Wilkie Collins Essay - Collins, (William) Wilkie

Collins, (William) Wilkie


(William) Wilkie Collins 1824-1889

English novelist, short story writer, travel writer, and playwright.

The following entry presents recent criticism of Collins.

A skillful manipulator of intricate plots, Collins is remembered as a principal founder of English detective fiction. His novels of intrigue and suspense, although as popular in Collins's day as the works of such Victorian luminaries as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and William Thackeray, were frequently dismissed by critics as sensationalist fiction. By the twentieth century, Collins began to receive recognition for his innovations in the detective genre, for his unconventional representation of female characters, and for his emphasis on careful plotting and revision, a practice that foreshadowed modern methods.

Biographical Information

Collins was named for his father, William, a landscape painter, and his godfather, the artist Sir David Wilkie. Raised among artists and writers in England, Collins rebelled against the routine at the tea-broker's firm where, at the age of seventeen, he'd been placed by his father. He subsequently studied at Lincoln's Inn and was called to the Bar in 1851, but was to use his legal expertise only when writing fiction. After his father's death in 1847, Collins wrote Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R. A. and two years later a lengthy novel, Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome. Soon after the publication of his first novel, Collins made the acquaintance of Charles Dickens, and the two became close friends, working together on Dickens's magazines, traveling together, and occasionally collaborating on stories. He achieved immense popularity after the publication of his sensation novel The Woman in White in 1860, which spawned a literary vogue for such fiction that peaked in 1868 with the appearance of his highly successful The Moonstone. Always a frustrated playwright, Collins made dramatic adaptations of these and several of his other works of fiction, which were produced in England and the United States with fair success. After rising to fame, Collins became the subject of considerable scrutiny due to his unconventional personal life. Collins lived with his mistress—said to have been the model for the “woman in white”—and supported, in addition, another woman by whom he had three illegitimate children. Although Collins was accepted by literary friends, he was often ostracized by society at large for his unorthodox way of life. His rage at hypocritical morals and perhaps his desire to emulate Dickens inspired Collins to compose the didactic novels of his later years. He died in London in September of 1889.

Major Works

Collins's first novel, Antonina, was an imitative, historical romance in the style of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii. His next work, Rambles Beyond Railways (1851), a personal travelogue, features glimpses from a walking tour in Cornwall. The novel Basil: A Story of Modern Life (1852) is a tale of rebellion against paternal authority, sexual passion, and revenge. Featuring an intricate plot and told through a series of monologues, The Woman in White offers two very different heroines: the strong and passionate Marian Holcombe and the passive Laura Fairlie. The latter is manipulated by the novel's villain, Count Fosco, agrees to marry Fosco's henchman, and is subsequently robbed of her identity and forced into an asylum. No Name (1862) recounts the unusual response of a woman subjected to the loss of her inheritance following her husband's death. In Armadale (1866), Lydia Gwilt shifts from the role of melodramatic villainess to victim. Considered by T. S. Eliot to be “the first and greatest of detective novels,” The Moonstone presents an eccentric detective, Sergeant Cuff, assigned to recover a valuable and allegedly cursed diamond. After The Moonstone, Collins's novels generally present a didactic tone, with many serving to criticize stridently some element of Victorian society. Among them, Man and Wife (1870) features a desperate woman, Anne Vanborough, seduced and lured into marriage by a man who is her moral and intellectual inferior.

Critical Reception

Collins has been called “the father of the English detective novel” and many critics have observed that his principal strength lies in his expert maneuvering of characters through complex plots. Indeed, he is credited with having influenced Dickens in this area. While Collins has sometimes been criticized for his weak characters, scholars have acknowledged that he nevertheless provided the prototypes for many stock characters who were to people subsequent detective fiction—Sergeant Cuff of The Moonstone exhibits characteristics that have shown up in later generations of fictional detectives, and Count Fosco of The Woman in White is recognized as the model for the devilishly charming villain. Commentators have also noted that many devices that seem today to be tired clichés—from mistaken identities to cursed jewels—were introduced by Collins. In addition to assessments of Collins's influence on detective fiction, many modern critics have begun the process of examining issues of gender and culture in his gothic and sensation novels, noting the way Collins departed from the traditions of popular fiction to create an insightful and subtly critical portrait of Victorian society in his works.

