(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.
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.
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.
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.