Catherine Peters

Plots Have I Laid

Wilkie Collins

By

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ven in his twenties Wilkie Collins looked ‘weird and odd’. His head and shoulders were unusually large, but his hands and feet were tiny; when he bought boots for his mother in Paris he tried them on for size. He was severely myopic. He suffered from rheumatic disorders and nervous tics that worsened as he aged. He wore clothes that were eccentric in colour and cut. He also, like many ugly men, possessed a charm that made him irresistible to women. He was a delightful companion and tolerant friend; adults and children alike always called him Wilkie. He believed firmly that ‘a spoiled child is a happy child’ and the depiction of children in his later novels is clearly that of a man who delighted in his own offspring, though his private life was unmentionable in mixed society. Though more Victorian men than is generally supposed had dual homes and families, Collins avoided marrying either of his two mistresses, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. Unwilling to abandon either, he negotiated a compromise where each was aware of the other and eventually accepted the situation.

Yet this benign figure also wrote dark novels with complicated plots and violent situations, featuring adventurous and often transgressive heroines. Though reviewers were frequently critical, his readers revelled in the energy and inventiveness of Marian Halcombe, Magdalen Vanstone and Lydia Gwilt, who fought against the restrictions imposed on them. Like Dickens, his friend and mentor, Collins saw what was wrong with the world, castigating its prejudices and satirising complacent do-gooders. But where Dickens tended to fall back on the operation of individual philanthropy as a solution, Collins appreciated the many different ways in which life might be lived in a more tolerant and open society.

The last quarter of the twentieth century saw a reassessment of Wilkie Collins’s literary reputation that would have surprised and delighted him. With the growing importance of cultural studies to literary criticism, his writing became a topic for academic study: his flouting of Victorian convention and overturning of stereotypes are now his passport to serious consideration. Though The Woman in White and The Moonstone have never been out of print and have always been recognised as early masterpieces of mystery and detection, the study of Collins’s less famous work has deepened our understanding. Now that virtually everything he wrote is available in paperback (and much of it also in e-book format), he has become part of the mainstream of Victorian fiction.

For me the clue to both the man and his work is his celebration of difference. Peter Ackroyd is absolutely right when he rejects the commonly held view that there was a decline in Collins’s later fiction because he became a didactic novelist with a message to deliver. The messages were always there. They concerned the social and legal judgements that disadvantaged the poor, those of different race or religion, children, animals and above all women. He fought against prejudice, sometimes in surprising areas. In a number of novels, including the early Hide and Seek (1854) and the late Poor Miss Finch (1872), he argues powerfully that physical handicap can enrich rather than detract from the life of the ‘afflicted’. In each case a young woman is freed by her disability from many of the constraints of society. In an uneven novel that, with all its absurdities, I like more than Ackroyd does, Lucilla Finch can experience her natural sexuality without guilt: ‘Modesty is essentially the growth of our own consciousness of the eyes of others … blindness is never bashful.’

There was, however, a decline in much of Collins’s later work. I can’t agree with Ackroyd’s conclusion that ‘He had a genius for construction, above all else.’ Many of the late novels are diffuse and slackly structured, for a number of reasons. His increasingly frequent illnesses and the opiates he took to control the pain had an effect on his ability to weave together the strands of his complicated plots, while his expensive commitments to his two families forced him to work ceaselessly. Hoping that he could make his fortune in the theatre, he began, with the writing of Man and Wife (1870), to manufacture dual-purpose plots, writing both novel and play simultaneously. The melodrama that worked in the late Victorian theatre was less often effective on the page, though that was not the whole problem. The Fallen Leaves (1879), which Ackroyd calls ‘one of the most powerful and impassioned critiques of Victorian society ever composed by a novelist’, was never intended for theatrical performance. It depicted the life and misfortunes of a sixteen-year-old prostitute, but other novelists were tackling similar themes and it was not only the subject that deterred readers. It is so well-intentioned that I wish I could like it as much as Ackroyd does, but the complicated story is not only badly constructed but ruined by its sentimental, didactic and moralistic style. It is now in print again, so readers can judge for themselves.

I spotted a few minor factual errors, easy to correct in future impressions. Ackroyd says Collins never wrote directly about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but an anonymous article discussing their work in Bentley’s Miscellany on 1 June 1851 is by him. He never acknowledged it, for though less direct than Dickens’s attack the previous year, Collins’s piece makes clear his reservations about the work of his friends Millais, Holman Hunt and his own brother, Charles Collins. His travelling desk was not a relic of his schooldays, but an exact replica of one owned by Dickens and much admired by Collins. When Caroline Graves left Wilkie temporarily in 1868 to marry Joseph Clow it would have been bizarre even by Collinsian standards if Caroline’s new mother-in-law had gone to live with her ex-lover. It was not Frances Clow but old Mrs Graves, the mother of Caroline’s first husband, who stayed from time to time with her granddaughter at Collins’s house in Gloucester Place. Her death in 1877 (not 1876) in nearby lodgings was registered by Wilkie’s cook.

A short, accessible life of Collins for new readers of his novels has long been needed and Peter Ackroyd, with his intimate knowledge of London and fascination with creative Londoners, is an obvious person to provide it. If Wilkie Collins lacks some of the individual flavour and quirkiness that has made Ackroyd’s larger books on Blake, Dickens, and London itself so memorable, this may be because, as Dickens complained to John Forster when writing the weekly numbers of Hard Times, ‘the difficulty of the space is CRUSHING’. It is not easy to write a literary biography in less than 200 pages that gives due weight to both life and work. Ackroyd has succeeded admirably in keeping the balance and giving a vivid impression of an important nineteenth-century writer.

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