Principal Works

Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R. A. (biography) 1848

Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome (novel) 1850

Rambles Beyond Railways (travelogue) 1851

Basil: A Story of Modern Life (novel) 1852

Hide and Seek (novel) 1854

After Dark (short stories) 1856

The Dead Secret (novel) 1857

*The New Magdalen (novel) 1857

The Queen of Hearts (short stories) 1859

The Woman in White (novel) 1860

No Name (novel) 1862

Armadale (novel) 1866

The Moonstone (novel) 1868

Man and Wife (novel) 1870

Poor Miss Finch (novel) 1872

The Frozen Deep and Other Stories (short stories) 1874

The Law and the Lady (novel) 1875

The Two Destinies (novel) 1876

A Rogue's Life: From His Birth to His Marriage (novel) 1879

The Fallen Leaves (novel) 1879

The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice (novella) 1879

Jezebel's Daughter (novel) 1880

The Black Robe (novel) 1881

Heart and Science (novel) 1883

I Say No (novel) 1884

The Evil Genius (novel) 1886

The Guilty River (novel) 1886

Little Novels (novellas) 1887

The Legacy of Cain (novel) 1889

Blind Love (unfinished novel) 1890

*This novel was rewritten as a play, The New Magdalen, in 1873.


Patricia Frick (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Fallen Angels of Wilkie Collins,” in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 7, No. 4, September/October, 1984, pp. 343-51.

[In the following essay, Frick discusses Collins's ambivalent treatment of fallen women in his novels.]


In her recent study of the Victorian heroine, Woman and the Demon, Nina Auerbach argues that the fallen woman, far more than the angelic one, galvanized the mid- and late-nineteenth-century imagination. This assertion is especially true when we examine the fiction of Wilkie Collins, friend and protegé of Dickens, sensation novelist par excellence, and grandfather of the modern English detective novel. While Collins at times upheld conventional notions of womanhood through pale-cheeked and fainthearted heroines, such as Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White, his true emotional and intellectual affinities were with the fallen angels of his time—prostitutes, mistresses, murderesses, adulteresses, divorcées, and other female deviants from “respectable” society. While he sometimes resorted to stereotyping these women, he more frequently made them the center of his novels, endowed them with appealing or admirable traits, and rewarded them with morally upright husbands—much to the horror of his critics. In this paper I shall examine the roles of Collins's rebellious fallen heroines and demonstrate how, for the most part, they challenge common Victorian assumptions about “the one unpardonable sin”1 and its social, moral, and spiritual consequences.


Why was Collins so fascinated by fallen women? What factors contributed to his often sympathetic and unorthodox depictions of them? One answer lies in his own unconventional relationships with two women who dominated much of his life and writing. In her reminiscences, Mrs. Kate Perugini, Dickens's daughter, records that “Wilkie Collins had a mistress called Caroline, a young woman of gentle birth and the original of The Woman in White.2 This enigmatic figure was Caroline Elizabeth Graves. At the time of her first encounter with Collins (believed to be in the early part of 1859), she was the wife, perhaps the widow of George Robert Graves, about whom nothing is known. After living with Collins, unmarried, for about ten years, Caroline suddenly married the son of a distiller, Joseph Charles Clow, in 1868. Collins himself was reported to have attended the wedding. Nevertheless, in the early 1870s, Caroline appears to have left or to have been abandoned by Clow, for she returned to re-establish a household with Collins and remained with him until his death.

