Monday 5 March 2012

Sensational Writer, Unsensational Life

Poor William Wilkie Collins, destined forever to fall under the shadow of Charles Dickens, his contemporary and his friend. Poor William Wilkie Collins, a man who wrote two great novels and a lot of middling ones. But, oh, how captivating this master of Victorian melodrama could be, how mesmerising, how compelling. I read The Woman in White in less than a day, horribly fascinated by the dastardly deeds of Sir Percival Gylde and Count Fosco, two of the most delightfully dark villains in all of Victorian literature! The Moonstone, which I also devoured in a fever, is, as T. S. Eliot once said, the first and best detective novel in the English literary canon.

Collins was a Londoner, born and bred. Like Dickens he is a chronicler of the city in a time of great transition. It’s as well that we remember him in this year when his mentor is being so lavishly celebrated. Peter Ackroyd has in Wilkie Collins, not so much a biography as a literary pot-boiler.

It’s a pity, really, because if I were a publisher thinking of commissioning a work on Collins Ackroyd would be the first writer to come to mind. After all, who could be better? Who could be better than a man who wrote masterly biographies of Dickens and of London? But Wilkie Collins is oddly two-dimensional, almost as if the author was bored with the subject, the occasional flashes of brilliance notwithstanding.

There is much to fascinate in the life of Collins, a man in so many ways wholly untypical of his times. He had none of Dickens bourgeois respectability. He never married. Instead he had two long-term mistresses, one of whom bore him three children. Two mistresses, both of whom knew of the other, meant two households and lots of imaginative juggling. There is an interesting parallel here with his fiction, where doppelgangers abound. I’m thinking specifically of Laura Farlie and Anne Catherick in The Woman in White, shadows, perhaps, of Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd, the women in Marylebone!

Like Thomas de Quincy, Collins was an English opium eater. Suffering from ‘rheumatic gout’, a Victorian portmanteau covering a variety of sins (the ‘sin’ in Collins’ case may have been venereal), he took increasing quantities of laudanum, a tincture of alcohol and opium freely available at the time. By his mid-thirties he was drinking to levels that would have killed those not habituated. There were consequences, of course, terrifying hallucinations, the sort of demon that pursued de Quincy, except his pursuer wasn’t a Chinaman (read Confessions of an English Opium Eater!) but yet another doppelganger, another Wilkie Collins.

Ill-health, addiction and domestic complexity did not stop him working, though by his own admission he had no recollection at all of writing large parts of The Moonstone. As a novelist he came at just the right time. Paper taxes had been abolished in the 1820s; there had been important breakthroughs in printing technology and a mass market was developing with the improvement in elementary education.

This was all helped along by the expansion of the railway, with travellers able to buy ‘Shilling Shockers’ at the new stations. The Woman in White was an immediate sensation, the first edition selling out within a short space of time. It also caused what we would now call product placement, with Woman in White bonnets Woman in White perfume and even a Woman in White waltz.

Collins knew his public. He liked to travel around on the new London omnibuses, picking up snatches of conversation, then colouring his fiction. He was really the first modern sensationalist, and how sensational he could be, touching on the lowest recesses of human behaviour – murder, fraud, adultery and blackmail. And, yes, sex! It’s quite rightly said that there is more sex in Collins’ books than there is anywhere else in the fiction of the time, outside underground pornography. In Basil the eponymous hero discovers he has been cuckolded when he listens through a thin wall while his young bride does the wild thing - noisily- with the book’s villain!

Hardly surprising, given his unusual domestic arrangements, he was critical of what he called ‘clap trap morality’. He was particularly critical of the way that women were treated at the time. To compensate for this, as Ackroyd points out, he created in his books fiercely independent women who defied the conventions of nineteenth century femininity.

So, then, there is lots to be going on with about a writer, about his public and about his times. But Ackroyd seems to have taken his own somnambulant trip through Wilkie Collins. It’s a brief life, a mere two hundred pages compared with the thousand or so of the magisterial Dickens. That may not have been so bad – there is far less original material for a life of Collins than there is for Dickens – but the subject does not seem to engage him. His pedestrian treatment certainly won’t gain Collins many new readers. The problem is, in the end, he makes the author sound like a bit of a bore, a measure, I suspect of his own boredom, or, sad to say, declining power as a writer.

I don’t want to be completely unfair. As I said above, there are occasional flashes of brilliance, of the old Ackroyd. He still has a penetrating eye for detail, picking up on the future significance of the magnifying glass in detective fiction from Sergeant Cuff’s use of it in The Moonstone. The prose shines at points but mostly it’s a picture painted in dull monotones. It gives me the appearance of a book written in a hurry. There are far too many crutches, ‘must have’, ‘seems’, ‘is likely’, the sort of authorial interventions to cover lacunae, words and phrases that simply madden me with their silly imprecision, proof that the writer is not the master of his subject. Collins deserves better. At one time Ackroyd could have done better.


