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Reinventing the Inventor

ISSUE:  Autumn 1994
The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. By Catherine Peters. Princeton. $29.95.

Ned Ward could not wait to be married. But Henrietta was only 16, and her parents thought twice about a wedding so soon. Late one night in 1848 in the Octagon Room of the Royal Academy, his friend consulted his law books and revealed one of those quirks of law that had always intrigued him: that while a falsified declaration of parental consent was not legal, it was in fact valid. A dangerous decision for Ned, who risked seven years’ imprisonment for abducting a minor, but as it did so often in his friend’s stories, love prevailed, and they were married by license and later eloped. As Henrietta Ward remembered many years later, the master plotter “impressed great caution and secrecy, as he planned out the whole affair with zest and enjoyment.” For Wilkie Collins it could not have been otherwise.

Peters takes her title from publisher George Bentley’s apt description of the writer who reveled in the process of invention, or more precisely, reinvention, especially in relation to circumventing Victorian society and its laws, for what he did for the Wards he himself was to reenact in his own life and fiction. The first substantial biography of Collins was written by Kenneth Robinson in 1951. William Clarke’s The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (1988) was devoted to ferreting out the hidden particulars of Collins’s “morganatic” arrangements with his two mistresses, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. Peters expands upon these previous efforts by striving for an overall conceptual vision of Collins as well as offering much new information about him. For example, she reconstructs his grandparents’ lives from a previously unidentified autobiography of his mother Harriet. While the amount of detail may seem extraneous at times, her discussion prepares a dialectical pattern recapitulated by the later Collins family. Similarly in the last years of his life, we learn about his curious relationship with 12-year-old Nannie Wynne. While Peters clarifies for us that Nannie is “no Rose la Touche,” she cites correspondence in which Collins is insistently playful in referring to her as his wife—strikingly bizarre, especially for someone who refused to be tied down by marriage. Most exciting, however, is an appendix dealing with the discovery of the manuscript of Collins’s first novel Ioláni, thought to have been lost. Meticulous documentation and an impressive reference section tell us that her research is both scholarly and exhaustive.

Peters vividly reconstructs the personal and professional relationship between Collins and Dickens; her choice of citations captures the voices of two men who, in some ways, were quite unsuitably matched. If Dickens is often presented in a critical if not unflattering light, it is because Peters pits his perfectionism and need to control against Collins’s indulgence and recklessness. This tension is best revealed in their 1854 European excursion, and Dickens’s letters tell us as much about Collins as himself, whether the subject is painting (“To hear Collins learnedly holding forth. . .about reds, and greens. . .is far beyond the bounds of all caricature”) or personal appearance (“Imagine the procession—led by Collins with incipient moustache, spectacles, slender legs, and extremely dirty dress gloves. . .[myself] bringing up the rear. . .rather considerably ashamed”).

Yet the tension between these opposites also benefited each other’s creativity, especially in their collaborative efforts for Dickens’s Household Words and All the Year Round. Encouraged by Dickens in his early writing career and returning (for a time) a kind of hero-worship, Collins wrote stories that taught Dickens economical plotting and challenged his conservative standards, freeing him “from the prison of his status as a Victorian household icon.” Collins was more psychologically predisposed to be the social rebel, for his father had worked his way up to respectability much like Dickens had, and Peters often puts Dickens in the role of Collins’s surrogate father.

Peters also reveals Collins’s business acumen, which was often as acute as Dickens’s. She not only chronicles his lifelong battle for copyright laws but also his advertising ideas (for example, inserts in other novels announcing the publication of his own) and his sometimes authoritarian control over the production of his plays. On the other hand, she does not recoil from revealing his prejudices, both artistic (against the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the French naturalists) and social (against female physicians, for example).

Collins is, of course, best known for The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), the former frequently claimed to be the first “sensation” novel, the latter the first detective novel. These novels are from what is generally acknowledged to be the decade of his artistic zenith, but Peters has appreciation for his other works as well. She devotes a fair amount of critical discussion (for a biography) to Hide and Seek (1854), Armadale (1866), and No Name (1862) (she edited the first two for Oxford’s “World’s Classics” editions). She designates Basil (1852) as the first sensation novel and (graciously) finds Antonina, or The Fall of Rome (1850, Collins’s first published novel) not “unreadable,” the very word Robinson uses. Peters also finds various merits in his post-1860’s work, but in light of her liberal engagement with other “lesser” novels, some of her critical treatments are cursory and dismissive. For example, the largely ignored novella, The Guilty River (1886), is given less than one page of consideration, a lost opportunity considering the thematic approach she has chosen.