In the interval between Caroline's abrupt and mysterious marriage to Clow and her return to Collins, he began a relationship with a second woman, Martha Rudd, who later adopted the name of Mrs. Dawson. In the course of five years she bore Collins three illegitimate children, two daughters and a son, whom he later acknowledged as his own in his will. Little more is known of her, except that she sent a wreath to Collins's funeral in 1889.3

Undoubtedly, Collins's relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd made him especially sensitive to the problems of women who lived at odds with conventional society. For example, direct references to Caroline throughout his letters are infrequent or carefully guarded. As Sue Lonoff has pointed out in her recent study of Collins, he was not one to suffer Victorian hypocrisies lightly: “He knew too many men who publicly inveighed against impurity while they privately patronized mistresses and prostitutes, too many women who preached intolerance and failed to practice charity.”4

It would be imprudent, however, to insist exclusively on this biographical basis for Collins's favorable treatment of fallen women, for the impetus behind his concern for magdalens of all kinds was as much public and philanthropic as it was private and personal. At the time he launched his career, during the 1850s, there was a widespread display of interest in the lives of fallen women. As this excerpt from the Saturday Review of February 1, 1852, reveals, “Magdalen fever” was sweeping the nation:

The fast man makes love to them; the slow man discusses them; the fashionable young lady copies their dress; the Evangelical clergyman gives them tea, toast, and touching talks at midnight; and the devout young woman gives herself up to the task of tending them in some lovely and sequestered retreat, while they are resting between the acts of their exhausting lives.5

While traditional moralists continued to urge the view that prostitutes could only look forward to short, unhappy lives, painful, squalid deaths, and eternal damnation, other investigators and reformers supplied additional evidence about the lives of the fallen. William Acton's Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects, in London and Other Large Cities (1857) provided concrete evidence which contradicted the myth that all seduced women became whores and that all whores soon died.6 Moreover, Acton was one of the first to call attention to the medical problems of fallen women, since he realistically deduced that their illnesses might be visited on the next generation of Englishmen.

Among those especially concerned with the plight of the fallen woman were also some of Collins's closest friends. While he privately indulged in liaisons outside his marriage, Dickens publicly directed his energies towards Urania Cottage, a refuge for homeless women, and urged compassion and pity for “the daughters of the streets” through his sentimental portraits of prostitutes such as Martha Endell and Little Emily in David Copperfield. Additionally, the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Collins's brother, Charley, actively campaigned for the rescue and reform of fallen women, and in works such as Millais's “Virtue and Vice,” Rossetti's “Found,” and Hunt's “the Awakened Conscience,” revealed not only their tragic destinies but also their disturbing beauty.

With so many portraits of the fallen placed before the public eye, and with such a supply of causes, motivations and consequences for their actions being proposed, Collins could hardly have avoided writing about female outcasts. For one thing, the lives of fallen women were inherently more interesting than the lives of conventional heroines, and therefore had stronger sensational appeal to his readers. Secondly, as one committed to literary realism, he could hardly overlook this important aspect of contemporary Victorian life. Still, he faced the difficult task of reconciling his own more liberal notions of female sexual behavior with the conservative expectations of much of his audience.7


In approaching this problem, Collins occasionally fell back on two standard conceptions of the magdalen: the man-trapping jezebel and the madonna-whore. Significantly, even these stereotypes reveal important departures from tradition. Sensual, coldhearted, and sinister, the jezebels slither across the pages of his novels like vipers, infecting the virtuous characters with their corruption and depravity. Margaret Sherwin, the linen-draper's daughter who secretly marries the hero of Basil (1852), only to betray him by having an affair with her tutor, is cast in the role of the conventional siren whose appearance signals domestic chaos and prolonged suffering. With her “olive cheeks,” “large dark eyes,” and “full lips,” she evokes all the swarthy, voluptuous, and non-English sensuality of a Pre-Raphaelite stunner like Jane Morris, and is deliberately contrasted with Basil's fair-skinned and pure-minded sister, Clara. Despite the protagonist's idealistic speculation that Margaret's dark face “would shine forth in the full luxury of its beauty when she first heard the words, received the first kiss from the man she loved,”8 Collins emphasizes that Margaret has little to do with love. Her appeal is blatantly sexual, as Basil's dream vision of her as The Dark Lady of the Wood underscores:

