Skip to main content
Select Source:

William Wilkie Collins

William Wilkie Collins

The English author William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) wrote intricately plotted novels of sensational intrigue which helped establish the conventions of modern detective fiction.

Wilkie Collins was born in London on Jan. 8, 1824, the son of a successful painter. Leaving school in his sixteenth year, he was apprenticed to a tea importer but had little enthusiasm for business. As a young man, he both wrote and painted. He published a number of articles and stories, exhibited a picture at the Royal Academy, and was an early supporter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His first published novel, Antonina, or the Fall of Rome (1850), was modeled on the historical fiction of the popular Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Collins met Charles Dickens in 1851 and became one of his closest friends. Most of his early stories and novels appeared in Dickens's magazines Household Words and All the Year Round, and through participation in Dickens's elaborate amateur theatricals he was encouraged to try his hand at drama. However, Collins's melodramas, although popular in their day, are now largely forgotten.

In the novels Basil (1852), Hide and Seek (1854), and The Dead Secret (1857), Collins placed sensational incident in a realistic contemporary middle-class setting and developed the technique of gradually unfolding a mystery introduced at the beginning of the story.

The Woman in White (1860), based on an incident that had occurred in France some 70 years earlier, marked the maturing of Collins's art and was an immediate popular success on both sides of the Atlantic. In it a scheme to rob a woman of her fortune turns on the existence of a mysterious double who dies and is substituted for the victim. The extraordinarily complex maneuvers of the villain are made even more mystifying by Collins's device of narrating the events through a series of limited observers. Although Armadale (1866) contained no mystery, its plot was even more complex and its atmosphere even richer. The Moonstone (1868) was Collins's greatest achievement and set a permanent standard for detective fiction. Told, like The Woman in White, from a number of limited points of view, it dealt with the recovery by three Brahmins of a diamond stolen from an Indian idol.

After Man and Wife (1870), a novel on the problem of the marriage laws, Collins's works concentrate on social issues. But his style was not suited to this type of novel, and he was also becoming deeply addicted to opium after taking laudanum for rheumatic gout.

Collins never married but maintained a rather enigmatic relationship with two women, one of whom lived with him for almost 30 years. He died on Sept. 23, 1889, after prolonged illness.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Collins is Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins (1952). Also of interest are Stewart Marsh Ellis, Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Others (1931), and the chapter on Collins in Malcom Elwin, Victorian Wallflowers: A Panoramic Survey of the Popular Literary Periodicals (1934).

Additional Sources

Ashley, Robert Paul, Wilkie Collin, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

Ashley, Robert Paul, Wilkie Collins, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Haskell House Publishers, 1976.

Ashley, Robert Paul, Wilkie Collins, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976.

Clarke, William M. (William Malpas), The secret life of Wilkie Collins, Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1991.

Peters, Catherine, The king of inventors: a life of Wilkie Collins, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Robinson, Kenneth, Wilkie Collins: a biography, London: Davis-Poynter, 1974.

Sayers, Dorothy L. (Dorothy Leigh), Wilkie Collins: a critical and biographical study, Toledo, Ohio: The Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries, 1977. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"William Wilkie Collins." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"William Wilkie Collins." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-wilkie-collins

"William Wilkie Collins." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved November 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-wilkie-collins

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Collins, Wilkie

Wilkie Collins (William Wilkie Collins), 1824–89, English novelist. Although trained as a lawyer, he spent most of his life writing, producing some 30 novels. He is best known for two mystery stories, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which are considered the first full-length detective novels in English and among the best of their genre; they helped to define the genre of literary melodrama which would peak at the end of the century. Collins's heroines are drawn with considerable clarity and sympathy. He was a close friend of Dickens, in whose periodical Household Words many of Collins's novels first appeared.

