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Selected products from Wilkie Collins
A novelist, playwright and author of short stories, William Wilkie Collins was a popular figure in Victorian literature and in good company, being a lifelong friend of Charles Dickens. Collins, who himself wrote 30 novels, 14 plays, over 60 short stories and at least 100 nonfiction essays, also collaborated with Dickens on various dramatic and fictional works, while Collins saw some of his plays performed by Dickens’s theatre company and some of his work published in Dickens’s journals, All The Year Round and Household Words. Part of his popularity was owing to his flamboyant lifestyle and charm.
He was born on 8th January 1824 at 11 New Cavendish Street, Marylebone, London, the son of William Collins, a well-known landscape artist and member of the Royal Academy, and Harriet Geddes. Though he was christened William after his father, he soon became known by his second name, which was in honour of his grandfather, David Wilkie. Two years after his birth the family moved to Pond Street in Hampstead, then a commuter town some 4 miles north of London, a further two years after which Wilkie’s brother, Charles Allston, was born. However, they moved twice more in quick succession, first to Hampstead Square in 1829 and then to Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, an area closer to central London in the City of Westminster. Collins’s schooling began at the Maida Vale academy in 1835.
The next year the family travelled to live on the continent, to France and Italy from September 1836 to August 1838. This time had a lasting impression on him, for 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”. Indeed, he claims to have first fallen in love with Rome as boy of eleven or twelve. Following the family’s return to England, Collins resumed his formal English education at Mr Cole’s private boarding school in Highbury, a district of the London Borough of Islington. It was while he was here that he discovered his talent for story-telling, though it was under somewhat unusual circumstances: the school bully would not allow Collins peace and quiet to sleep until he had been told a bedtime story, and it was owing to this “little brute” that the creativity was awakened in him, “a power of which but for him I might never have been aware... When I left school I continued story telling for my own pleasure”. One wonders whether the bully continued to read Collins’s stories, for pleasure, from guilt or perhaps even from pride.
The family returned to Bayswater in 1840, moving to 85 Oxford Terrace, and in 1841 he left school for an appointment as clerk in the tea merchant firm Antrobus and Company. Two years later, he had his first short story, ‘The Last Stage Coachman’ published in the Illuminated Magazine in August of 1843, and the year after he travelled to Paris with Charles Ward, a lifelong friend an employee of Coutt’s bank, who came in an unofficial capacity as Collins’s financial advisor. He married Collins’s favourite cousin, Jane Carpenter, and Collins owned to frequently pestering him for plot ideas and advice with particulars. During that year, he wrote his first novel, Iolani, or Tahiti as It was; a Romance. However, this novel was rejected by Chapman and Hall after its submission in 1845. Indeed, the novel remained unpublished for the duration of his lifetime. Collins said of the novel, “my youthful imagination ran riot among the noble savages, in scenes which caused the respectable British publisher to declare that it was impossible to put his name on the title page of such a novel.” Only now, after Collins had written the novel, did his father understand that his son did not intend to follow his career as a painter.
His father’s interest in his career continued, and he encouraged Collins to enter Lincoln’s Inn in 1846 to study law in order that he might have steady income in life. However, the following year his father died and Collins produced his first published book, Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A., which was published in 1848. This did not indicate a rebuttal of his father’s advice, though, and Collins would go on to complete his education at Lincoln’s Inn. Shortly after this publication the family moved to 38 Blandford Square, the house having a drawing room suitable for amateur dramatics. One of his paintings, ‘The Smugglers’ Retreat’, was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition on 1849, and his novel Antonina, or the Fall of Rome was published by Richard Bentley in February of 1850. Then, in July and August of the same year, he and artist Henry Brandling went on a walking tour of Cornwall, after which Collins completed his legal studies and was called to the bar in 1851. Despite this education he would never formally practise law, though he used his knowledge of it and the skills of analysis and observation he had acquired in many of his novels throughout his career.
In March 1851, he was introduced to Charles Dickens by mutual friend, the painter Augustus Egg, and now started a period of prolific output. This introduction would prove instrumental to Collins’s career, along with his personal life, for he and Dickens were to become lifelong friends and collaborators. A foundation for their friendship came in May of the same year when Collins and Dickens acted together in Edward Butler-Lytton’s play Not So Bad As We Seem. Subsequently, Collins’s story ‘A Terribly Strange Bed’, the first of his contributions to Dickens’s journal Household Words appeared in April of 1852. The following month he accompanied Dickens and his troupe of amateur actors on tour, and then in November his novel Basil was published by Bentley. Collins then travelled to Bologne and stayed with Dickens from July until September of 1853, after which they toured Switzerland and Italy, accompanied by Augustus Egg from October to December. His new novel, Hide and Seek, saw publication in June 1854.