Her eyes were lustrous and fascinating as the eyes of a serpent—large, dark, and soft as the eyes of the wild doe. Her lips were parted with a languid smile; and she drew back the long hair, which lay over her cheeks, her neck, her bosom, while I was gazing on her. … I touched her hand, and in an instant, the touch ran through me like fire from head to foot. Then, still looking intently on me with her wild, bright eyes, she clasped her supple arms round my neck, and drew me a few paces away with her towards the dark wood.

(Basil, p. 51)

In the same way, Lydia Gwilt, the scheming governess of Armadale (1866), is yet another “one of those beautiful women of elegant figure and golden locks whose fascinating exterior only hides a subtle brain and a pitiless heart.”9 “Fouler than the sinks and sewers,”10 as one reviewer described her, Miss Gwilt has lived to the ripe age of thirty-five having committed forgery, theft, bigamy, having served a jail sentence, and having attempted suicide. Her sordid life, however, has taken no toll on her beauty, and her delight in her own sexuality is frankly undisguised, as she suggests in this account of her latest attempt to ensnare her Prey:...

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Nick Rance (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Wilkie Collins in the 1860s: The Sensation Novel and Self-Help,” in Nineteenth-Century Suspense: From Poe to Conan Doyle, edited by Clive Bloom, Brian Docherty, Jane Gibb, and Keith Shand, Macmillan Press, 1988, pp. 46-63.

[In the following essay, Rance investigates Collins's sensation novels in relation to the historical mood of 1860s England.]

Recent manifestations of critical interest in Collins have not tended to impugn his traditional status as a minor novelist, to be mentioned in the same breath as Reade. Feminist criticism has played off a male and reactionary Collins against enlightened female sensation novelists. Elaine Showalter pronounces the...

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Pamela Perkins and Mary Donaghy (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “A Man's Resolution: Narrative Strategies in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 392-402.

[In the following essay, Perkins and Donaghy examine the subtle critique of Victorian gender conventions in The Woman in White.]

The unsuspecting reader of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White1 may well be tempted to dismiss the novel as little more than a meticulously-plotted melodrama. Certainly, Collins' Victorian critics focussed almost exclusively on the novel's entertainment value.2 Influenced by these earlier critics, many twentieth-century scholars have persistently...

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Deirdre David (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Rewriting the Male Plot in Wilkie Collins's No Name: Captain Wragge Orders an Omelette and Mrs. Wragge Goes into Custody,” in Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender (ed) Criticism, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 186-96.

[In the following essay, David argues that No Name's questioning of Victorian gender politics disrupts its conventional narrative discourse.]

Whether Wilkie Collins was a feminist, deployed popular literature for feminist ideology, or even liked women is not the subject of this essay. My interest is in something less explicit, perhaps not fully intentional, to be discovered in his fiction: an informing link...

(The entire section is 4714 words.)

Susan Balée (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Wilkie Collins and Surplus Women: The Case of Marian Halcombe,” in Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 20, 1992, pp. 197-215.

[In the following essay, Balée sees The Woman in White as a “subversion of Victorian sexual stereotypes.”]

Can you look at Miss Halcombe and not see that she has the foresight and resolution of a man?

Count Fosco in The Woman in White

… The very dust of literature is precious, and its dross may be of more worth to the historian than its beaten gold.

E. S. Dallas, Blackwood's,...

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Alison Milbank (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Breaking and Entering: Wilkie Collins's Sensation Fiction,” in Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 25-53.

[In the following essay, Milbank surveys Collins's sensation fiction, focusing particularly on his unconventional heroines and their ultimate subjugation to authorial and patriarchal authority.]

Wilkie Collins is currently enjoying a revival in critical attention, both as a constructor of sensational plots and as a writer who takes a critical stance to the bourgeois realism of the Victorian novel, as well as to the ‘clap-trap morality’ of its ethical values. U. C. Knoepflmacher has been...

