William Wilkie Collins was the son of a successful painter, William Collins, and a cultured mother. With his parents and his younger brother, Charles, he spent his twelfth and thirteenth years on the Continent, mostly in Italy, looking at buildings and paintings with his father and becoming proficient in French and Italian.
Back in England, Collins was sent to a private school, where the prefect made him tell stories at night under threat of a cat-o’-nine-tails. He left school at seventeen and preferred being apprenticed to a firm of tea importers to continuing his education at Oxford or Cambridge. At work, he wrote stories instead of bills of lading and requested frequent long holidays, which he usually spent in France enjoying himself and running up debts. In 1846, he left the tea business and entered Lincoln’s Inn, becoming a barrister in due time. He never practiced law, but this training enabled him to write knowledgeably about legal matters.
After the death of his father, Collins lived with his mother, who often entertained members of the Pre-Raphaelite group of artists and writers; these became his chief friends.
When Collins was twenty-seven, he met Charles Dickens. Their subsequent friendship led to Collins’s involvement in amateur theatricals and to his writing of plays, as well as to the publication of many of his stories in All the Year Round and Household Words (whose staff he joined in 1856).
At the age of thirty-five, Collins fell in love with Caroline Graves, who became the model for The Woman in White. They lived more or less openly together until Caroline married someone else. Collins then formed a liaison with Martha Rudd, with whom he had three children. Caroline returned to Collins’s side, however, for the last twenty years of his life.
During these last years, Collins was plagued by ill health. He frequently used opium, which was at that time a household remedy. Because of his illness—or because of the opium—the quality of his writing declined. He did not, however, seem aware of this fact, and his readers continued to be enthusiastic.