Saturday, January 08, 2011

In Memoriam: Wilkie Collins

In many ways the popular Victorian novelists Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens functioned as mirrors of each other; each wildly successful in their times, each responsible for overly-sentimental, verbose, and even maudlin yet hugely popular works, and each plagued by illness which fated them to premature deaths, today the latter and his works are studied with a fervour bordering on the obsessive while the former languishes in a semi-forgotten state that is in its way as tragic as the lives of any of the fictional heroines he created.

PhotobucketSo why the discrepancy? Possibly Collins' bohemianism didn't sit well with the generation that came after him - the one whose role it was to assess his legacy. While Dickens married young and had children as he frantically wrote himself to death, Collins never married, preferring instead to shack up with a widow named Caroline Graves; also, while Dickens suffered his deteriorating health with a stoicism the Victorians would have considered brave, Collins dealt with his by taking increasing doses of laudanum - so much, in fact, that he not only hallucinated but invented himself a subjective doppelgänger he called 'Ghost Wilkie'.

In fact, much of Collins' 1868 novel The Moonstone was written without his recollection of having written it; I had a similar reaction when I read his 1859 novel The Woman in White, only my memory lapse wasn't caused by laudanum, but rather by Byzantine Victorian verbiage and a heroic quantity of THC. But I digress...

Bornin London on this day in 1824, Collins' father was the landscape artist William Collins; when he was a teenager Collins' family lived in Italy, which left an indelible impression on him. Originally employed as a clerk, after the failure of his first novel Iolani Collins studied law at Lincoln's Inn. When his second novel Antonina was a greater success in 1850 Collins began taking his writing career more seriously. It was following his fateful meeting of Dickens in 1851 that Collins went to work on the more successful author's Household Words; by the time his next few novels had been serialized in All the Year Round Collins' fame was assured. By the time he died in September 1889 he'd published 27 novels, more than 50 short stories, at least 15 plays, and over 100 pieces of non-fiction work. All of which makes his subsequent obscurity all the more odd...

The resurrection of Wilkie Collins began when Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick gave their son James the middle name of Wilkie; while it might not seem like much to most people with lives, it was a big deal to the blogocracy when it occurred in October 2002, and was much commented upon. In fact, it was in reaction to this event that I first read The Woman in White - which fact I'm only partially ashamed to admit.
share on: facebook

No comments: