Brief Lives: Wilkie Collins, by Melisa Klimaszewski

September 26, 2011 at 2:41 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

London-based Hesperus is one of the many fine small presses that have sprung up in recent years both here and in the UK. I’ve just had the pleasure of reading a short biography of Wilkie Collins, one of the titles in the Brief Lives series put out by Hesperus.

  In her traversal of the life of Wilkie Collins, Melisa Klimaszewski places primary emphasis on the works of this great Victorian novelist and playwright. This is not to say that we don’t learn about Collins’s private life – we do, and a most unconventional life it was, at least by the perceived standards of the day. Collins maintained not one but two households. He loved both Caroline Crane and Martha Rudd, and although he had children by both, he never married either one.

This reluctance to wed was born primarily of a dislike of the institution of marriage. I can’t help feeling that Collins’s own home life, with two loving but rather rigid and straitlaced parents, may have also had something to do with his aversion to matrimony.

William Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824. From the outset, he was an odd looking little chap. On the right side of his forehead was a singularly noticeable bulge. “The firm protuberance, looking something like a tennis ball trying to press its way out of his cranium, is visible in depictions spanning Collins’ life, from an early sketch of him as an infant to photographs of the elderly Collins.”   As the boy grew, another anomaly became evident: his hands and feet did not keep pace with the rest of him, and remained unnaturally small when he had attained adulthood. In order to find shoes and boots that he could wear comfortably, he looked for sizes smaller than those that a woman would require. In some cases, items sized for young children fit him as well.

These irregularities in his physique seem to have troubled him very little:

He admired those with more ideal physical forms, but he did not develop an intense or bitter desire to fit in with the masses.

Klimaszewski adds that “from a young age, Collins was comfortable confronting and disputing social custom.” So in his case, one might almost say that form followed function.

Collins’s first published stories appeared in the early 1840s. Soon he had completed his first novel, entitled Iolani. Collins was never able to find a publisher for that work. In fact, the manuscript disappeared, only surfacing once again in 1991. It was sold to a private collector in New York City and then finally published. According to Klimaszewski, Iolani “…has provided a fresh and amusing look into Collins’ early writing.”

In 1851, an event occurred that influenced Collins profoundly, from both a personal and a professional standpoint, and for the rest of his life. He met Charles Dickens. Though the latter was twelve years his senior, Collins formed a close bond with the great novelist:

They shared an energetic disposition, a passion for detail, a taste for extravagant dress and a creative spark. Both men were also drawn to what others regarded as the seedy underside of Victorian life. Dickens had a lifelong habit of walking for miles, often through the streets of rough neighborhoods, and Collins now joined him in regular jaunts through pub- and prostitute-lined streets….Dickens favoured carousing with Collins above staying home with his nine young children and wife of nearly fifteen years.

They may have celebrated life with a certain abandon, but as writers, they were serious and extremely effective collaborators. They co-wrote and produced dramas based on their own novels; Collins contributed stories to popular literary magazines such as Household Words and All the Year Round, both of which were published by Dickens. 

Klimaszewski is careful to point out the innovations in detective fiction that can be attributed to Wilkie Collins. “The Lawyer’s Story of the Stolen Letter,” written in 1856, “…has the distinction of being regarded as the first British detective story.” That same year, with “The Diary of Anne Rodway,” Collins gave us the first woman detective protagonist to appear in a short story. “Who Is the Thief?” was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1858. Now known as “The Biter Bit,” this was the first comic detective story and also the first to be written in the epistolary form. (“The Biter Bit” can be found in Masters of Mystery, along with a terrific story by Dicken called “Hunted Down.” “A Terribly Strange Bed,” another tale by Collins that’s both highly atmospheric and genuinely frightening, can be found in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a superb anthology originally published in 1944 and brought back into print by Random House’s Modern Library division.) 

In the 1860s, Wilkie Collins produced his four greatest novels: The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. The Woman in White, first serialized in All the Year Round and subsequently published in three volumes, was wildly popular from the moment it first appeared on the literary scene. The same happy fate befell The Moonstone.        

Klimeszewski does a fine job of elucidating the original and distinguishing qualities of each of these four works of fiction. In regard to The Moonstone, she admits that the designation “first” can almost always provoke an argument: “Perhaps it is more useful to discuss The Moonstone as the detective novel whose plot devices, characterisation, and narrative methods would become standards for the form and as the first to achieve such instant and widespread fame.” The Moonstone contained within its pages a synthesis of several literary subgenres: the Gothic, psychological realism, and sensationalism.

I’d like to take a moment to look at that last category, because Klimaszewski offers an excellent definition of the novel of sensation, a designation I’ve run across frequently in the annals of literary criticism but rarely seen pinned down with such clarity. “Sensation fiction,” she explains, “was by no means a discrete entity.”

