Collins, William Wilkie (DNB01)
|←Colling, Robert||Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement
Collins, William Wilkie
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COLLINS, WILLIAM WILKIE (1824-1889), novelist, eldest son of the painter, William Collins (1788-1847) [q. v.], and elder brother of Charles Allston Collins [q. v.], born in Tavistock Square, London, on 8 Jan. 1824, was named after his father's intimate friend and brother academician, Sir David Wilkie. He always called himself and was addressed by his friends as Wilkie, the William being allowed to fall into abeyance. After private education at Highbury, he spent two or three years with his parents in Italy, and in 1841 was articled by his father to the London firm of Antrobus &Co., who were engaged in the tea trade. While thus employed, and while under the influence of a strong boyish admiration for Bulwer Lytton, he clandestinely produced a novel in which he utilised with great cleverness all the local information he had acquired at Rome. His father was so pleased with the novel (published some years later as 'Antonina') that he emancipated him from the tea warehouse, and caused his name to be entered at Lincoln's Inn (18 May 1846), whence he was called to the bar on 21 Nov. 1851. In the meantime his father died (in 1847), and Wilkie first appeared in print as his biographer. His rambling and diffuse, but on the whole very creditable, performance appeared in two volumes in 1848. Extremely clever and versatile, he at first cherished the idea of supporting himself and his mother by following in his father's footsteps, and he exhibited a landscape at the Royal Academy in 1849. At the same time he prepared for press his novel 'Antonina,' which was accorded an encouraging reception upon its appearance in 1850, and in 1851, as the fruit of a summer vacation in the neighbourhood of Penzance, he published his 'Rambles beyond Railways.' He only preceded the Cornish railway by one year, but the book was a success, and went through several editions. In this same year Wilkie Collins first met Charles Dickens, and from this time may be dated his vocation to letters as a profession. Collins's conception of the novel as written drama (by preference melodrama) harmonised exactly with that of Dickens, and the two novelists, unequal as they were both in genius and reputation, became almost at once firm friends and active correspondents. The letters of Dickens (which alone are preserved) are among the most interesting that we possess from his pen, and the constant inquiries as to the state of his friend's health indicate very clearly the physical weakness that Collins had to contend with even thus early in his career. In September 1852 Collins took part in the theatricals organised by Dickens at his residence, Tavistock House, and for performance there he wrote in 1855 'The Lighthouse.' Dickens formed a very high opinion of his friend's novel, 'Hide and Seek,' produced in 1854. In 1855 Collins began contributing to Dickens's periodical 'Household Words' with 'Sister Rose,' a story in four parts. He contributed again to the 'Holly Tree' Christmas number of 1855, and he spent the following winter with Dickens at Paris, and planned the 'Wreck of the Golden Mary' and 'Frozen Deep.' Both 'After Dark' and 'The Dead Secret' appeared serially in 'Household Words.' During the latter part of 1857 he further collaborated with Dickens in 'The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices,' and 'The Perils of certain English Prisoners' (for which Collins wrote chap, ii.) In 1859 he contributed the 'Queen of Hearts' to 'All the Year Round,' with which 'Household Words' was by this time incorporated, and in the same periodical appeared during 1860 his first great popular success, 'The Woman in White.' Excelling in every trick that a novelist has at his disposal, he proved a splendid serial writer, and all his best works, after the ' Woman in White,' such as 'No Name,' 'Armadale,' 'The Moonstone,' and 'The New Magdalen,' were produced in this fashion 'Armadale' and the 'New Magdalen' in the 'Cornhill' and 'Temple Bar' respectively, the other three (comprising his most brilliant work) in 'All the Year Round.' In 1867 Collins joined Dickens in writing 'No Thoroughfare.' During 1873-4 he followed Dickens's example in visiting the United States and giving public readings his short story, 'The Frozen Deep,' being generally selected for this purpose. Subsequently his play, 'Rank and Riches,' which had proved a failure at the Adelphi (June 1883), had a long and most successful career in America. After his return from America he became more and more of a recluse, though he occasionally visited Ramsgate during the summer. Intimacies formed as a young man led to his being harassed, after he became famous, in a manner which proved very prejudicial to his peace of mind. Though a genial host, he easily adopted a somewhat cynical and pessimistic tone in conversation. He was very critical of the official 'Life' of Charles Dickens, which he called 'The Life of John Forster, with occasional Anecdotes of Charles Dickens.' His own copy was covered with annotations and corrections. The last years of his life witnessed the gradual decline of his powers, due in large measure to ill-health, to relieve which he had recourse to large and always increasing doses of opium. At the time of his being called to the bar he was residing at Gloucester Place, whence he removed to Hanover Place (where Edward Pigott, Millais, and Holman Hunt formed members of his circle, over which his mother still presided), and subsequently to Harley Street. He died at 82 Wimpole Street on 23 Sept. 1889, and was buried five days later in Kensal Green cemetery. A portrait of Wilkie Collins as a boy with his brother C. A. Collins was painted by A. Geddes. Another, painted in later life, by Rudolf Lehmann, belongs to Mr. R. C. Lehmann (Cat. Victorian Exhib. Nos. 258, 265).
