Wilkie Collins was a British writer of the Victorian era, a close friend of Charles Dickens, and one of the more innovative novelists of his time. His most famous works, released in serialized format are The Moonstone, the first detective novel ever written, and The Woman in White. Both works use first person narration, but also include multiple narrators, (similar to an epistolary novel) much as is the case with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which may have been inspired by the work of Wilkie Collins, who proceeded him.
Wilkie Collins was born in England in 1824. His father was a painter and may have been the inspiration for an artist character in the novel Hide and Seek. When Wilkie Collins was in his teens, his father William decided to take his wife and two sons to Italy to study painting for a year. Wilkie Collins gained much from his European travels, which would later figure largely in his novels. Unlike Dickens, Wilkie Collins frequently set at least a portion of his novels and plays outside of England to add more flare and drama to his sensational style of writing.
Upon returning to England, Wilkie Collins first decided to study law. While studying, the writer worked upon his first novel Iolani, which was not published until the end of the 20th century. Collins’ father died in 1847, prompting the writer to compose his father’s biography, which was not published until 1848. His first work of fiction, Antonina was published two years later.
In 1851, Wilkie Collins met Dickens, beginning a two decades long friendship that would enable Collins to become more successful. He published several of his novels in Dickens’ magazine, “All The Year Round,” and was a frequent contributor to Dickens’ other successful publication, “Household Words.”
For most of his adult life, although quite productive and successful, he was unfortunately addicted to opium derived from laudanum. He suffered from what was termed “rheumatic gout,” which was probably rheumatoid arthritis. He also lived outside the realm of “traditional” morality. He was romantically involved with two women, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. By Martha, he had three children but the two never married. With Caroline he had an off and on relationship, sometimes residing with her.
Throughout his life Wilkie Collins wrote over 20 novels, and 15 plays. He also published numerous non-fiction pieces. His work was nearly universally admired by his audience, but critics often attacked his work, particularly the novel Armadale for dwelling too much on his villains. This novel, if read today, is considered triumphant for brilliantly exploring the psyche of the anti-hero.
Later works following The Moonstone were less suspenseful and dealt more with social criticism and commentary, much in imitation of Dickens. Some critics believe this change was an attempt to atone for the supposed defects in his character which led him to opium addiction, and for his affairs with two women at the same time. Still others believe that Wilkie Collins took up Dickens’ torch in commenting on social injustice. The Moonstone was published in 1868, and Dickens died two years later.
Wilkie Collins is thought to have cherished his work The Woman in White the most. When he died in 1889, his headstone notes him as its author, and mentions no other novels. When studying the Victorian novelists, Collins’ work is an excellent companion to the later novels of Dickens’. Dickens as well as Collins loved the element of mystery and surprise, and this occurs with greater frequency in Dickens’ later work. Many believe that the friendship between Dickens and Wilkie Collins can be directly traced in the works they published during their longstanding friendship.