Welcome to Classic Friday with Nisha Moodley, your monthly journey into Classic authors and their Literature!
Nisha is a South African writer, blogger, amateur historian, mystery-chaser and former ghost-hunter who, with a completed collection of short-stories under her belt, is currently working on her first full-length novel.
I hope you enjoy this ‘Classic Friday’ entry and I’ll be back on Friday 22nd March for some more…
Fans of Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle might be surprised to hear that as celebrated as these authors are, a lesser known writer has the distinction of being called the Father of English detective fiction. That man’s name was Wilkie Collins who, at one stage, was one of the highest paid writers in England. He is also well-known for having been a close friend of Charles Dickens and for leading an unconventional life, which some even deemed scandalous.
William Wilkie Collins was born on January 8th 1824 in Marylebone, London. At the age of 12 his family moved to Italy and then onto France.
In 1838, Wilkie returned to England and attended a private boarding school. It was here that he would discover his true talent but not in the most pleasant of circumstances. Given his odd appearance and somewhat diminutive stature, Collins was always an easy target for bullies for most of his early/schooling life. At his new boarding school, Wilkie became the target of a new tormentor: an 18-year-old who was in charge of his dormitory. The senior boy would bully Collins every night into telling him a story, promising the fearful little Wilkie ‘a good thrashing’ if he didn’t. In his own words:
“It was this brute who first awakened in me, his poor little victim, a power of which but for him I might never have been aware…When I left school I continued story telling for my own pleasure”
Due to his misery at school, Collins dropped out prematurely and began an apprenticeship at Antrobus & Co., a tea merchant based in London. He hated his job and took up writing short stories in his spare time.
In 1846, he enrolled for a Law Degree at Lincoln’s Inn; he graduated and was admitted to the bar in 1851.
Wilkie Collins never practised as a lawyer however. He took up writing full-time and managed to get a few short stories published. When his father passed away in 1847, Collins published his first book, a biography of Collins Snr., The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq. R.A.
His first fictional novel was Antonina, an historical novel set in Ancient Rome, and was published in 1850. Subsequent books following Antonina included Basil (1852), Hide and Seek (1854) and The Dead Secret (1857).
In 1851, Wilkie met Charles Dickens and the two immediately struck up a close friendship. Dickens invited Collins to write for his famous serial publication Household Words. “A Terribly Strange Bed” would be Wilkie’s first contribution to the magazine and the story was published in 1852. He would go on to contribute over 50 stories to Household Words in the course of his writing career. He also collaborated theatrically with Dickens, producing many plays together. The two authors would remain lifelong friends, often accompanying each other on trips and European holidays.
Real success came for Wilkie however, when the The Woman In White (1859) was first published in serial form in Dickens’ new venture All The Year Round. The Woman In White received such excellent reviews that it was released as a novel the very next year.
Some notable novels followed The Woman In White: No Name (1862), Armadale(1866), and the Moonstone (1868).
The Moonstone is considered a landmark in English Literature, viewed by many as the first English detective novel, and by some others (T.S Eliot and Dorothy Sayers to name but a few) to be the best detective novel ever written. It has been credited with setting the standards and conventions that is common in detective-mystery novels today, such as the proverbial ‘red herring’ and the common motif of the incompetent police force. Sergeant Cuff, the eccentric sleuth in the story, with his brilliance and peculiar idiosyncrasies, bears a striking resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and was probable inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle.
Wilkie Collins would go on to write many more novels, his last being Blind Love which was left unfinished following his death in 1889.
Women and Drugs
Popular Theory suggests that the inspiration for Anne Catherick, the character in The Woman In White to which the title refers to, was Caroline Graves. Details are sketchy as to when they actually met but according to some biographers of Wilkie Collins, the author met Graves (and her young daughter) in 1856 and by 1859 they were living together. A couple of years later Wilkie started suffering from rheumatic gout. As a result, he travelled to health spas in Germany and Italy with Caroline seeking relief for his ailments.
Whilst still maintaining his relationship with Caroline, he began an affair with 19-year-old Martha Rudd in 1864. In 1868, Caroline Graves left Wilkie and married another man (some say she grew tired of Wilkie’s reluctance to get married). Soon after Martha Rudd became pregnant with his first child. Wilkie suffered a serious attack of gout at around this time and began using opium in an attempt to alleviate the pain. He would develop a life-long addiction to the drug that would mark the decline in his writing career. He still wrote prolifically but many of his contemporaries remarked that his later works were no match for his earlier successes, citing his excessive opium use as the cause of this.
In 1870, Caroline Graves left her husband and returned to Wilkie but the author devoted his time equally between both Graves and Rudd. Martha would bear him two more children and after his death, the women were granted equal share of his inheritance.
As is evident Wilkie Collins lived the quintessential Bohemian lifestyle. Even though society at the time viewed with shock his behaviour and habits, these were considered characteristic of ‘creative types’ back in the 19th century. His lifestyle was therefore tolerated if not accepted.
Collins left behind a literary legacy that has influenced many high-profile authors. Having written over 25 novels, without this contribution the mystery genre would never be what it is today. Fans of the classic detective story, therefore, owe much to the talent of Wilkie Collins.