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Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins Wilkie Collins[1†]

William Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) was an English novelist and playwright[1†]. He is best known for his detective novel The Moonstone and his sensation novel The Woman in White[1†][2†]. These works have established him as a master of mystery, suspense, and the early sensation novel[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

William Wilkie Collins was born on January 8, 1824, in London’s Marylebone[3†][1†]. He was the elder son of William Collins, a celebrated landscape artist and Royal Academician, and his wife, Harriet Geddes[3†][1†]. His younger brother, Charles Allston Collins, also became an artist, later painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style[3†][4†].

The Collins family moved to Pond Street in Hampstead in 1826, and after the birth of Charles in 1828, they moved twice more – first to Hampstead Square, and then to Porchester Terrace in Bayswater[3†][5†]. Collins began his schooling in 1835 at the Maida Vale Academy[3†][1†].

In 1836, the family relocated to Italy and France for two years[3†][1†]. This period had a profound impact on Collins. He learned Italian in Italy and began learning French, a language in which he would eventually become fluent[3†][1†]. He later recalled that he had learned more in Italy 'which has been of use to me, among the scenery, the pictures, and the people, than I ever learned at school.'[3†]. He also claimed to have fallen in love for the first time in Rome at the age of 12 or 13[3†].

Upon returning to England, Collins continued his education at Reverend Cole’s private boarding school in Highbury[3†][1†]. It was here that he began his career as a storyteller to appease the dormitory bully, later recalling that 'it was this brute who first awakened in me, his poor little victim, a power of which but for him I might never have been aware.'[3†][1†].

Collins was distinctive in appearance, born with a prominent bulge on the right side of his forehead. He was only five feet six inches tall but had a disproportionately large head and shoulders. His hands and feet were particularly small, and pictures from the age of 21 show him wearing spectacles[3†].

Career Development and Achievements

Wilkie Collins began his career as a writer with the publication of his first novel, Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome, in 1850[2†][1†]. This was followed by Basil in 1852, a tale of seduction and vengeance set in a contemporary middle-class setting[2†]. His early works were characterized by passages of uncompromising realism[2†].

In 1851, Collins met Charles Dickens, who became his friend and mentor[2†][1†]. Their mutual admiration was instrumental in shaping Collins’ career[2†]. Under Dickens’ influence, Collins developed a talent for characterization, humor, and popular success[2†]. Some of Collins’ work appeared in Dickens’ journals Household Words and All the Year Round[2†][1†]. They also collaborated on drama and fiction[2†][1†][6†].

His first major work, The Woman in White, appeared in 1860 in Dickens’ All the Year Round[2†]. This was followed by No Name in 1862, Armadale in 1866, and The Moonstone in 1868[2†]. These works established Collins as an early master of the mystery story and a pioneer of detective fiction[2†][1†]The Moonstone is considered one of the earliest clear examples of the police procedural genre[2†][1†].

Collins gained financial stability and an international following by the 1860s[2†][1†]. However, in the 1870s and 1880s, his health and the quality of his writing declined due to his addiction to opium, which he took for his gout[2†][1†].

In addition to his novels, Collins produced a biography of his father in 1848, as well as travel books, essays, reviews, and a number of short stories[2†][6†]. He also wrote and adapted plays, often in collaboration with Charles Dickens[2†][6†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Wilkie Collins’ first published work was a memoir to his father, who died in 1847, Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A.[1†][2†]. His fiction followed shortly after[1†][2†]:

These works have earned Collins an international reputation[1†][9†]. His writing became foundational to the way modern crime novels are constructed[9†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Wilkie Collins is often referred to as the father of modern English mystery fiction[6†]. In his time, his tales were called “sensation stories”[6†]. He was the first to broaden the genre to the proportions of a novel and to choose familiar settings with ordinary people who behave rationally[6†]. He was also the first to insist on scientific exactitude and rigorously accurate detail[6†].

Collins was one of the most popular authors of his day, reaching a wider circle of readers in England and the United States than any author except Charles Dickens[6†]. Many of his books were translated for a highly appreciative French public[6†]. Although Collins claimed that he wrote for the common man, in his heyday critics classed him with Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë[6†].