  1. Ana, this post is the latest superb expression of your metier, the one of which you are the peerless mistress--the short, brilliant book review!

    And, unlike Dickens, who leaves me fairly cold, I'm with you on Collins-I adore MOONSTONE and THE WOMAN IN WHITE. In fact, having read your review I'd love to read a biography of Collins, and only your negative assessment of Ackroyd's effort keeps me from running out and purchasing it.

    By the way, I've now completed the Salinger re-reading project, and a couple of evenings ago came across another Ana F-B moment when the narrator of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is discussing a movie whose plot revolves around two people whose favourite author is Dickens--they both happen to be carrying a copy of OLIVER TWIST in their pockets (page 179 of the Little, Brown boxed set edition).

    I've now re-read all four of the Salinger books, and I'm quite bemused by his fascination with children. The character Esmé in the delightful story "For Esmé with Love and Squalor"--which I've already mentioned to you--is a poised, precocious 13 year old, and when I first read the story as a 16 year old I was enchanted with her; this time, I must say, I wondered why a mature author had created such a splendid, attractive woman who was, in fact, only JUST a woman . . . having now re-read all of Salinger's work, I now really wonder about this aspect of Salinger's sensibility. A former professor of mine reminded me a couple of days ago that Nabokov particularly admired "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", and it crystalised a sense I had when re-reading that short story that there was something inchoately, but unmistakeably, Humbert Humbertian about the story.

    I'll bring these musings to an abrupt conclusion in the hope of not boring you--I'm amazed, upon re-reading Salinger's work, how his sensibility dominated the US in the 60s through the 80s . . . the work expresses, after all, a sentimentalised adolescent sensibility. If culture is the self-awareness of a society, it suggests that America was emotionally very immature throughout that period. It makes me wonder whether the tragedy of war visited upon the innocent people of Vietnam originated in a crude adolescent aggressiveness that was the emotional equivalent of the behaviour of Brando's biker gang in THE WILD ONE . . .

    1. Chris, you never bore me!

      Thank you so much for this detailed contribution. Salinger's Nine Stories, which I bought as a result of a previous discussion we had, arrived today with a new batch of books, lots of books! I'm putting this right to the head of my reading, though, because of your compelling account.

      So far as your conclusion here is concerned it seems to be spot on. The true Age of Innocence in America is the 1960s, not Edith Wharton's 1870s. Brando may be one archetype. The other is Alden Pyle in Graham Greene's The Quiet American. I once wrote that every American president should read this book along with the oath of office!

      On Collins hold off for a bit. Andrew Lycett is presently working on a full-scale biography.

    2. Ana, another vast subject--I'll hold off on replying until when, if ever, you post a blog about the Vietnam War . . . and thank you for the head's up on the Andrew Lycett biography--I'll await it impatiently . . .

  2. Wow - thanks Ana, I learned more from your post than I have in a number of so called literary journals. I loved the Moonstone, and then I found The Woman in White, and strangely I found many similarity in the ideas of Collins and De Quincey and in their attitudes, but I never knew that Collins shared the same addiction. So thanks for that, it's never a bad day when you learn something.

    1. You have no idea how much that pleases me, Michele. :-)

  3. Collins revealed more of the submerged 90 percent of the Victorian iceberg of intrigue and corruption than almost any other writer, except, perhaps, Poe. It's interesting to revisit the real political, social, and cultural intrigues of the 19th century and imagine how different those decorous novels of social maneuvers the BBC dramatizes with such superficial monotony might have been written by, say, Elmore Leonard :)

  4. Thank you for this nice blog on Collins. If you or any of your blog readers are looking for free electronic copies of Collin's works, you can find them here at Project Gutenberg.

  5. Auden also wrote about his double sitting writing at a desk and refusing to look up as he peered over his/its shoulder. Plath's thesis was on the subjectThe Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoyevsky's Novels (available to buy for about £300). Ted Hughes saw himself, looking back from his future:

    (I can't read the name at this distance)
    But he's sipping the first claret he ever tasted, I know that
    And chewing his first Gruyère. He will spend the rest of his life
    Trying to recapture the marvel
    Of that wine that cheese and this moment

    1. How fascinating, Rehan. Collins' double was of a malevolent nature, one who actively tried to stop him from writing.

    2. The sounds rather like what my double would be like though what stops me from writing I call Ophiuchos, I wrote a poem about it too. Ted Hughes writes:

      I’ve noticed, the closer you get to the real thing in any bout of writing, the more formidable are the perverse interruptions, the deflections, tempting diversions and sheer obstacular incidents. Then Alchemists were so familiar with it, they gave it a name Ophiucos i.e. the Great Snake (no less!)

      (Ted Hughes. Letter to William Scammell. 2 October 1993. Letters of Ted Hughes. Selected & Edited by Christopher Reid. Faber & Faber, 2007. 648, 649).

    3. Oops, I've already said that. :-))