily by Thomas De Quincey or Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1873 Collins made a tour in the United States, where he met Mark Twain and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The death of Dickens in 1870 robbed Collins of a powerful mentor, and he became more interested in the theatre, which had been one of his passions from early on. Between 1871-73 three Collins plays were produced in the West End of London. The Woman in White was a commercial success at the Olympic Theatre, but Collins himself was not satisfied with his stage version, in which a 700-page novel was reduced into an 88-page play. Burdened by poor health, Collins continued to write in his final years. In The New Magdalen (1873) Collins attacked the attitudes to fallen women, The Evil Genius (1886) dealt with adultery and divorce. Collins died from a stroke on 23 September 1889. Never yielding to Victorian conventions, Collins had insisted upon a simple funeral in his will. His final novel, Blind Will (1890), which came out posthumously, was was finished by Walter Besant.

For further reading: Wilkie Collins: A Biography by Kenneth Robinson (1951); Wilkie Collins by Robert Ashley (1952); The Life of Wilkie Collins by Nuel Pharr Davis (1956); Wilkie Collind: the Critical Heritage, ed. by Norman Page (1974); Wilkie Collins: An Annotated Bibliography by Kirk H. Beetz (1978); Wilkie Collins: Women, Property, and Propriety by Philip O'Neill (1988); The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke (1988); The King of Inventors by Catherine Peters (1991); Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic by Tamar Heller (1992); Wilkie Collins to the Forefront, ed. Nelson Smith and R.C. Terry (1995); 'Wilkie Collins' by Audrey Peterson, in Mystery and Suspense Writers, Vol. 1, ed. Robin W. Winks (1998); Reality's Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins by Maria K Bachman, Don Richard Cox (2003) - Suom.: Wilkie Collinsilta on käännetty mm. kertomukset 'Naisen haamu eli mysterio neljässä kertomuksessa' (Kaunokirjallisuutta ulosannettuna G.W. Edlundin kustannuksella n:o 1, 1880), 'Erään perheen tarina' (A Marriage Tragedy, 1858, suom. teoksessa Kariston 50 pennin romaaneja n:o 28, 1914), 'John Jagon henki tahi kuollutko wai eläwä?' (John Jago's Ghost, 1874, suom. teoksessa Kaunokirjallisuutta ulosannettuna G.W. Edlundin kustannuksella n:o 3, 1880), 'Avioliittotragedia' (A Marriage Tragedy, 1858, suom. teoksessa Murha maaseudulla, toim. Thomas Godfrey, 1990), 'Kaksi tuntia elinaikaa' (Mystery Digest 5/1961), 'Kamala yösija' (A Terribly Strange Bed, 1852, suom. teoksessa Hyvää yötä n:o 2, 1935), 'Lainattu elämä' (Mystery Digest 1/1961), 'Täydellinen herrasmies' (Mystery Digest 4/1961)

Selected bibliography:

  • Memoirs of The Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A., 1848
  • Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome, 1850
  • Rambles Beyond Railways; or, Notes in Cornwall Taken A-Foot, 1851
  • Mr Wray's Cash Box, 1852
  • Basil: A Story of Modern Life, 1852
    - Film 1998, prod. Showcareer Limited Production, dir. Radha Bharadwaj, starring Jared Leto, Derek Jacobi, Christian Slater, Claire Forlani
  • Hide and Seek, 1854
  • The Holy-Tree Inn, 1885 (in collaboration with Charles Dickens)
  • The Lighthouse, 1855 (play)
  • After the Dark, 1856
  • The Wreck of the Golden Mary, 1856 (in collaboration with Charles Dickens)
  • The Dead Secret, 1857
  • The Frozen Deep, 1857 (play; in collaboration with Charles Dickens)
  • The Two Apprentices, 1857 (in collaboration with Charles Dickens)
  • The Queen of Hearts, 1859
  • The Woman in White, 1860
    - Valkopukuinen nainen (suom. Aukusti Airanne, 1907; Hannes Korpi-Anttila, 1955)
    - Films: 1912, starring Marguerite Snow, James Cruze and William Garwood; 1912, starring Alexander F. Frank, Viola Alberti and Charles Perley; The Dream Woman, 1914, dir.Alice Guy, starring Fraunie Fraunholz and Claire Whitney; Tangled Lives, 1917, dir. J. Gordon Edwards, starring Genevieve Hamper, Stuart Holmes and Robert B. Mantell; 1917, dir. Ernest C. Warde, starring Florence La Badie, Richard Neill and Gertrude Dallas; Twin Pawns, 1919, dir. Léonce Perret; 1929, dir. Herbert Wilcox, starring Blanche Sweet, Haddon Mason and Cecil Humphreys; Crimes in the Dark House, 1939, dir. George King, starring Tod Slaughter, Hilary Eaves, Sylvia Marriott, Hay Petri; 1948, dir. Peter Godfrey, starring Gig Young, Eleanor Parker, Sidney Greenstreet; Kvinna i vitt, 1949, dir. Arne Mattsson, starring Margareta Fahlén, Georg Løkkeberg and Eva Dahlbeck; TV series 1966, starring Alethea Charlton, Jennifer Hilary and Louis Mansi; Die Frau in Weiß, TV mini-series 1971; La donna in bianco, TV mini-series 1980, dir. Mario Moroni; Zhenshchina v belom, 1982, dir. Vadim Derbenyov; TV mini-series 1982, starring Diana Quick, Ian Richardson and Jenny Seagrove; TV drama 1997, dir. Tim Fywell, starring Tara Fitzgerald, Justine Waddell and Andrew Lincoln
  • No Name: A Novel, 1862 (illustrated by John McLenan)
  • My Miscellanies, 1863
  • No Name, 1863 (play)
  • Armadale: A Novel, 1866 (with twenty illustrations by George H. Thomas) 
  • Armadale, 1866 (play)
  • No Thoroughfare, 1867 (play; co-written with Charles Dickens)
  • The Moonstone, 1868
    - Kuunkivi (suom. Aarre Lehto, 1949)
    - Films: 1915, dir. Frank Hall Crane, starring Eugene O'Brien, Elaine Hammerstein and Ruth Findlay; 1934, dir. Reginald Barker, starring David Manners, Phyllis Barry and Gustav von Seyffertitz; TV series 1959, starring James Hayter, Mary Webster and James Sharkey; La pietra di luna, TV series 1972, dir. Anton Giulio Majano, starring Valeria Ciangottini, Aldo Reggiani and Bruno Alessandro; TV series 1972, starring Basil Dignam, Robin Ellis and Vivien Heilbron; TV film 1996, dir. Robert Bierman, starring Greg Wise, Keeley Hawes and Terrence Hardiman
  • Man and Wife, 1870
  • The Woman in White, 1871 (play)
  • Poor Miss Finch: A Novel, 1872
  • After Dark, 1873
  • The New Magdalen: A Dramatic Story, 1873
    - Films: 1910, dir. Joseph A. Golden, 1912, dir. by Herbert Brenon; 1914, dir. by Travers Vale, starring Louise Vale, Charles Hill Mailes and Vivian Prescott
  • Miss or Mrs?  and  Other Stories in Outline, 1873
  • The Frozen Deep and Other Tales, 1874
    - Jäätyneellä syvyydellä (suom. Elisabet Löfgren, 1877)
  • The Law and the Lady: A Novel, 1875
  • The Two Destinies: A Novel, 1876
  • The Moonstone, 1877 (play)
  • Percy and the Prophet: Events in the Lives of a lady and her Lovers, 1877
  • My Lady's Money, 1878
  • The Haunted Hotel, 1879
  • A Rogue's Life, 1879
  • The Fallen Leaves, 1879
  • Jezebel's Daughter, 1880
  • The Black Robe, 1881
  • Rank and Riches, 1881 (play)
  • Heart and Science, 1883
  • "I Say No", 1884
  • Love’s Random Shot, and Other Stories, 1884
  • The Ghost's Touch and Other Stories, 1885
  • The Evil Genius, 1886
  • The Guilty River: A Novel, 1886
  • Little Novels, 1887
  • The Legacy of Cain, 1889
  • Blind Love, 1890 (finished by Walter Besant)
  • The Yellow Tiger and Other Tales, 1924
  • Tales of Suspense, 1954 (edited by Robert Ashley and Herbert van Thal)
  • Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, 1972 (selected and introduced by Herbert van Thal)
  • Mad Monkton and Other Stories, 1994 (edited with an introduction by Norman Page; with the assistance of Kamal Al-Solaylee)
  • Wilkie Collins: The Complete Shorter Fiction, 1995 (edited by Julian Thompson)
  • The Letters of Wilkie Collins, 1999 (2 vols., edited by William Baker and William M. Clarke)
  • Ioláni, or, Tahíti as It Was: A Romance, 1999 (written 1844; edited and introduced by Ira B. Nadel)
  • Sensation Stories: Tales of Mystery and Suspense, 2004  (edited and with an introduction by Peter Haining)
  • The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters, 2005 (4 vols., edited by William Baker, et al.)

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