William Wilkie Collins (January 8, 1824 – September 23, 1889) was an English novelist, playwright, and writer of short stories. He was hugely popular in his time, authoring 27 novels, more than 50 short stories, at least 15 plays, and over 100 pieces of non-fiction work. His best-known works are The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Armadale, and No Name.
A friend of Charles Dickens who published in Dicken's journal, Collins' popularity has waned through the years. The Victorian era was a time of great social change and increased social awareness, with authors like Dickens and Collins helping to draw attention to social injustice. The Victorian novel tended toward a highly moralistic tone and concern with issues of social welfare.
Collins was born in London, the son of a well-known landscape artist, William Collins. At 17 he left school and was apprenticed to a firm of tea merchants, but after five unhappy years, during which he wrote his first novel, Iolani, he entered Lincoln's Inn to study law. (Iolani remained unpublished for over 150 years until 1999.) After his father's death in 1847, Collins produced his first published book, Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. (1848), and also considered a career in painting, exhibiting a picture at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1849, but it was with the publication of his novel Antonina in 1850 that his career as a writer began in earnest.
An instrumental event in Collins' career occurred in 1851 when he was introduced to Charles Dickens by a mutual friend, Augustus Egg. They became lifelong friends and collaborators; several of Collins' novels were serialized in Dickens' weekly publication All the Year Round, and Dickens later edited and published them himself.
Collins suffered from a form of arthritis known as "rheumatic gout" and became severely addicted to the opium that he took (in the form of laudanum) to relieve the pain. As a result he experienced paranoid delusions, the most notable being his conviction that he was constantly accompanied by a doppelganger he dubbed 'Ghost Wilkie'. His novel The Moonstone prominently features the effects of opium and opium addiction. While he was writing it, Collins' consumption of laudanum was such that he later claimed to have no memory of writing large parts of the novel.
Collins never married, but lived, on and off from 1858, with a widow, Mrs. Caroline Graves, and her daughter. He also fathered three children by another woman, Martha Rudd, whom he met after Mrs. Graves left him in 1868. Mrs. Graves returned to Collins after two years, and he continued both relationships until his death in 1889.
He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, West London. His grave notes him as the author of The Woman in White.
His works were classified at the time as 'sensation novels', a genre seen nowadays as the precursor to detective fiction and suspense fiction. He also wrote penetratingly on the plight of women and on the social and domestic issues of his time. Like many writers of his time, he published most of his novels as serials in magazines such as Dickens's All the Year Round, and was known as a master of the form, creating just the right degree of suspense to keep his audience reading from week to week. (Sales of All The Year Round actually increased when The Woman in White succeeded Dickens' own, more critically acclaimed novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities.)
He enjoyed ten years of great success following publication of The Woman in White in 1859. His next novel, No Name combined social commentary—the absurdity of the law as it applied to children of unmarried parents—with a densely-plotted revenge thriller. "Armadale," (the first and only of Collins' major novels of the 1860s to be serialized in a magazine other than Dickens' "All The Year Round") provoked strong criticism, generally centered around its transgressive villainess Lydia Gwilt; and provoked in part through Collins' typically confrontational prefaratory material. The novel was both a financial coup for its author and yet, nevertheless, a comparative commercial failure: the sum paid by the Cornhill magazine for the serialization rights was exceptional, eclipsing the prices paid for the vast majority of similar novels by a substantial margin, yet the novel itself failed to recoup its publishers' investment. The Moonstone, published in 1868, and the last novel of what is generally regarded as the most successful decade of its authors' career, was, despite a somewhat cool reception from both Dickens and the critics, a significant return to form that re-established the market value of an author whose success in the competitive Victorian literary marketplace had been gradually waning since his initial successes. Viewed by many to represent the advent of the true Detective Story within the tradition of the English Novel, it remains one of Collins' most critically acclaimed productions.
However, various factors (including the loss of Dickens' as a literary mentor after his death in 1870; Collins' increased dependence upon laudanum; and a somewhat ill-advised penchant for utilizing his fiction to rail against social issues) appear to have led to a decline. In the two decades following the success of his sensation novels of the 1860s and prior to his death in 1889, Collins' novels and novellas of the '70s and '80s, while by no means entirely devoid of merit or literary interest, are generally regarded as inferior to his previous productions and receive comparatively little critical attention today.
The Woman in White and The Moonstone share an unusual narrative structure, somewhat resembling an epistolary novel, in which different portions of the book have different narrators, each with a distinctive narrative voice.
After The Moonstone, Collins's novels contained fewer thriller elements and more social commentary. The subject matter continued to be "sensational," but his popularity declined, which led Swinburne to waggishly remark:
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