William Wilkie Collins

The English author William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) wrote intricately plotted novels of sensational intrigue which helped establish the conventions of modern detective fiction.

Wilkie Collins was born in London on Jan. 8, 1824, the son of a successful painter. Leaving school in his sixteenth year, he was apprenticed to a tea importer but had little enthusiasm for business. As a young man, he both wrote and painted. He published a number of articles and stories, exhibited a picture at the Royal Academy, and was an early supporter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His first published novel, Antonina, or the Fall of Rome (1850), was modeled on the historical fiction of the popular Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Collins met Charles Dickens in 1851 and became one of his closest friends. Most of his early stories and novels appeared in Dickens's magazines Household Words and All the Year Round, and through participation in Dickens's elaborate amateur theatricals he was encouraged to try his hand at drama. However, Collins's melodramas, although popular in their day, are now largely forgotten.

In the novels Basil (1852), Hide and Seek (1854), and The Dead Secret (1857), Collins placed sensational incident in a realistic contemporary middle-class setting and developed the technique of gradually unfolding a mystery introduced at the beginning of the story.

The Woman in White (1860), based on an incident that had occurred in France some 70 years earlier, marked the maturing of Collins's art and was an immediate popular success on both sides of the Atlantic. In it a scheme to rob a woman of her fortune turns on the existence of a mysterious double who dies and is substituted for the victim. The extraordinarily complex maneuvers of the villain are made even more mystifying by Collins's device of narrating the events through a series of limited observers. Although Armadale (1866) contained no mystery, its plot was even more complex and its atmosphere even richer. The Moonstone (1868) was Collins's greatest achievement and set a permanent standard for detective fiction. Told, like The Woman in White, from a number of limited points of view, it dealt with the recovery by three Brahmins of a diamond stolen from an Indian idol.

After Man and Wife (1870), a novel on the problem of the marriage laws, Collins's works concentrate on social issues. But his style was not suited to this type of novel, and he was also becoming deeply addicted to opium after taking laudanum for rheumatic gout.

Collins never married but maintained a rather enigmatic relationship with two women, one of whom lived with him for almost 30 years. He died on Sept. 23, 1889, after prolonged illness.


Further Reading on William Wilkie Collins

The standard biography of Collins is Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins (1952). Also of interest are Stewart Marsh Ellis, Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Others (1931), and the chapter on Collins in Malcom Elwin, Victorian Wallflowers: A Panoramic Survey of the Popular Literary Periodicals (1934).

Additional Biography Sources

Ashley, Robert Paul, Wilkie Collin, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

Ashley, Robert Paul, Wilkie Collins, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Haskell House Publishers, 1976.

Ashley, Robert Paul, Wilkie Collins, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976.

Clarke, William M. (William Malpas), The secret life of Wilkie Collins, Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1991.

Peters, Catherine, The king of inventors: a life of Wilkie Collins, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Robinson, Kenneth, Wilkie Collins: a biography, London: Davis-Poynter, 1974.

Sayers, Dorothy L. (Dorothy Leigh), Wilkie Collins: a critical and biographical study, Toledo, Ohio: The Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries, 1977.