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So scandalous: A look back at the wonderful work of Wilkie Collins 128 years after his death

PUBLISHED: 13:04 23 September 2017 | UPDATED: 13:04 23 September 2017

Portrait of English novelist William Wilkie Collins. Picture: Getty Images/Photos.com

Portrait of English novelist William Wilkie Collins. Picture: Getty Images/Photos.com

© Getty Images

Today marks 128 years since the death of English writer Wilkie Collins. On the anniversary of the fateful day, Courtney Pochin takes a look back at his life and the impressive work he created during it.

When you think of Victorian literature, you may think of Charles Dickens, who has written some of the world’s best-known fiction, from Oliver Twist to Great Expectations, but would you ever think of his friend Wilkie Collins?

Despite not amassing the same level of fame as Dickens, Wilkie Collins wrote a range of brilliant novels, plays and short stories during the 65 years of his life.

His most popular works include The Woman in White (1859) Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868), which have spawned a range of adaptations both on stage and screen - including most recently an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that is currently being revived at London’s Charing Cross Theatre.

There are those who would consider Collins one of the most influential writers of his generation. He is often credited with writing the first detective novel, with T.S. Eliot describing The Moonstone as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”.

While the first detective series was actually written by Edgar Allen Poe, Collins can lay claim to being the first to write about female detectives in British fiction and the first to feature a policeman in a novel.

He did not create a genre, but instead developed an existing one, bringing together elements from mystery, thriller, ghost and occult novels to produce his work.

His writing could have been influenced by the style of Mary Shelley or James Hogg and may have gone on to inspire the likes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Collins’ stories often featured great secrets which were gradually brought to light, which was ironic considering he was hiding a big one of his own.

The writer led an unconventional and somewhat scandalous life for his time, embarking upon two long-term relationships with different women but marrying neither one, as he was strongly opposed to the institution of matrimony.

He began living with a woman named Caroline Graves and her daughter Harriet in 1858 and the pair remained partners for life (aside from a brief interlude when she married a younger man after failing to get Wilkie’s ring on her finger).

In 1864 he met Martha Rudd while she was working as a barmaid in Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk. Martha moved to London a few years later to be closer to him and the pair had three children together.

Collins spent the last 20 years of his life splitting his time between the two women, assuming the name William Dawson, when he was with Martha. Their children also shared this fake surname.

Collins wrote more than 20 major novels during his career, becoming less inconsistent in terms of quality towards the end of his life due to a general decline of his health, which included diminished eyesight.

The writer died on September 23 1889, at 82 Wimploe Street following a paralytic stroke and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, West London. Caroline Graves died in 1895 and was buried with him.

Five things you may not have known about Wilkie Collins:

• Wilkie Collins, whose full name was William Wilkie Collins, was born on January, 8 1824 in Marylebone, London. He was born into the family of well-known Royal Academician landscape painter William Collins and his wife, Harriet Geddes. He spent his childhood living in Italy and France, learning to speak both languages.

• His love of storytelling began while attending the Reverend Cole’s private boarding school in Highbury, which he studied at between 1838 and 1840. While there he is said to have been bullied by a boy who would force him to tell a story every night before allowing him to go to sleep.

• Before forging on a writing career, he worked as a clerk for a tea merchant.

• Collins was introduced to Charles Dickens in 1851 by a mutual friend, Augustus Egg. They formed a strong friendship and became collaborators. The pair acted together in Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play, Not So Bad As We Seem, which was performed as a charity event to benefit the Literary Guild, a society for struggling authors. The event was attended by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

• Collins’ headstone describes him as merely the author of The Woman in White.

A look at some of his best books...

• The Woman in White (1859)

Collins’ most popular novel is set in the 1850s in England and follows a young painter named Walter Hartright who secures a position as an art teacher in Cumberland. The day before he leaves to begin his new role, he meets a mysterious young woman dressed in white wandering the roads outside London. Walter soon learns that she may have escaped from an asylum and that her story is connected to that of the woman he secretly loves.

• The Moonstone (1868)

This story, filled with suspense, was originally serialised in Charles Dickens’ magazine, All the Year Round. The plot follows Rachel Verinder, whose inheritance becomes a brilliant Indian diamond. When the diamond is stolen, the case seems simple, but it quickly becomes clear that no one is quite what they seem and nothing can be taken for granted.

• No Name (1862)

Another tale serialised in All the Year Round, No Name is told in eight major parts called scenes and is an investigation of illegitimacy. The story follows the Vanstone family, focusing on illegitimate daughters, Norah and Magdalen, as they struggle to reclaim their identity. Readers may particularly enjoy scene four, which is set in the familiar setting of Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

• Armadale (1864)

Armadale is the third of four fantastic novels produced by Collins during the 1860s. The plot is considered by many to be a little far-fetched. It focuses on two distant cousins, named Allan Armadale, with the father of one murdering the father of the other (the two fathers are also named Allan Armadale). The story starts with a deathbed confession by the murderer and skips through the years to follow his son, who runs away and becomes a companion to the other Armadale, hiding his identity for fear history may repeat itself. When writing this novel, Collins visited Norfolk to conduct research. He found inspiration in Horsey Mere, which in turn became Hurle Mere in the tale.

• Poor Miss Finch (1872)

This novel, less well known than the others, follows Lucilla Finch, a young blind woman who temporarily regains her sight while finding herself caught in a love triangle with two brothers.

If you like these, you should try...

• Mary Shelley

If you love a Gothic novel, you can’t go wrong with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). The idea for the popular novel came to Shelley in a dream in 1816 while staying in Switzerland and she began writing it aged only 18. The story follows Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who creates a horrifying creature during an unorthodox science experiment.

• Anthony Trollope

A classic Victorian novelist, Trollope’s work covered a range of topics including political, social and gender issues. His most notable works are a series of novels known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which revolve around the fictional county of Barsetshire. Other works include The Way We Live Now (1875) and Phinneas Finn (1869).

• The Brontë’s

The Brontë sisters wrote a selection of brilliant books that you may enjoy if you liked Collins’ work. We suggest opting for Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

• Charles Dickens

As a close friend of Wilkie Collins, it seems only right that Mr Dickens be featured on this list. With an extensive catalogue of published work, you’re bound to find something he wrote to suit your tastes, be it David Copperfield (1956), A Tale of Two Cities (1859) or Bleak House (1853).

Edgar Allan Poe

If you need a little more suspense in your life, you should definitely pick up some of Poe’s work. The American writer is known for his short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and macabre. He is generally considered to be the inventor of detective fiction and is also known as a contributor to the science-fiction genre. Popular works include The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), The Cask of Amontillado (1846) and The Fall of the House of Usher (1839).

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