Now that he had established a firm career for himself as a writer, he could afford the time to experiment with his writing and broaden its depth. He published several articles in George Henry Lewes’s paper The Leader, various short stories with Bentley in Bentley’s Miscellany, he wrote dramatic criticism and Rambles Beyond Railways, a travel book. He then saw his first play, The Lighthouse performed by Dickens’s theatrical company in 1855 at Tavistock House. Subsequently After Dark, his first collection of short stories, was published by Smith, Elder in February of 1856. Dickens then published his novel A Rogue’s Life in serial in Household Words in March of that same year. Then, in October of 1856, he went on to join the staff of Household Words.
A second play, The Frozen Deep was performed, again by Dickens’s company, in 1857. His second serialised novel was The Dead Secret, again published in Household Words, between January and June of 1857, then to be published in volume by Bradbury and Evans. His dramatic work now began to be recognised, and his first play, The Lighthouse, was taken up by the Olympic Theatre in August. Then, in October 1957, The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, an account loosely based on his and Dickens’s walking tour in the north of England appeared in serial in Household Words. Though it is not exactly clear how they met, in 1859 Collins began living with a woman named Caroline Graves and her daughter who, coming from a humble family and having married young, had a child and then been widowed, became a object of Collins’s pity and then a romantic interest. Indeed, in the 1861 census Collins listed her as his wife, though they were in fact never married. His writing continued, and in October 1859 his collection of short stories The Queen of Hearts was published, after which the novel The Woman in White appeared in serial in Dickens’s other journal, All the Year Round, between November and August 1860. A visit to Whitby in North Yorkshire with Caroline Graves followed in 1861, and then in January 1862 he resigned from the staff of Household Words. Symptoms of rheumatic gout began in 1862 and rapidly became rather serious, though he continued to write and saw his novel No Name serialised in All the Year Round from January to March of 1863. Now, his health in decline, he travelled with Caroline Graves to Germany and Germany for their spa towns and health benefits, and spent a few years away from his writing in order to recuperate. His return to the pen in 1866 brought with it the novel Armadale which was serialised in the Cornhill Magazine and ran from June to November. While he had been performing research for Armadale he had visited the Norfolk Broads and particularly the small village of Winterton-on-Sea. It was here that he met Martha Rudd, a nineteen year old girl from a large, poor family. They carried on an affair for a few years before she moved to London to be closer to him. Meanwhile, he was co-writing a play with Dickens, entitled No Thoroughfare, which was published as the 1867 Christmas number of All the Year Round, and subsequently dramatised at the Adelphi Theatre on December 26th. Dickens was famously a great lover of Christmas, so for him to consider Collins worthy at such an important time of year was a great honour.
In 1868 he saw his novel The Moonstone serialised in All the Year Round between January and August, and that same year his mother Harriet died. He had been suffering from gout steadily and, during one particularly viscous attack during the writing of The Moonstone, Caroline Graves left him for Joseph Clow, a younger man whom she subsequently married. He now began to use opium to ease his gout pain and quickly became addicted, a dependence which would last the duration of his life. He and Martha Rudd had a daughter in 1869 whom they named Miriam, and in the meantime Caroline Graves’s relationship was deteriorating; after only two years of marriage, she divorced Joseph Clow and returned to Collins, who proceeded to divide his time between her in his house at Gloucester Place and Rudd, who lived nearby. In order to maintain an element of privacy he assumed the name William Dawson while he was with Rudd. Indeed, she and their children took on the last name themselves. In the midst of these complicated relationships he saw his novel Man and Wife published, in 1870. Sadly, this same year, his lifetime friend and collaborator Charles Dickens died.
In 1871 he and Martha Rudd had a second daughter, named Harriet Constance, who was born in 1871, a year which also saw the dramatisation of The Woman in White which was subsequently performed at the Olympic Theatre. 1872 brought the novel Poor Miss Finch, serialised in Cassell’s Magazine from March to October 1872. At the end of that year his short story ‘Miss or Mrs?’ appeared in the the 1872 Christmas number of the Graphic. His novel The New Magdalen was then serialised from October 1872 to July 1873. Then, later in 1873, his younger brother Charles Allston Collins, who had married Dickens’s youngest daughter, Kate. Collins now advised Dickens’s sister-inlaw, Georgina Hogarth, while she edited The Letters of Charles Dickens from 1833 to 1870 with Dickens’s daughter Mary, a collection which saw publication in 1880.
Collins then took a departure from both his writing and from England, travelling to The United States of America and Canada in 1874 to give readings of his work, while his first son with Martha Rudd, William Charles, was born. Between March 1875 and 1886 he saw more work published, including The Law and the Lady, serialised in the Graphic from September 1874 to March 1875, The Haunted House, serialised from June to November 1878, Jezebel’s Daughter in 1880, The Black Robe in 1881, Heart and Science in 1883 and The Evil Genius in 1886. Meanwhile in 1884 the Society of Authors, founded by his friend Walter Besant, a fellow novelist, elected him Vice-President.
He died from a paralytic stroke on September 23rd, 1889, at 82 Wimpole Street, and was buried at Kensall Green Cemetery in West London. Catharine Graves is buried with him, following her death in 1895.