Wilkie Collins was one of the grand manipulators of 19th-century letters: a writer of whom it could be said, even in his teens, was possessed of the ability “to tell a lie beautifully”, and who would come to be regarded as the bequeather, the progenitor, of that great repository of dissimulation and revelation, the English detective novel.
Collins’ reputation as the father of this new form of fiction was secured in 1928, when TS Eliot described The Moonstone – Collins’ bewitching novel of 1868 – as “the first, the longest and the best of the modern English detective novel”. Although literary historians now argue that Eliot was mistaken in identifying Collins as the inaugurator of the detective novel, most are agreed that The Moonstone was the book in which its possibilities were given their fullest artistic recognition, and in which the genre itself first established its place in the English literary tradition. The Moonstone might not have been the first novel of its kind, but it was certainly among the best (journalist and literary critic G?K Chesterton though it “probably the best detective tale in the world”).
While Eliot was writing about the importance of the world of Collins’ novels, others were turning their attention to the life of the novelist himself. Dorothy L Sayers – poet, essayist, translator, playwright and, like Collins, a writer of detective fiction – devoted 30 years to researching the life of her literary predecessor, yet was forced to abandon her projected biography because she had been unable to recover sufficient records to reconstruct Collins’ personal life. Collins, a private and secretive man, would have been delighted. Yet for us, the fact that Sayers’ biography never came to fruition is – or ought to be – a source of sadness.
Since Sayers abandoned her project, a number of accomplished Collins biographies have appeared, among them Catherine Peters’ The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins, William M Clarke’s The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins, and Peter Ackroyd’s brisk and idiosyncratic Wilkie Collins. To these we can now add Andrew Lycett’s thorough and sympathetic Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation.
Lycett’s subtitle refers to three aspects of Collins’ life that he regards as connected: Collins’ appetite for what we might call the sensational life (booze, opiates, women and food), the “sensational” nature of his personal affairs, and his contribution to the nascent genre of the “sensational novel” (to which the detective novel was related). But before we arrive at the glamour promised by the subtitle, we first encounter Collins in his formative years.
William Wilkie Collins was born on January 8, 1824 at 11 New Cavendish Street, London. His early education was supervised by his mother, Harriet, to whom Collins later attributed “whatever of poetry and imagination there may be in my composition”. His father, William, was an artist. He was also a High Tory who once confessed to a friend “that he equated political reform with cholera as a scourge of the age and as evidence of God’s wrath”, and an oppressively pious member of the High Church. His correspondence was heavy with unctuous sententiae (“Your heart is not insensible to the mercies of Providence,” as he once gallantly wrote to his mistress), and an evening’s diversion came in the form of readings from the Bible.