About the Author
English novelist, whose unconventional private life and determination to tackle social issues disconcerted his audience. Many of Wilkie Collins's novels contain sympathetic portraits of physically abnormal individuals. Critics often credit Collins with the invention of the English detective novel. While he was aware of the work of Poe and Gaboriau, he worked in the mainstream of Victorian domestic and social fiction. Sergeant Cuff from Collins's novel The Moonstone (1868) became a prototype of the detective hero in English fiction.
Wilkie Collins was born in London. His father was William Collins, a well-known landscape painter, and mother Harriet (Geddes) Collins, the daughter of a painter. They were a devoted couple, and young Wilkie grew with his brother in a secure household. However, Collins never outgrew his childhood sickliness, he was small and had a slightly deformed skull. Collins was educated privately, he studied painting for several years. At the age of eleven he began attending school, but at the end of the year the family moved to Italy, where William Collins studied the old masters. After nearly two years abroad, the family returned to England. With the help of his father, Collins found work in the office of a tea importer (1841-46). During this period he started to write fiction. Collins' first story. "The Last Stagecoachman" was published in 1943. He studied then law without much enthusiasm and worked industriously on his first novel, Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome (1950), a historical story in the manner of Bulwer Lytton. At the age of 27 Collins became a lawyer. He never practiced law but put his legal knowledge to work in crime writing. His father died in 1847 and Collins set aside other literary aspirations to write his father's biography. It appeared in 1848.
In 1851 Collins started his long friendship with Charles Dickens, while they were pursuing a mutual interest in amateur theatricals. Inspired by the success of Dickens's Christmas books, Collins produced Mr Wray's Cash-Box in 1852. He joined in 1856 the staff of Dickens's Household Worlds, and collaborated with him on pieces for the magazine. Dickens helped Collins bring humour and believable characters into his books. In 1858 Collins met Caroline Graves, a widow, who was his life companion until his death. Collins saw her first at a mysterious midnight encounter of which he made use in The Woman in White (1860). He also had relationship with Mrs Martha Rudd, whose three children Collins acknowledged as his own. By 1868 she lived in London as Collins's mistress, Caroline Graves lived with him as a "housekeeper." In 1868 Caroline married Joseph Clow, but returned to Collins within two years.
Basil (1852) was Collins's first novel based on crime, mystery, and suspense. The enormously popular suspense thriller Woman in White appeared first in Dickens's periodical All the Year Round in 1859-60. Using a multivocal narrative, Collins imitated the presentation of testimony from a number of witnesses in a court case. The book tells the story of the evil Sir Percival Glyde's plot to steal his wife's inheritance with the help of a sinister Italian, Count Fosco. Walter Hartright goes to Limmeridge House in Cumberland as drawing master to Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. He sees Anne Catherick on the night she left an asylum to which she had been committed by Sir Percival. Anne knows a secret about his past - his illegitimacy. Sir Percival burns the parish registry and is killed in the resulting fire. Laura has been committed to an asylum as Anne, but Walter restores Laura to her true identity.
In the 1860s Collins published No Name (1862), in which a young woman learns that she and her sister are illegitimite and penniless after the death of their father, but starts her countermove to regain her inheritance. Armadale (1866) was a story of fate, criminal fraud, and an attempted murder. In Moonstone, the first English detective novel, Collins created Sergeant Cuff, whose numerous traits would turn up in detective fiction for generations to come. In it Cuff interviews people at a country house to discover who stole a huge diamond that has a violent history. The plot includes also somnambulism and experiments with opium, Oriental magic, and three mysterious Hindus. The story unfolds through the words of its various characters. By making the criminal a member of the same class as the victim, Collins challenged the ideological fiction of a middle class bound together in commitment to a common moral code.
During the 1860s Collins started to suffer severely from the rheumatic pains, and became addicted to laudanum, a form of opium, that was used perhaps more heavily by Thomas De Quincey or Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1873 Collins made a tour in the United States, where among others he met Mark Twain and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The death of Dickens in 1870 robbed Collins of a powerful mentor, and his popularity declined. Although suffering from spells of severe illness, Collins continued to write in his final years. In The New Magdalen (1873) Collins attacked the attitudes to fallen women, The Evil Genius (1886) dealt with adultery and divorce. Collins died from a stroke on 23 September 1889. Never yielding to Victorian conventions, Collins had insisted upon a simple funeral in his will. His last novel, Blind Will, appeared posthumously in 1890 and was finished by Walter Besant.
Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.