The making of a storyteller
Feb 25th 2012 | from the print edition
Wilkie Collins. By Peter Ackroyd. Chatto & Windus; 199 pages; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
THIS may be Charles Dickens’s bicentenary, but Peter Ackroyd, having already written of that great author, has turned instead to his friend, Wilkie Collins, perhaps “the sweetest-tempered of all the Victorian novelists”. In this slim volume Mr Ackroyd skips along at a lively pace, tracing the arc of Collins’s life, from his happy childhood to his success as a novelist and playwright and his laudanum-laced decline.
Collins’s first novel, “Antonina”, was published when he was 26; he didn’t stop writing until his death at 65. Creativity was in the Collins genes. His father was a noted painter and academician, and through him Collins acquired an eye for painterly composition. He wrote in pictures, with an “innate sympathy between character and landscape” that brings scenes to life. Collins also enjoyed spinning a good yarn. His oeuvre is melodramatic and sensational, full of fraud, mistaken identity and murder. His convoluted tales have unexpected twists that maintain suspense for the reader. “The Woman in White” still thrills booklovers today, and with “The Moonstone” he challenges Edgar Allan Poe as the first detective novelist.
Mr Ackroyd is a consummate literary critic and he neatly weaves analysis of Collins’s works into the chronology of his life. He finds that “Collins was a master of plot rather than of character.” After carefully working out the structure, he would then work backwards to ensure it fitted together, manoeuvring his characters through the story like a puppeteer. This is an anecdotal biography and Mr Ackroyd quotes nuggets from Collins’s letters that reveal his personality. On a trip to Normandy with a friend, a youthful Collins wrote to his mother: “We find provincial cities insupportably oppressive to our mercurial characters,” then promptly moved on to Paris and squandered his purse.
Dickens is a near-constant presence in this biography; as a mentor, a holiday companion and a collaborator on theatre productions (where Collins had high aspirations but limited success). Theirs was a relationship of respect and friendly rivalry. Mr Ackroyd describes how on their grand tour Dickens suggested they grow moustaches, then compared Collins’s effort to “the eyebrows of his one-year-old child”.
Mr Ackroyd has made smooth work of threading together Collins’s life, but the missing information is revealing too. Collins never married; instead, he kept two mistresses in London. He resided with Caroline Graves and her daughter, Carrie, who became his amanuensis, while he housed Martha Rudd and their three children nearby. Their lives were intentionally obscured; in the 1871 census Caroline was listed as a widowed housekeeper and Martha referred to as Mrs Dawson.
Collins suffered from rheumatism, gout and the peculiarly Victorian affliction of “nerves”, which led to his over-reliance on laudanum. Mr Ackroyd describes how he needed the drug-induced relief to maintain his ferocious pace of writing. But why did he carry on? Maybe he needed money, or he feared idleness would precipitate a breakdown, or he felt the compulsion of a storyteller. His novels have a “power of curiosity” that demands they be read. This biography is compulsive reading, too.