The cause of Collins’s artistic decline is a subject which will always be open for debate. Perhaps the explanation most famous (certainly the most characteristic of its critic) is that of Swinburne:

What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition? Some demon whispered—”Wilkie! have a mission.”

Peters rebuts this charge by noting that only half the novels of the last 20 years of Collins’s life were novels “with a purpose”—she might also have added that besides the more obvious choices like The Black Robe (1881) and Heart and Science (1883), earlier novels were mission novels as well. She dismisses his addiction to opium, which was fully developed by the time of The Moonstone and served his artistic purposes well in that novel. She ultimately decides upon two reasons for his artistic decline. The first is the death of Dickens in 1870, which deprived Collins of “an internal censor” and “the imaginative web he threw over the lives of those who knew him”. The second is Robinson’s observation that since his plays were becoming so successful, Collins now designed his novels for conversion for the stage. Doing so robbed his novels of his genius for complex plotting; many of these are comprised of a series of static scenes which rely heavily on melodramatic dialogue. Nonetheless, Peters is careful to clarify that this is a decline in consistency, that his inventive powers “flashed off and on”; indeed, his ear for narrative voices is still sharp in his last complete novel, The Legacy of Cain (1888). Yet despite his continued popular success, there is always the sense that Collins knew his masterpieces were behind him: with guarded optimism, he constantly claims in his letters that the novel he has just completed is his best work since The Woman in White.

If there is one weakness to Peters’s book, it is in her failure to fully achieve her own vision of her subject. Her biography begins with three pages of introductory remarks in which she sets up her discursive apparatus: “Wilkie Collins was haunted by a second self.” Such an apparatus serves her well throughout the book—she constantly applies it to his personal relationships and to his fiction—but perhaps it serves her too well. Because she views this theme of identity from a myriad of perspectives, in the end there is no overall cumulative vision. Instead, her readers must note the various examples and finally draw their own conclusions.

For example, she cites anecdotes (from Collins and from others) about a “second Wilkie Collins” taking over the writing process, often a result of his dependence on laudanum. Later she finds the “two sides of his character” in “The Dead Hand,” a short story about half-brothers, one “as wild, uncanny and depressed as his brother is sanguine and easygoing, as dark as he is fair”; what his “darker” side encompasses, she does not explicitly say. She discusses the psychomachia of Armadale and cites Jung on the shadow-self, which she herself defines elsewhere as “the underside of a personality which compensates for inadequacies in the external persona, or, suppressed or denied full expression, takes revenge in unexpected ways”. Such a definition provides strong leads for elaboration. For example, Peters alludes to Collins’s physical deformities and subsequently spotlights the many oddities of the human form running throughout his fiction, but these allusions come elsewhere and are never fully applied to the concept of the shadow-self. Similarly, she misses the opportunity to elaborate on revenge due to suppression. This is a dominant theme in novels like No Name, for which Peters claims Collins used his mother as a starting point for his psychological exploration of the heroine. But how or why this impulse comes from Collins’s “other” self is never fully discussed. Certainly the theme of changing identity should be more explicitly related to his fascination with the subversion of Victorian society and how so often in his fiction law is at once the disenfranchising victimizer and its victims’ instrument of revenge.

Elsewhere she applies the theme of doubling to Collins’s coming of age (his name change from Willie to Wilkie), to his relationship with his brother (the darker and more repressed Charley), to his theatre connections and his innate theatricality, to his “sorcerer” Dickens, to his mistresses’ public identities and to the changing of his own identity late in life to William Dawson of Ramsgate. She alludes to the fear and “a secret sense of exhilaration” of losing one’s identity, but we never see that fully reconstructed or realized. In the end we must ourselves conjecture about Collins’s shadow-self from her analyses of his fiction—we are given at best only periodic glimpses of it in her portrait.

Granted, this is not an easy task, for as with Dickens, Collins and his surviving family burned nearly all of his private papers. But perhaps the ultimate value of a critical work like this is to avoid reducing a writer’s life to a tidy equation and to raise more questions than you answer. And as all biography is by its very nature reinvention, Peters has provided more than enough data for her readers to complete the reinvention of Wilkie Collins on their own.


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