I’ve been thinking recently about William Wilkie Collins, the Victorian novelist, contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. If you’ve read him at all it’s likely to have been The Woman in White, a mystery story, or The Moonstone, the first proper detective novel in the English language, the two great poles of his literary career. In between there is a lot of middling stuff, some good, others dire.
But when it comes to the history of English literature Collins deserves to be remembered in his own right, especially in this year of Dickens. In many ways he is such a sharp contrast with the latter. Dickens was the acme of Victorian bourgeois respectability, solidly married, the archetype of the pater familias.
Collins never married. Instead he had two long-term mistresses, one of whom bore him three children. Two mistresses meant two households, all within the confines of London’s Marylebone. Having one mistress wasn’t unusual at the time; it was two that added to the complications. One mistress is unfortunate; two makes for carelessness! He apparently also took Dickens on a jaunt to Paris. Sadly no details have survived. Oh, yes, one other thing: he was a drug addict, a partaker of huge quantities of laudanum, a tincture of opium and alcohol.
In fiction, too, Collins was a contrast to Dickens. Instead of solid respectability he explores the darker recesses of human experience – murder, adultery and blackmail. He also wrote about sex, which features more prominently in his novels than any other work of Victorian fiction, outside underground pornography. In Basil the hero of the book listens through the wall while his not so innocent young bride does the wild thing – noisily – with the book's villain!
Collins came at just the right time. There was a new reading public, created by the improvements in elementary education. The abolition of paper taxes and improvements in printing made books, often published in serial form, accessible to ordinary people. And all sorts of people read Collins, from barons to barmaids, all hungry for the particular brand of sensation he had to offer. The more the newspapers tut-tuted over his latest breach of convention the more the public lapped it up.
Like all good writers he knew his public and gave them what they wanted. He may not be as great as Dickens but he is just as enduring. Although he did not embrace reforming causes with the same thoroughness as his friend he was no less radical in his own way. Given his household arrangements it will come as no surprise that he hated conventional Victorian morality. He also hated the way women were treated at the time. I suppose he might be defined as an early feminist, creating fiercely independent women in his novels, a compensation for the perceptions of the times, a harbinger of times to come.