Now only two of Collins’s twenty-two novels are considered masterpieces: The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868)[6†]. They have been highly praised by such discriminating critics as Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, T. S. Eliot, and Dorothy L. Sayers[6†]. It is safe to say that without Wilkie Collins, the modern English detective story could never have achieved its present level[6†].

In addition to his novels, Wilkie Collins produced a biography of his father in 1848 as well as travel books, essays and reviews, and a number of short stories[6†]. He also wrote and adapted plays, often in collaboration with Charles Dickens[6†].

Wilkie Collins’s reputation more than a century after his death rests almost entirely on two works: The Woman in White, first published serially in All the Year Round from November 26, 1859, to August 25, 1860; and The Moonstone, published in 1868[6†]. Mystery author Dorothy L. Sayers called the latter work “probably the finest detective story ever written”[6†]. No chronicler of crime and detective fiction can fail to include Collins’s important contributions to the genre[6†].

For an author so conscientious and industrious, Collins averaged one “big” novel every two years in his maturity[6†]. The relative obscurity into which most of Collins’s work has fallen cannot be attributed completely to the shadow cast by his friend and sometime collaborator Charles Dickens[6†].

Personal Life

Wilkie Collins led an unconventional personal life that was marked by his relationships with two women[1†][3†][10†][11†][12†]. In 1858, he began living with Caroline Graves, a widow, and her daughter Harriet[1†][3†][11†][12†]. Caroline, who came from a humble family, had married young, had a child, and had been widowed[1†]. She lived in Collins’ house and looked after his domestic affairs for most of thirty years[1†][11†].

In addition to his relationship with Caroline Graves, Collins also had a second liaison with a younger woman named Martha Rudd[1†][10†][12†]. He had three children with Martha, whom he treated as 'Mr and Mrs Dawson’[1†][10†]. Despite not marrying either woman, he lived openly with Caroline and Harriet, while maintaining a separate household for Martha and their children[1†][12†].

Collins’s personal life reveals a cynical regard for the Victorian establishment[1†][3†]. His unorthodox lifestyle, which included his criticism of the institution of marriage and his addiction to opium for his gout[1†][3†], did not overshadow his significant contributions to literature[1†][3†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Wilkie Collins’s legacy is significant and enduring. His works, particularly The Woman in White and The Moonstone, have had a lasting impact on literature, especially in the genres of mystery, suspense, and the sensation novel[1†][13†][14†]. His final novel, The Legacy of Cain, published in 1888, explores the theme of hereditary evil and challenges the notion that ‘bad blood’ necessarily results in criminality[1†][15†].

Collins’s oeuvre extends to some two dozen novels, as well as multiple short stories, non-fiction works, and plays[1†][14†]. His works continue to be studied by scholars and almost all his works are currently in print[1†][13†]. His influence persists in the ongoing appeal of his works to playwrights, screenwriters, and novelists[1†][14†].

Despite his unconventional personal life and his addiction to opium, Collins’s contributions to literature have not been overshadowed[1†]. He is remembered as a master of his craft and his works continue to captivate readers around the world[1†][13†][14†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Wilkie Collins [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Wilkie Collins: British author [website] - link
  3. Wilkie Collins Information Page by Andrew Gasson - WILKIE COLLINS - BIOGRAPHY AND LIFE [website] - link
  4. Oxford Bibliographies - Wilkie Collins [website] - link
  5. ZigZag Education - Mini-Bios - Collins, Wilkie [website] - link
  6. eNotes - Wilkie Collins Analysis [website] - link
  7. New World Encyclopedia - Wilkie Collins [website] - link
  8. Wikipedia (English) - Wilkie Collins bibliography [website] - link
  9. The Guardian - Where to start with: Wilkie Collins [website] - link
  10. Goodreads - Book: Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life [website] - link
  11. ThoughtCo - Life of Wilkie Collins, Grandfather of the English Detective Novel [website] - link
  12. Goodreads - Book: The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins [website] - link
  13. The Wilkie Collins Society - Wilkie Collins Society [website] - link
  14. The Wilkie Collins Society - Wilkie Collins Society [website] - link
  15. Wilkie Collins Information Page by Andrew Gasson - THE LEGACY OF CAIN-Wilkie Collins [website] - link
  16. The Wilkie Collins Pages by Paul Lewis - The Wilkie Collins Website [website] - link
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