See his letters, ed. by W. Baker and W. M. Clarke (2 vol., 1999); biographies by W. M. Clarke (1988), C. Peters (1993), and M. Klimaszewski (2011); studies by M. P. Davis (1956), W. H. Marshall (1970), N. Page (1974), and S. Lonoff (1982).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Collins, Wilkie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Collins, Wilkie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-wilkie

"Collins, Wilkie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-wilkie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Collins, (William) Wilkie

Collins, (William) Wilkie (1824–89). Novelist. Collins, usually regarded as the pioneer of the detective story, was born in London, son of a painter. He began in the law, but took up writing professionally after publishing a biography of his father in 1848, and becoming a close friend of Charles Dickens, to whose magazine Household Words he contributed. His first big success was The Woman in White (1860), and he repeated it with The Moonstone (1868). He has been identified as an exponent of ‘the novel of sensation’, appealing to a less sophisticated readership with lurid plots of dark secrets, dastardly scoundrels, drugs, and insanity. Collins was unmarried but did not want for female comfort. A splendid portrait by his friend Millais (1850) is in the National Portrait Gallery.

J. A. Cannon

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-william-wilkie

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved November 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-william-wilkie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Collins, (William) Wilkie

Collins, (William) Wilkie (1824–89) English novelist. He made important contributions to the development of detective fiction, especially in his two enduringly popular novels, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). He collaborated with Charles Dickens in writing plays and stories.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-william-wilkie

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved November 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-william-wilkie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Collins, (William) Wilkie

COLLINS, (William) Wilkie

Nationality: English. Born: London, 8 January 1824; son of the painter William Collins. Education: Maida Hill Academy, London, 1835-36; with his parents in Italy, 1836-38; at a private school, Highbury, London, 1838-41; apprentice, Antrobus and Company (tea merchants), London, 1841-46; studied at Lincoln's Inn, London, 1846-51; called to the bar, 1851. Family: Lived with Caroline Graves, 1859-68 and 1870-80, adopted her daughter; supported Martha Rudd ("Mrs. Dawson"), 1868-89, two daughters and one son. Career: Friend and literary collaborator of Charles Dickens, q.v., 1851-70; staff member and contributor, Household Words and All the Year Round, 1856-61; addicted to opium from mid-1860s; gave reading tour of United States, 1873-74. Also a painter with works exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, 1849. Died: 23 September 1889.

Publications

Collections

The Complete Shorter Fiction. 1995.

Short Stories

After Dark. 1856.

Miss or Mrs.? and Other Stories in Outline. 1873; revised edition, 1875.

Readings and Writings in America: The Frozen Deep and Other Stories. 1874.

Little Novels. 1887.

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, No Thoroughfare, The Perils of Certain English Prisoners, with Charles Dickens. 1890.

The Best Supernatural Stories, edited by Peter Haining. 1990.

Mad Monkton and Other Stories. 1994.

Novels

Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome. 1850.

Mr. Wray's Cash-Box; or, The Mask and the Mystery. 1852.

Basil: A Story of Modern Life. 1852; revised edition, 1862; edited by Dorothy Goldman, 1990.

Hide and Seek. 1854; revised edition, 1861.

The Dead Secret. 1857.

The Queen of Hearts. 1859.

The Woman in White. 1860; edited by Harvey Peter Sucksmith, 1975.

No Name. 1862; edited by Virginia Blain, 1986.

Armadale. 1866; edited by Catherine Peters, 1989.

The Moonstone. 1868; edited by J.I.M. Stewart, 1966.

Man and Wife. 1870.

Poor Miss Finch. 1872.

The New Magdalen. 1873.

The Law and the Lady. 1875.

The Two Destinies. 1876.

The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice (with My Lady's Money). 1879.

A Rogue's Life, From His Birth to His Marriage. 1879.

The Fallen Leaves. 1879.

Jezebel's Daughter. 1880.

The Black Robe. 1881.

Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time. 1883.

I Say No. 1884.

The Evil Genius: A Domestic Story. 1886.

The Guilty River. 1886.

The Legacy of Cain. 1889.

Blind Love, completed by Walter Besant. 1890.

Plays

A Court Duel, from a French play (produced 1850).

The Lighthouse, with Charles Dickens, from the story "Gabriel's Marriage" by Collins (produced 1855).

The Frozen Deep, with Charles Dickens (produced 1857). 1866; inUnder the Management of Mr. Charles Dickens: His Production of The Frozen Deep, edited by R. L. Brannan. 1966.

The Red Vial (produced 1858).

A Message from the Sea (produced 1861).

No Name, with W. B. Bernard, from the novel by Collins. (produced 1871). 1863; revised version, by Collins alone, 1870.

Armadale, from his own novel. 1866.

No Thoroughfare, with Charles Dickens and Charles Fechter, from the story by Collins and Dickens (produced 1867). 1867.

Black and White, with Charles Fechter (produced 1869). 1869.

The Woman in White, from his own novel (produced 1870; revised version produced 1871). 1871.

Man and Wife, from his own novel (produced 1873). 1870.

The New Magdalen (produced 1873). 1873.

Miss Gwilt (produced 1875). 1875.

The Moonstone, from his own novel (produced 1877). 1877.

Rank and Riches (produced 1883).

The Evil Genius (produced 1885).

Other

Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, R.A., with Selections from His Journals and Correspondence. 2 vols., 1848.

Rambles Beyond Railways; or, Notes in Cornwall Taken A-Foot.1851; revised edition, 1861.

My Miscellanies. 2 vols., 1863; revised edition, 1875.

Considerations on the Copyright Question Addressed to an American Friend. 1880.

*

Bibliography:

Collins: An Annotated Bibliography 1889-1976 by Kirk H. Beetz, 1978.

Critical Studies:

The Early Novels of Collins by Walter de la Mare, 1932; Collins: A Biography by Kenneth Robinson, 1951; Collins by Robert Ashley, 1952; The Life of Collins by Nuel Pharr Davis, 1956; Collins by William H. Marshall, 1970; Collins: The Critical Heritage edited by Norman Page, 1974; Collins: A Critical and Biographical Study by Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by E.R. Gregory, 1977; Collins: A Critical Survey of His Prose Fiction, with a Bibliography by R.V. Andrew, 1979; Collins and His Victorian Readers by Sue Lunoff, 1982; Collins: Women, Property, and Propriety by Philip O'Neill, 1988; The Secret Life of Collins by William M. Clarke, 1988; In the Secret Theatre of Home: Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology by Jenny Bourne Taylor, 1988; The Sensational Novel: From The Woman in White to The Moonstone by Lyn Pykett, 1994; The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke, 1996.

* * *

Wilkie Collins was a prolific writer of short stories, most of them appearing initially in magazines (including Household Words, under the editorship of his friend and mentor Charles Dickens), and most of them being collected subsequently in a series of volumes. He was very active in this genre from the early 1850s; possibly there are even earlier stories, not credited to him, that appeared anonymously in various periodicals. During the 1860s, the period during which his major novels were written, he produced few short stories, but he returned to the form in the 1870s and 1880s.

Collins's stories fall into a number of categories and bear an interesting relationship both to his full-length fiction and to established and emerging types of story. One of his most important innovations was in the field of the detective story, and his "A Stolen Letter" has been described as the first English detective story. (It appeared in 1855, in the special Christmas edition of Household Words, written jointly by Collins and Dickens and titled "The Seven Poor Travellers"; the title "A Stolen Letter" was supplied later, Collins not infrequently changing the titles of his stories for their successive appearances.) The story, involving forgery, blackmail, plotting and counterplotting, spying, the deciphering of a cryptic message, a desperate search against the clock, last-minute success, and a practical joke at the villain's expense, contains many ingredients that were to be used again by Collins and others, including Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The narrative is also characteristically given to a storyteller with an idiosyncratic style, resulting in a brisk, crisp narrative pace and the sense of an audience within the storytelling situation. A related but somewhat different technique is used in another detective story, "The Biter Bit" (originally titled "Who Is the Thief?" for its appearance in the Atlantic Monthly in 1858), where the epistolary method is employed in a narrative that uses the device of the least-likely criminal and that can even be read as a subverting of the new detective story genre.

A different kind of detective story is "The Diary of Anne Rodway" (in Household Words, 1856), in which the detective is a young girl anxious to discover her friend's murderer. The account of the lives of the very poor is rendered vivid by the use of Anne's diary as a vehicle for the narrative: a seamstress without parents or friends, she shows courage and resourcefulness in tracking down the man responsible for her fellow-lodger's death on the basis of a tiny, almost insignificant clue.

Collins also wrote a number of stories that owe a debt to the Gothic tradition, and these can be divided into those exploiting the supernatural or the uncanny and those simply designed to shock and thrill with their account of horrifying events that (as in his best-known story, "A Terribly Strange Bed") turn out to have a rational explanation. "The Dream Woman" (originally "The Ostler," in Household Words, 1855) uses one of Collins's favorite motifs, a chance meeting with a mysterious woman. Despite his mother's warning that she is "the woman of the dream"—a terrifying figure who had appeared to him during a night spent in a lonely inn seven years earlier—the protagonist marries her and narrowly escapes a murderous attack. The conclusion is open-ended: has he escaped danger once and for all, or will the woman reappear in his life? As he does so often, Collins sets the main story within a frame involving a narrator and a listener as well as the central actor in the drama, now an old man but still living in daily dread of the woman's reappearance. Collins used an expanded version of this story for his public readings given in America in 1873, though regrettably the effectively ambiguous ending was changed for one of a more decisive kind.

While some of Collins's stories are relatively short, others are virtually novellas, a good example being "Mad Monkton." The hero comes from a family suffering from "the horrible affliction of hereditary insanity," and the title turns out to be ambiguous, raising the question whether Monkton is genuinely haunted by his uncle's ghost or whether he is suffering from delusions. A family tradition holds that, if the uncle's body remains unburied, the family will become extinct; hence Monkton sets off for Italy (a favorite setting for Gothic horror stories) to find and bury it. He is accompanied by a young friend, who is the story's narrator. The graphic scene of the body's discovery, involving a detailed description of a putrefying corpse, was too much for Dickens, who declined to publish "Mad Monkton" in his magazine (it appeared in Fraser's Magazine in 1855).

Another ghost story, "The Dead Hand," introduces another favorite motif of Collins's and of much nineteenth-century sensational writing, that of the double (in this case plausibly provided by a half-brother). This story, which appeared as "The Double-Bedded Room" in Household Words in 1857, includes several other elements that relate it to other writings by Collins and to wider traditions of storytelling: the bold introduction of the theme of illegitimacy looks forward to Collins's novel No Name—the phrase "no name" actually appearing in the story—while the setting of the action in an inn recalls not only Collins's own frequent use of such settings but a long tradition that extends forward at least as far as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

As these selected examples suggest, Collins showed a marked preference for certain types of story but also showed considerable ingenuity in his variations on established themes as well as originality in his early experiments in detective fiction (anticipating, among much else, his own classic The Moonstone). Of particular interest to the student of fictional technique is his use of a variety of narrative voices, often set within a frame that establishes the narrative situation and hence interposes a credible intermediary between the reader and events that are in themselves often bizarre or fantastic. Many of the ideas, incidents, or character-types in the stories were used again, in modified or expanded form, in his full-length works of fiction. Moreover, the eccentric lawyer in "A Stolen Letter" has been seen as providing Dickens with suggestions for the character of Jaggers in Great Expectations, and Collins's story of the French Revolution, "Sister Rose" (in Household Words, 1855), may have been in Dickens's mind when he conceived A Tale of Two Cities.

Collins is, thus, not only one of the earliest substantial writers of short fiction in England but a significant innovator and a significant influence upon at least one major writer. Not only did he contribute to the expansion and popularity of the genre and to the sophistication of its technique, but he produced a number of stories (represented in several current selections) that are still highly readable today.

—Norman Page

See the essay on "A Terribly Strange Bed."

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." Reference Guide to Short Fiction. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." Reference Guide to Short Fiction. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-william-wilkie

"Collins, (William) Wilkie." Reference Guide to Short Fiction. . Retrieved November 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-william-wilkie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Collins, Wilkie

Wilkie Collins

BORN: 1824, London, England

DIED: 1889, London, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:
The Woman in White (1860)
The Moonstone (1868)

Overview

Wilkie Collins combined the romantic and the realistic in his mystery stories and provided a model for subsequent suspense and mystery fiction. He experimented with existing genres by introducing the principle of fair play, the formula of the least likely suspect being the criminal, multiple narrative styles, and the depiction of the crime as flowing naturally from the personality of the criminal. He also developed the character of the eccentric detective, accompanied by a faithful chronicler, who succeeds through rational methods where the police have failed.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Italian Travels Lead to Critical Attitude Toward Victorian England William Wilkie Collins was born on January 8, 1824, in London, England, to William Collins, a successful painter, and Harriet Geddes Collins. His father emphasized the importance of religious faith and aristocratic connections, but the biting attacks in Collins's novels upon religious hypocrisy and social pretentiousness reveal a break from his father's principles. From 1836 to 1838, he and his family traveled through Italy. This glimpse of Italian culture was a vivid alternative to the narrowness of British Victorian society and perhaps provided a basis for the critical attitude toward that society he was later to display.

Collins lived most of his life in a time known as the Victorian era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories. Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with advances in industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in urban factories instead of on farms as in the past. The era was also marked by a preoccupation with proper behavior in society and domestic life, a topic that figures prominently in the works of Collins and other Victorian writers.

In 1841, after he had finished school, Collins was apprenticed to a firm of tea merchants. Two years later, his first short story was published. At his father's prompting, he began to study law in 1846, which later would influence the narrative structures of his two best-known novels.

Collins and Dickens Early in 1851, Collins and Charles Dickens became close friends, and Collins became a paid contributor to Dickens's Household Words magazine in 1853 and an editor in 1856. Dickens considered Collins the most promising young writer of his time, and his encouragement and the association with Household Words were influential in shaping Collins's approach to fiction and his career as a popular author.

Early Novels Basil is Collins's most significant novel of the 1850s. It concerns a man who becomes infatuated with a woman below his social station. The novel was condemned by many contemporary critics because it did not “elevate and purify” the reader. With The Dead Secret (1857), Collins moved closer to sensation fiction, a genre critic Kathleen Tillotson has aptly christened the “novel-with-a-secret.” Two volumes of short fiction, After Dark (1856) and The Queen of Hearts (1859), display Collins's increasing preoccupation with suspense and an innovative approach to detection.

Unconventional Personal Life In 1859 Collins began living with Caroline Graves, a widow with a daughter. This was a highly unconventional choice and was met with the disapproval of the majority of his friends. In 1868, Graves married Joseph Clow, a plumber, and Collins began a relationship with Martha Rudd, with whom he would have three children. By the early 1870s, Graves was again living with Collins. He never married either woman but kept two separate households. At his death he left the income from his estate divided between the two women and his three children, who were acknowledged in his will. Collins's sympathetic fictional treatment of illegitimacy and the problems of fallen women, as well as his frequently cutting comments about those who confused morality with respectability, no doubt reflect his personal situation and his sensitivity to the difficulties faced by the two women in his life.

The Woman in White The Woman in White (1860) was Collins's most popular book and one of the most popular novels of the century, although it was not reviewed positively by critics. Collins's use of a witness as narrator not only enriches the novel but also emphasizes the legal predicament of the female protagonist and the desperate position of married women who were, as Victorian philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill said, “legal slaves.” As well as being superb suspense fiction, it embodies serious comment on contemporary

society. Deception is the key to its mystery, as it is in his next two novels, No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866).

The Moonstone In 1868 the second of Collins's great novels, The Moonstone, appeared. No novel considered a detective story has received such praise or held its public over such a long period of time. Again using multiple narrators, Collins limited the focus of this novel to one event, the disappearance of the fabulous Indian diamond of the title.

Later Work and Death After Charles Dickens died, Collins's work declined in quality, although it was still popular. Integrating suspense and social criticism proved a difficult and often impossible feat. A continued decline in his health, constant pain relieved only by laudanum—a derivative of opium—and the effects of long-term addiction resulted in increasing reclusiveness in the late 1870s and 1880s.

Despite the inferior quality of Collins's later works, he continued to be popular with the public and was widely reviewed in influential periodicals and newspapers. His last years, marred by deteriorating eyesight and the constant pain of gout, were not happy, but he continued working until his death on September 23, 1889, from a stroke.

Works in Literary Context

Domesticated Crime The significance of Collins's work lies in its fusion of the romantic and the realistic and its creation of suspense and terror in ordinary, middle-class settings. Collins's influence on mystery and detective fiction, from writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to the present, reveals the crucial importance of his domestication of criminal activities and the great debt that subsequent authors owe to his emphasis upon the actual.

E. F. Bleiler writes: “While Collins was aware of the work of Poe and Gaboriau, he paid little heed to their contributions and worked in the mainstream of Victorian domestic and social fiction.” By integrating accurate depictions of contemporary manners and customs with the secrecy and romance of crime, he established a pattern that modern writers of mystery fiction still follow.

Works in Critical Context

The obituaries that followed Collins's death emphasized his skill as a storyteller and expressed gratitude for the delight he had given audiences for forty years. Algernon Charles Swinburne called him a “genuine artist” of the second rank, comparable in merit to novelists Anthony Trollope and Charles Reade. Although his reputation, like that of many other Victorian writers, was in eclipse during the early twentieth century, it began to revive in the 1920s when T. S. Eliot turned critical attention to his work. Today Collins's reputation is secure with both academic critics and the mystery story-reading public. According to E. F. Bleiler, “Wilkie Collins is generally considered the greatest Victorian master of mystery fiction.” Critic and poet T. S. Eliot and mystery writer Dorothy Sayers have called The Moonstone the best-ever English detective story.

Subjectivity and Individual Perception The Victorian distinction between the novel of incident and the novel of character worked to Collins's disadvantage, and although he himself professed contempt for such criticism, it is significant that in the preface to The Moonstone he wrote that he was attempting “to trace the influence of character on circumstances” rather than “the influence of circumstances upon character” as he had previously done. Modern criticism, following Henry James, sees plot and character as inseparably interrelated and is perhaps better able to understand Collins's achievement than either Collins or his contemporaries. This is especially true of the narrative technique used in both The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Contemporaries recognized that multiple narrators contributed to the dramatic development of the story and to its “lifelike” quality without, apparently, seeing that Collins, in making subjectivity and individual perception central to his method, had made not only a major advance in the possibilities of narrative but had also devised a method for the revelation of personality that is inextricable from plot.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Collins's famous contemporaries include:

Charles Dickens (1812–1870): Considered the leading Victorian novelist, Dickens integrated social criticism into his popular books; his best-known works include Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930): Scottish writer who created the Sherlock Holmes detective stories.

Stonewall Jackson (1824–1863): American Confederate general during the Civil War; one of the Confederate army's best generals, his death by pneumonia was a severe blow to their cause.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863): British novelist famous for Vanity Fair, a satirical look at English society.

Jules Verne (1828–1905): French writer who helped pioneer the genre of science fiction; novels such as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea explored underwater and space travel before either was technologically possible.

The Woman in White When it was published in 1860, The Woman in White brought sharply divided

reviews. An unnamed reviewer for Dublin University Magazine, for example, states that the author's work is “nothing that would entitle him to a higher place among English novelists, than the compiler of an average school-history would enjoy among English historians.” The reviewer also states, “There is not one lifelike character: not one natural dialogue in the whole book. Both hero and heroine are wooden, commonplace, uninteresting in any way apart from the story itself.” The author's attempts at modern realism are compared to “the pages of a nursery tale.” In contrast, a reviewer for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine calls it a “remarkable novel,” and “the elaborate result of years of labor.” The reviewer concludes, “[Collins] has improved upon all his early works to an extent which proves in only too edifying and complete a way the benefits of perseverance and painstaking.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Do you think that current detective shows on TV examine social issues as they examine crime, like Wilkie Collins did in his work? Does the current focus on the scientific side of crime solving take away from the psychological side, or does it add to it?
  2. Collins's personal life was scandalous for his time, with his long-term relationships with two women, neither of whom he married. Yet his fiction was still extremely popular, and the public probably did not know many personal details about his relationships. How does knowing the messy details of an artist's personal life affect how you view their work? Do you think it should be public knowledge, or should domestic issues remain private?
  3. Collins used multiple narrators with shifting points of view. Do you find it effective when movies or TV shows present various points of view, making the truth more difficult to figure out, or do you find it confusing?
  4. Mystery and detective fiction are hugely popular genres. Why do you think that is? What makes reading about crime so popular? How is our reaction to crime different today than it was in the Victorian period?
  5. Collins examined crime as following naturally from someone's personality. There have been many theories of how criminals are created, from genetics to social conditions. Using your library's resources and the Internet, research some theories of criminality and write an essay comparing and contrasting them. Which makes the most sense to you? Why?

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Collins examined social issues within the mystery story, expanding its range as a tool for social criticism. Here are some other works that do the same:

Blanche Cleans Up (1999), a novel by Barbara Neely. In this novel, an African American housekeeper working for a wealthy white family gets involved in a murder case affecting her employers; along the way to solving the crime, she comments on race and class issues in contemporary America.

The Dead Sit Round in a Ring (2004), a novel by David Lawrence. In this novel, a London detective must find the link between a group suicide and eastern European human trafficking.

The Ghostway (1992), a novel by Tony Hillerman. In this story, a Navajo detective must solve a shooting and must also decide between moving off the reservation because of his love for a white woman or becoming more deeply involved in his Navajo culture.

Hard Time (1999), a novel by Sara Paretsky. A Chicago-based private investigator ends up in jail in this novel, revealing what life is really like on the inside of a women's prison.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1861), a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A “diary” of a woman slowly going mad, this short story examines both the medical profession and women's subservient role in Victorian society.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bleiler, E. F. “Wilkie Collins: Overview.” In St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. Detroit: St. James, 1996.

Eliot, T. S. “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” In Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.

Ousby, Ian. “Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists.” In Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Page, Norman, ed. Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.

Sayers, Dorothy. Wilkie Collins: A Critical and Biographical Study. Toledo, Ohio: Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries, 1977.

“(William) Wilkie Collins (1824–1889).” In Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Edited by Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.

Periodicals

Ashley, Robert. “Wilkie Collins and the Detective Story.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 6 (June 1951): 47–60.

Booth, Bradford A. “Wilkie Collins and the Art of Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 6 (September 1951): 131–43.

Hyder, Clyde K. “Wilkie Collins and The Woman in White.” PMLA 54 (March 1939): 297–303.

Lonoff, Sue. “Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (September 1980): 150–70.

MacEachen, Dougald B. “Wilkie Collins and British Law.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 5 (1950): 121–39.

Muller, C. H. “Victorian Sensationalism: The Short Stories of Wilkie Collins.” Unisa English Studies 11, no. 1 (1973): 12–24.

Rycroft, Charles. “A Detective Story: Psychoanalytic Observations.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 26 (1957): 229–45.

Web Sites

Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins Information Pages. Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.wilkie-collins.info/.

Lewis, Paul. The Wilkie Collins Pages. Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.wilkiecollins.com/.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Collins, Wilkie." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Collins, Wilkie." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-wilkie

"Collins, Wilkie." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature. . Retrieved November 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/collins-wilkie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.