Five Fascinating Facts about Wilkie Collins
Fun facts about the Victorian novelist
1. A novel written by Victorian author Wilkie Collins when he was 20, titled Iolani and set in Tahiti, was eventually published in 1999. Written in 1844 but not published until 110 years after his death, Iolani: Or, Tahiti as It Was was Collins’s first ever attempt at writing a novel. Collins knew next to nothing about Tahiti, but that didn’t stop him from having a go at writing about it.
2. Wilkie Collins’s 1860 novel The Woman in White was so popular it spawned stage-plays, perfumes, hats, cloaks, and even a waltz. The Woman in White was the novel that made Collins a famous name and helped to establish the vogue for sensation fiction, a genre that would enjoy its heyday in the 1860s. Collins would be able to demand substantial sums for his subsequent novels as he became hot literary property: he received £5,000 for his novel Armadale in 1866, a huge sum for the time.
3. He’s credited with writing the first detective novel. Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone was called by T. S. Eliot the first and greatest of the detective novels, though in fact several novels published earlier in the 1860s have a stronger claim to being the first (if not the greatest). The novel centres on the theft of the eponymous gemstone, a rare diamond, and the attempts made by several detective figures – notably Sergeant Cuff – to retrieve it, and find out the identity of the criminal. (There’s a nice twist in the tale, though we won’t say any more than that!)
4. The first of Collins’s many contributions to Dickens’s magazine was a short story titled ‘A Terribly Strange Bed’. Published in Dickens’s periodical Household Worlds in 1852, ‘A Terribly Strange Bed’ lives up to the promise of its title: the canopy on the bed in the story smothers the occupant as he sleeps. As well as Dickens publishing Collins in his publications, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens would go on to collaborate on several works, including the play The Frozen Deep (1857) and the Christmas ghost story ‘A House to Let’ (1858), which they co-authored with Elizabeth Gaskell and Queen Victoria’s favourite poet, Adelaide Anne Procter.
5. Wilkie Collins ended up living with two women, though he never married. By Victorian standards, Collins’s romantic life was scandalous. In the 1850s he and Caroline Graves, the real-life inspiration for Anne Catherick in his novel The Woman in White, began cohabiting, and later the couple became a ménage a trois when Collins began another relationship with a woman, Martha Rudd, who bore him three children.
Image: Portrait of Wilkie Collins by Elliott and Fry, via Wikimedia Commons.