1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Collins, William Wilkie

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COLLINS, WILLIAM WILKIE (1824–1889), English novelist, elder son of William Collins, R.A., the landscape painter, was born in London on the 8th of January 1824. He was educated at a private school in Highbury, and when only a small boy of twelve was taken by his parents to Italy, where the family lived for three years. On their return to England Wilkie Collins was articled to a firm in the tea trade, but four years later he abandoned that business for the law, and was entered at Lincoln’s Inn in 1846, being called to the bar three years later. He found little pleasure in his new career, however; though what he learned in it was exceedingly valuable to him later. On his father’s death in 1847 young Collins made his first essay in literature, publishing the Life of William Collins, in two volumes, in the following year. In 1850 he put forth his first work of fiction, Antonina, or the Fall of Rome, which was clearly inspired by his life in Italy. Basil appeared in 1852, and Hide and Seek in 1854. About this time he made the acquaintance of Charles Dickens, and began to contribute to Household Words, where After Dark (1856) and The Dead Secret (1857) ran serially. His great success was achieved in 1860 with the publication of The Woman in White, which was first printed in All the Year Round. From that time he enjoyed as much popularity as any novelist of his day, No Name (1862), Armadale (1866), and The Moonstone, a capital detective story (1868), being among his most successful books. After The New Magdalen (1873) his ingenuity became gradually exhausted, and his later stories were little more than faint echoes of earlier successes. He died in Wimpole Street, London, on the 23rd of September 1889. Collins’s gift was of the melodramatic order, and while many of his stories made excellent plays, several of them were actually reconstructed from pieces designed originally for stage production. But if his colours were occasionally crude and his methods violent, he was at least a master of situation and effect. His trick of telling a story through the mouths of different characters is sometimes irritatingly disconnected; but it had the merit of giving an air of actual evidence and reality to the elucidation of a mystery. He possessed in the highest degree the gift of absorbing interest; the turns and complexities of his plots are surprisingly ingenious, and many of his characters are not only real, but uncommon. Count Fosco in The Woman in White is perhaps his masterpiece; the character has been imitated again and again, but no imitation has ever attained to the subtlety and humour of the original.