This page last revised 7 November 2000
I am grateful to Paul Lewis for use of the image of Collins.
William Wilkie Collins was born in London on January 8 1824, the son of the renowned painter William Collins (1788-1847). His father was a religious man, who was disappointed by his son's freethinking nature: Collins refused to conform to parental expectation, failing to make a career at the tea-merchants Antrobus and Co., to which he was apprenticed at the age of seventeen, and at the law, which he entered as a student in 1846. Collins was twenty-two when his father died, and was now determined to become a professional writer. His first book, published in November 1948, was Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, R.A., but, as Julian Symons comments, "he settled after this act of piety to a life of which his father would strongly have disapproved" (8).
In a writing career that lasted from 1843, when he published his first story in The Illuminated Magazine, until his death in 1889, Wilkie Collins wrote thirty-three books, and numerous plays and short stories. Although he was already an established writer with the publication of the memoir of his father and his first novel Antonina, it was when he met Charles Dickens in 1851 that his literary career began to take off. Collins regularly contributed to Dickens's magazine Household Words, and the writers even collaborated on a story called "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners" published in the Christmas 1857 number. Collins's first major success was The Woman in White which was published serially in Dickens's new journal All the Year Round from November 1859. In the decade that followed Collins produced the remainder of his best work: the novels No Name (1862), Armadale (1866), and The Moonstone(1868). Although he continued to write for another twenty years his reputation fell into decline as his choice of subject matter veered to the sensational: for example Poor Miss Finch (1872) is the story of a blind girl who falls in love with one of a pair of identical twins whose skin is dyed blue by a cure for epilepsy.
Collins himself believed The Woman in White to be his finest work, and stipulated that the inscription on his tombstone should simply read: "'Author of The Woman in White and other works of fiction'" (Symons, 7).
Collins's personal life was scandalous from the point of view of the bourgeois English society into which he was born. In 1858 he set up home with a woman called Caroline Graves and her young daughter. Although they lived together as man and wife they were never legally married. Collins was adamantly opposed to the idea of wedlock. He once wrote that "'the general idea of the scope and purpose of the institution of marriage is a miserably narrow one'" (Peters, 198), and his most celebrated novel,The Woman in White (1860), derives much of its force from the terrible injustices inflicted on Laura Fairlie by her husband under the respectable cover of legal marriage.
Although still living with Caroline Graves, in 1864 Collins began a relationship with another young woman, Martha Rudd. By 1868 she had settled in London as his mistress. Caroline Graves, possibly fed up with Collins's refusal to make their union legal, married another man at a ceremony attended by Collins on October 29 1868. At around this time Martha Rudd became pregnant with Collins's first child - she was to bear him two more. Caroline Graves left her husband in 1870 to return to Collins. For the rest of his life Collins was to divide his time between his two families. Caroline Peters writes that his "peculiar sense of honour involved loyalty to both Martha and Caroline; marriage to one would have meant casting off the other. . . . With one part of him he was the fatherly protector of a young woman who, though he loved dearly, could have little in common with him intellectually. With the other he remained the irrepressible Bohemian, openly defying the respectable world and challenging it to accept him on his own terms" (300). When he died Collins left the income of his estate to be divided equally between the two women and their families.
Wilkie Collins first became aware of opium at the age of nine. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a friend of his parents, and the young boy overheard the poet confiding his grief about his struggle with opium addiction to Collins's mother. Harriet Collins made the following reply: "'Mr Coleridge, do not cry; if the opium really does you any good, and you must have it, why do not you go and get it?"' (Hayter, 255). Collins later recalled that when his dying father's only relief was Batley's Drops, an opium preparation. At the age of thirty Collins began to experience intense neuralgic pains caused by rheumatic gout. His legs were badly affected, as were his eyes: a friend, Charles Kent, was shocked by Collins's appearance during an attack, saying his eyes "'were literally enormous bags of blood'" (Peters, 335). The writer increasingly turned to laudanum to ease his pains. Collins carried around a silver flask full of the opium preparation, and by the end of his life consumed enough daily to kill twelve people, according to the surgeon Sir William Fergusson (Peters, 336).
The impact of Colin's dependence on the drug can clearly be seen in his fiction. In No Name (1862) Magdalen Vanstone contemplates suicide by laudanum overdose; in Armadale (1866) the villain Miss Gwilt makes a paean to its pleasures: "'Who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart, whoever he was. If all the miserable wretches in pain of body and mind, whose comforter he has been, could meet together to sing his praises, what a chorus it would be!'" (Hayter, 258) In The Moonstone (1868) the entire plot of the novel hinges on the effects of laudanum. Althea Hayter comments that this work has "a Chinese box intricacy; the actions of an opium-dosed man are described by an opium addict who is the invention of a writer heavily dosed with opium" (259).
Collins's use of opium was not merely influential in terms of plot device or character traits in his novels. His descriptions of landscape evolved from the purely pictorial in his early works to the feverish, hallucinatory intensity of such scenes as the Shivering Sands in The Moonstone: "'Do you know what it looks like to me?'" says Rosanna Spearman: "'It looks as if it had hundreds of suffocating people under it - all struggling to get to the surface, and all sinking lower and lower in the dreadful deeps!'" (Moonstone 28). Subjective, painterly landscape has given way to an opium-induced landscape of the imagination.
Berridge, Virginia and Griffith Edwards. Opium and the People: Opium Use in Nineteenth-Century England. London: Allen Lane, 1981.
Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. London: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. 1868. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982.
- - - : The Woman in White. 1860. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
Dickens, Charles, and Wilkie Collins. "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." Household Words 19, Christmas 1857 (extra number). 1-36.
Hayter, Althea. "Wilkie Collins." Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1968. 255-270.
Symons, Julian. Introduction. The Woman in White. By Wilkie Collins. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985. 7-21.
Trodd, Anthea. Introduction. The Moonstone. By Wilkie Collins. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982. vii-xxi.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Bronagh Clarke. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
Top of This Page
[QUB Home Page][Prometheus Home Page][The Imperial Archive]