The influence of Dickens is very clearly traceable in Collins's work, yet there is reason to believe that Collins had nearly as much influence upon the latest works of the greater writer as Dickens had upon him. Dickens longed to shine as an elaborator of plots, while Collins, the past master of the plot, aspired to be a delineator of character and to produce didactic fiction and reformatory romance after the Dickensian model. He succeeded in evolving some good characters in 'No Name' and 'Armadale,' but his best figures are semi-burlesque, such as John Bettertdge and Captain Wragge, and even, to a certain extent, Count Fosco. In his anxiety to individualise them he made them too much like 'character parts.' The actors having been brought on the stage, a well-defined object is set before the performers, the discovery of a secret or a crime, the recovery of a fortune, or the vindication of a doubtful marriage certificate, counter-plotters are introduced and obstacles accumulated ; but eventually, after a display of the utmost ingenuity, the object is attained. In order to give ' actuality ' to the story, the latter is often conducted by means of extracts from diaries, personal narratives, and excerpts from documents, of which the author poses as editor. In the course of these operations the author has the gift, as Mr. Swinburne justly observes, of 'exciting a curiosity, which in the case of the younger and more impressible readers amounts to anxiety.' If Coleridge had known 'The Moonstone,' he might well have given it a place beside 'The Alchemist' and 'Tom Jones' for ingenuity of plot. ' The construction is most minute and most wonderful,' wrote Anthony Trollope of his fellow novelist, ' but I can never lose the taste of the construction. The author seems always warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o'clock on Tuesday morning, or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone' (Autobiogr. ii. 82). Among the 'breathless admirers' of 'The Woman in White' was Edward Fitzgerald, who thought of calling his herring-lugger the Marian Halcombe. Wilkie Collins's style is unornamented, but well adapted to keep the reader's mind clear amid the complications of the story. He corrected and rewrote extensively, and most of his manuscript was very heavily scored.
The following is a list of Collins's most important publications : 1. 'Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, R.A. By his Son,' London, 1848, 2 vols. 12mo. 2. 'Antonina, or the Fall of Rome. A Romance of the Fifth Century,' 1850, 8vo. 3. 'Basil: a Story of Modern Life,' 1852, 8vo. 4. 'Hide and Seek : ' a story of deafness and dumbness, 1854 (French version, 'Cache-Cache,' 1877). 5. 'After Dark' (short stories), 1856. 6. ' The Dead Secret : 'a sensational story, embodying a study of blindness, 1857 (French version as ' Le Secret,' 1858). 7. 'The Queen of Hearts : a Collection of Stories with a connecting Link,' 1860. (It was dedicated to E. Daurand Forgues, who inscribed his ' Originaux . . . de 1'Angleterre Contemporaine' to Collins in the same year.) 8. 'The Woman in White,' 1860 (dedicated to Barry Cornwall ; seven editions appeared within six months, and several translations). 9. 'No Name,' 1862 (numerous editions). 10. 'My Miscellanies,' 1863, 2 vols. 8vo. (vol. ii. contains an interesting sketch of an old friend, Douglas Jerrold). 11. 'Armadale,' 1866 : a study of heredity, containing the character portrait of Lydia Gwilt. 12. 'The Moonstone: a Romance,' 1868 (' La Pierre de Lune,' 1872). 13. 'Man and Wife,' 1870 : an attack on the brutalising effect of an undue devotion to athletics ('Mari et Femme,' 1872). 14. 'Poor Miss Finch,' 1872 (' Pauvre Lucile ! ' 1876). 15. ' The New Magdalen,' 1873 (numerous editions ; in French, 'La Morte Vivante,' 1873). 16. 'The Frozen Deep' and other stories (first issued in America), 1874 ('La Mer Glaciale,' 1877). 17. 'The Law and the Lady,' 1875 ; aimed against the Scottish verdict of 'not proven' ('La Piste du Crime,' 1875). 18. 'The Two Destinies,' 1876: a telepathic story, very ingeniously written, and the best of his later works. 19. 'The Haunted Hotel' (a mystery of modern Venice), 1878. 20. 'The Fallen Leaves,' 1879. 21. 'Jezebel's Daughter,' 1880. 22. 'The Black Robe,' 1881. 23. 'Heart and Science,' 1883. 24. 'I say No,' 1884. 25. 'The Evil Genius,' 1886. 26. 'The Legacy of Cain,' 1888. 27. 'Blind Love' (this was running through the 'Illustrated London News' at the time of the novelist's death). Nearly all the above were included in the Tauchnitz 'Collection of British Authors,' and the majority were translated into one or more European languages.
Among Collins's plays the chief were : 'The Frozen Deep' (privately printed 1866), first performed at Tavistock House in 1857, and then at the Gallery of Illustration and elsewhere for the benefit of Douglas Jerrold's family. Collins also dramatised four of his works, viz. 'Armadale : a Drama,' 1866, sub- sequently dramatised anew as ' Miss Gwilt,' 1875 ; ' No Name' (1870 ; this had been dramatised by W. B. Bernard in 1863) ; 'The Woman in White : a Drama,' 1871 ; and 'The New Magdalen' (published by the author in 1873, and also the subject of several piratical versions and translations). The last was the most successful of the author's plays.
[Illustrated London News, 28 Sept. 1889 (portrait); Times, 24 and 28 Sept. 1889 ; Spectator, 28 Sept. 1889; World, 25 Sept. 1889; Athenæum,1889,ii. 418; Biograph, 1879,i.5; Charles Dickens's Letters ; Forster's Life of Dickens ; Celebrities of the Century; Graves's Dict. of Artists; Swinburne's Studies in Prose and Poetry; Foster's Men at the Bar ; Temple Bar, lxxxix. and cii. ; Universal Review, October 1889. See also interesting critical notices from different points of view by Messrs. A. Lang and H. Quilter, Contemp. Review, liii. and lvii.]