When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd
Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd This is a good, clear, short guide to the life and work of Wilkie Collins (1824-89), Bohemian, friend of Dickens and creator of the modern detective novel. Born into a family of artists (his brother Charles was the painter of Convent Thoughts), he soon decided he did not want a nine-to-five job. His early novels were sensational, rather than remarkable, but in 1859 he produced the brilliant Woman in White, which has mesmerised readers ever since. I’m not sure that any thriller writer before Ruth Rendell is as good. He wrote three other outstanding novels, No Name, Armadale and The Moonstone, which is about the theft of a sacred Indian diamond and is unusual for its time because it suggests that Westerners ought not to plunder Third World countries. Indeed, he disagreed with most ‘Victorian values’. He wasn’t religious. His heroines are not good and passive like Dickens heroines but intelligent, strong-minded women, often tormented and living on the margins of respectability.
He disbelieved in marriage and had two mistresses, one his ‘housekeeper’ and official companion, the other a younger, working-class girl with whom he had a secret family.
His novels show deep sympathy for prostitutes, wives without legal rights and illegitimate children. Yet it is said that his daughters suffered all their lives because they had been born out of wedlock. In later life he was in constant pain and had to drug himself to keep going. The novels of his last 15 years are so poor that one can hardly believe they are by the author of The Woman in White. And indeed, that is how he described himself on his tombstone.