Sunday, January 8, 2017

Birthday: "Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life. Mrs Vesey sat through life."


William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)
Author, playwright

For mid-19th-century aspiring British writers- Butler, Gissing, Palgrave, Trollope, and Stevenson come to mind- the story was always the same: how to please dad, avoid the career he wanted for the artistically-inclined son, and not get cut off from the family fund, or hold the creditors at bay.

For William Collins, R.A., a prominent painter, the fondest hope realizable was for his son Wilkie to become a painter, too. Failing that, a clergyman. Failing that, a lawyer. With a steady career, Wilkie could dilettante his way through whatever artsy fads he chose, and still keep his place in society.

Not that Collins pere didn’t make life as a vicar, or a market town solicitor, seem small beer next to decamping, as the Collinses did from 1836 to 1838, to Italy and France in search of artistic renewal. Nor did a private education overly impress on the boy the twin imperatives of social standing and a steady income.

The young Collins ended up a clerk for a tea merchant and published his first short story at 19. Encouraged, he turned out a lurid novel two years later, which no publisher would touch. Father Collins won the next round, and Wilkie entered Lincoln’s Inn to read law in 1846.

He did so as little as possible, though, and was pretty much off the hook when his father died in 1847.  He published a memoir of his father’s life that year.

In 1850 he published his second novel. Antonina, or the Fall of Rome, trod the Roman romance path blazed by the popular Edward Bulwer-Lytton and did decently in the bookshops. Perhaps out of filial respect, though, Collins completed his course and was called to the bar in 1851.

Any hope Collins would ever practice, though, was immediately dashed. He met Charles Dickens that year. They hit it off immediately and became virtually inseparable.

Dickens, reclining, center-left; Collins, far right

They toured as actors in a play by Bulwer-Lytton titled “Not As Bad As We Seem.” They wrote plays together and put them on in Dickens’ theater company. After Collins’ next novel, Basil (1852), they traveled in Switzerland and Italy together. They shared a devotion to the novel as a vehicle for social and political activism.

The collaborated on stories. Collins published frequently in Dickens’ magazines. Dickens produced Collins’ first play in 1858. Collins’s brother married Dickens’ sister.

By the mid-Fifties, Collins began to suffer from gout. To ease the pain, he turned to laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol that was sold over the counter and touted as a cure for nearly everything. Highly addictive, the cure eventually proved worse than the ailment, but Collins was on a creative roll.

He met a poor widow called Caroline Graves who ran a shop near his home and moved in with her and her daughter.  Collins refused to marry; he ran in a fast, bohemian crowd, and that was a top-tier iconoclasm for the times. They got on well, and Collins treated Caroline's daughter as his own.

His novels of the 1850s showed inventiveness in dialogue and characterization, with unexpected flashes of realism amid his mysteries and menaces. Hide and Seek (1854) was the first English-language novel to feature a deaf character, for example.

Collins grasped the brass ring in 1860, publishing The Woman in White. A sensation novel, as the genre was known, it turned the old, baggy epistolary novel inside out. Instead of telling the story through letters, Collins set the story as a Rashomon-like tale, told, chapter by chapter, through the recollections of the characters- who could only tell what they saw, much, the narrator explains, as a case in court is told by a succession of witnesses.

Widely considered the first modern mystery novel, The Woman in White highlighted the precarious position of wealthy heiresses by surrounding one with scheming men (Henry James treated the same theme in The Portrait of a Lady). Collins’s characters were strongly drawn and memorable: the narrator, Walter Hartright; the unattractive Sir Percival Glyde; the oily Count Fosco; and the plain, almost mannish Marian Halcombe, whose intelligence and resourcefulness mark her as one of the great characters of English literature.

Critics generally panned it; the public adored it. It is widely considered one of Collins’s two best works and is the only one he put in his epitaph.

No Name (1863) dealt with illegitimacy as a social problem, and was another hit, as was Armadale, another mystery (1866). While doing research on it in Norfolk, Collins fell for a 19-year-old, Martha Rudd. He and Dickens published a play, No Thoroughfare, in 1867; it ran in London for over 200 nights before going on tour.

Collins’ other lasting masterpiece, The Moonstone, was published in 1868. It revolved around the theft of a tremendous diamond and launched the genre of detective fiction. Sergeant Duff, the copper with a taste for roses, was on the case, and among Collins’ memorable characters were Gabriel Betteredge, the loyal family servant; Ezra Jennings, the family doctor’s assistant whose chronic illness leads him into opium addiction; and Drusilla Clack, a hypocritical Christian meddler endlessly condemning others and imposing her religious tracts on them. T.S. Eliot praised it. Dorothy Sayers adored it the perfect detective story she called it.

By then Collins and Dickens were rock stars and acted the parts. Martha Rudd moved to London and bore a child by Collins in 1869; Caroline Graves left him and married another man. She abandoned him to return to Collins in short order. Collins decide to have it both ways and divided his time between the two women, installed in separate residences. His only concession to propriety was to live with Rudd as Mrs and Mrs William Dawson.

Dickens died of a stroke in 1870, leaving Collins disconsolate. Martha gave him another daughter in 1871; he kept cranking out novels and stories. He did the obligatory American reading tour in 1873-74, calling on Mark Twain; after he returned his addiction began to bite and his health to suffer. His last decade was one of wildly uneven output; always a social reformer (or sublimating his own issues, like drug abuse and bastardy, and preachiness), he was scored by critics for his tendency to scold in print. He had a son by Martha Rudd in 1874.

Often homebound, Collins mentored young authors, championed the creation of fair copyright laws, and served as an officer of the Society of Authors. He died of a stroke in London in his home at 82 Wimpole Street. Martha Rudd and the three children sent a wreath; Caroline, who died in 1895, was buried next to Collins in Kensal Green.  He acknowledged his children with Rudd in his will and left an annuity to Martha, who maintained the gravesite until she died in 1919.

Collins’ works lend themselves to screen treatment, and the first of over forty movies and television series appeared in 1910. The 1948 version of The Woman In White, featuring Sidney Greenstreet and Agnes Moorehead as the villainous Count and Countess Fosco, is an exceptional adaptation.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Wilkie Collins #Charlotte

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