It regularly overlapped with Gothic fiction, domestic realism, psychological realism, melodrama, and the development of detective fiction. In seeking to categorise a work as as sensational, one looks  for some combination of the elements above, an especially heavy dependence on strained coincidences, and settings where the most shocking of intrigues are discovered within familiar domestic spaces often belonging to the higher social classes.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became a commonplace trope that in the pantheon of great literature. sensation fiction was of a lower order. It was considered a time waster, and worse: “…a vice akin to addiction that would fuel moral degeneration and vice in impressionable, and mostly women, readers.” According to Klimaszewski, a revaluation of this much maligned subgenre got under way in the late twentieth century. With regard specifically to The Moonstone, the process was kick started even earlier by T.S. Eliot in his 1927 essay, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” Eliot declares that work to be “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels…in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.”

Here’s Klimaszewski on The Moonstone:

The novel’s plot twists are surprising but often so plausible that they do not feel as ‘sensational’ as the shocking developments in many of Collins’ other novels. As Collins’ writing emerged in the detective and mystery form, surprising elements became clues, not simply shock tactics. The revelation of those clues ultimately had much more to do with characters or readers overlooking something than with Collins attempting to produce gratuitous surprise.

In other words, exactly as it should  be in a well wrought mystery.

Serialization of The Moonstone began in 1868. Eight years prior, a terrible murder had occurred in the small village of Road, in Wiltshre in the south west of England. A three year old boy named Saville Kent had gone missing in the night. The next day, an extensive search of the house and grounds resulted in the finding of his small body stuffed down  privy.

It was felt from the outset that some member of the household was the perpetrator. But between the parents, older children, and numerous servants, there was  large cast of characters from which to choose. The Met sent its finest, in the person of Detective Inspector Jack Whicher. to head up the investigation.

Meanwhile there was a major piling on by the press, where speculation was rife as to who had committed this abomination. In a letter to Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens weighed in with his own hypothesis:

‘Mr. Kent [victim’s father], intriguing with nursemaid, poor little child wakes in Crib, and sits up, contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr. Kent gashes  body, to mystify discoverers, and disposes of same.’

Very ingenious – one almost wants to say, very Dickensian! But true…? Find out for yourself by reading The Suspicions of Mr.Whicher, Kate Summerscale’s fascinating look at the facts and circumstances surrounding the murder at Road Hill House. ( This article makes me hope fervently that we get the opportunity to view the filmed version of Summerscale’s book here in the States. Rebecca Eaton, are you listening?)

Detective Inspector Whicher’s theory of the crime differed from that of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, Whicher’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, at least at the time of the initial inquiry. Five years later, by which time he had left the Metropolitan Police Force, the culprit confessed, in the process proving Jack Whicher  right in his belief concerning the case. Whicher was the model for Sergeant Cuff, the investigating officer in The Moonstone. 

Detective Inspector Jack Whicher

(The Usual Suspects book group has discussed  both The Moonstone and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Both are wonderful books; both provided plenty of matter for a lively discussion.)

In the final chapter of her book, Klimaszewski names several works by other authors who have used the writing, or the life, of Wilkie Collins in crafting their own fictions. She’s enthusiastic about Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, whose novel The Little Stranger I so enjoyed. In addition, several of the stories in an anthology called Death By Dickens are warmly recommended.   I was able to get this book from the library and have just read “The House of the Red Candle” by Martin Edwards. This is a locked room mystery – or to be more precise, a locked room-in-a-brothel mystery. Here’s how Klimaszewski describes it: “Concern for a prostitute leads Collins and Dickens to a brothel where a suspected murderess seems to have disappeared impossibly, and their slowly developing detective skills result in an entertaining exposition of the mystery.” In fact, this delightful tale is both entertaining and highly imaginative.

We have just passed the anniversary of the death of Wilkie Collins: he died on September 23, 1889. This is how Melisa Klimeszewski concludes this short but enlightening and highly enjoyable work:

The inclusion of repellent as well as sympathetic misfits throughout Collins’ body of work insists upon a diversity of difference and grants a flawed – and therefore accessible, recognisable – humanity to characters so often drawn in other fiction as one-dimensionally odd. These complexities, in addition to fast-paced and intriguing plots, continue to draw new readers to (and inspire new imaginings of) Collins’ tales. Exploring the power of lust, the inequities of marriage, a mysterious disappearance, or a comic scenario, the works of Wilkie Collins stand as a testament to the lasting and varied legacies of a supreme storyteller.

Portrait of Wilkie Collins by Rudolph Lehmann

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