William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) is now remembered chiefly as the author of two novels, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). The earlier is credited with introducing the popular Victorian genre of the “sensation novel,” the novel of incident rather than character, in which violent crime or sexual scandal took place within a solid middle-class setting. The later novel cannot quite claim the credit of being the first English-language detective story, for examples of the genre exist from a few years before its publication; however, it was certainly the first prominent English detective story, and its professional investigator, Sergeant Cuff, became the model for a very long line of successors.
Catherine Peters’ biography sets out to expand this limited memory of Wilkie Collins (as he has come to be known) by setting him in two wider contexts: first, that of the professional man of letters who earned his living for decades as the author of more than a dozen novels as well as successful plays, short stories, and continuing journalism; second, the hidden Victorian underworld of sexual repression and sexual politics. The connection between these two fields, Peters suggests, lies in the idea of the double, the Doppelganger, the secret life, the hidden identity. These themes fascinated Collins in fiction and were responsible for much of the spell he exerted on his readers. The reason for his fascination, according to Peters, was that he himself lived a dual life.
Under English law during Collins’ lifetime-a law that, for example, forbade a married woman to own property in her own right-it was by no means uncommon for a respectable, middle-aged man to maintain both a wife and a mistress in separate establishments. In such a situation, the wife had little legal or effective recourse. Collins was abnormal even under these circumstances: For much of his adult life he kept two women in different houses, acknowledging the children of one as his own and supporting the child of the other as his stepdaughter, yet he married neither of them. Several mysteries surround these relationships. Why would he never marry? Could it be that he was married already, to some completely unknown person, so that further marriage would have been bigamous and so could have exposed him to blackmail? Did Collins not object when the earlier of his two mistresses eventually married someone else, only to return to living with him as his housekeeper after a couple of years? In the prudish Victorian climate, how far was Collins’ behavior an open secret? Perhaps most mysterious of all, what gave him the force necessary to withstand such powerful cultural pressure?
Peters gives an interesting picture of Collins’ immediate family background, at first sight (and in the doctored versions of earlier commentary, including Collins’ own) unimpeachably respectable. Collins’ father and namesake, William Collins (1788-1847), was a successful painter whose work for a while sold at similar prices to those of his now much more famous contemporary John Constable (1776-1837). Accounts of him suggest that his profitable contracts were obtained at the price of extreme deference to the rich and the aristocratic. Wilkie Collins’ mother Harriet (1790-1868) appeared to be the entirely respectable partner of a member of the Royal Academy. Her own lightly fictionalized account of her life has survived, however, and been used in Peters’ biography for the first time. It indicates how close Harriet Geddes came to dropping out of respectable society entirely, even becoming a professional actress (a career then regarded as little different from prostitution). She and her sister saved themselves from poverty by painting and teaching school. Eventually, and in a somewhat unconventional manner, Geddes met and married William Collins the elder, after which both seem to have been characteristically anxious to conceal former difficulties and present themselves as completely solid members of society.
Against this Wilkie Collins seems to have reacted-very successfully if one compares him with his younger brother Charley, who took up his father’s trade, was for a while noted and successful as an associate of the Pre-Raphaelite painters William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais but slid slowly into depression, ill-health, various forms of phobia (including a fear of drowning so acute that he could not take a bath), and eventual death in his early forties, not having exhibited a painting since the age of twenty-seven. In some views Charley Collins was seriously challenged by the relative artistic success of his wife Kate, daughter of the novelist Charles Dickens.
It is probable that some of Charley Collins’ problems arose from sexual neurosis: Peter cites a letter from Holman Hunt to Millais about a shared acquaintance (the name has been carefully deleted, but Peters argues that it was Charley Collins) who had become entangled with a prostitute in 1856. It would be typical of him, Peters argues, to feel such guilt at this affair as to ruin his later marriage with Kate Dickens; there were suggestions that he suffered from continuing sexual impotence.
In Wilkie Collins’ circle, one can only add, such deep- seated psychological...
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