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Peter Thoms (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Some Early Quests: Basil, Hide and Seek, and The Dead Secret,” in The Windings of the Labyrinth: Quest and Structure in the Major Novels of Wilkie Collins, Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 13-53.

[In the following excerpt, Thoms studies the thematic “quest for independence and identity” in Basil, viewing this early novel's foreshadowing of the principal issues in Collins's later fiction.]

Just as Walter Hartright is startled and perplexed by the mysterious “apparition” of “a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments,” so the reader of Collins may be puzzled by the sudden appearance of The Woman in...

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Stephen Bernstein (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Reading Blackwater Park: Gothicism, Narrative, and Ideology in The Woman in White,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 291-305.

[In the following essay, Bernstein considers the gothic setting of The Woman in White and its relation to the novel's “historical narratives of class, gender, and genre.”]

With The Woman in White Wilkie Collins wrote, Peter Brooks notes, a “slightly perverse, dilatory, almost fetishistic text of narrative pleasure,” one replete with “readers and writers constantly reading one another, even when they weren't meant to” to such an extent that the novel suggests “a prelapsarian...

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Brooke Allen (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “More than Sensational: The Life & Art of Wilkie Collins,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 4, December, 1993, pp. 31-40.

[In the following essay, Allen offers an assessment of Collins's works as modern and enduring, rather than merely melodramatic and sensationalistic.]

Wilkie Collins, the author of Victorian masterpieces of suspense including The Woman in White and The Moonstone, seems to have found the secret to a happy life: Do as you please and be damned. He had not an ounce of the native puritanism of the Anglo-Saxon. He loved pleasure of all kinds: food, drink, women, the theater. Visits to France and Italy early in life had...

(The entire section is 6163 words.)

Elisabeth Rose Gruner (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Family Secrets and the Mysteries of The Moonstone,” in Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 21, 1993, pp. 127-45.

[In the following essay, Gruner evaluates The Moonstone's “scathing commentary” on the secrets and hidden sins of the Victorian family.]

What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition?
          Some demon whispered—“Wilkie! have a

Swinburne, “Wilkie Collins”

Swinburne's famous judgment on Wilkie Collins is not generally applied to The Moonstone, the work which T. S. Eliot called “the first and greatest of English detective novels” (377). While few readers...

(The entire section is 8724 words.)

Ian Duncan (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Moonstone, the Victorian Novel, and Imperialist Panic,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3, September, 1994, pp. 297-319.

[In the following essay, Duncan explores Collins's representation of romantic imperialist discourse in The Moonstone.]


Wilkie Collins's Moonstone (1868) is the sole mid-Victorian novel of the first rank that makes England's relation with India the center of its business. In the conquest of Seringapatam an English officer steals a sacred Indian diamond and bequeaths it to his niece back home. When the jewel disappears from the niece's bedroom, her family and...

(The entire section is 8295 words.)

M. Kellen Williams (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘Traced and Captured By the Men in the Chaise’: Pursuing Sexual Difference in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White,” in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 91-110.

[In the following essay, Williams analyzes The Woman in White in the context of Victorian gender ideology.]

Immediately after he learns that the woman in white is in fact a woman at large, Walter Hartright asks himself this question:

What had I done? Assisted the victim of the most horrible of all false imprisonments to escape; or cast loose on the wide world of London an unfortunate creature whose actions it...

(The entire section is 7045 words.)

Further Reading


Cvetkovich, Ann. “Ghostlier Determinations: The Economy of Sensation and The Woman in White.” In Novel: A Forum on Fiction Vol. 23, No. 1 (Fall 1989): 24-43.

Argues that the rhetoric of fate and chance in Walter Hartright's narrative serves to mystify many of the sensational elements in The Woman in White.

Elam, Diane. “White Narratology: Gender and Reference in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. In Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Fiction, edited by Lloyd Davis, pp. 49-63. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Considers the relationships between woman,...

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