Wilkie Collins & the woman who inspired The Woman In White...


Wilkie Collins in 1864                                                                                                  Caroline Graves

According to J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, written by Millais son in 1899, the inspiration behind The Woman in White lies with Wilkie Collins’s mistress, Caroline Graves.

Wilkie Collins, his brother Charles and John Everett Millais were walking near Regent’s Park late one night when they heard a scream and saw a “young and very beautiful woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight” running out of one of the nearby houses. She was “a lady of good birth and position, who had accidentally fallen into the hands of a man living in a villa in Regent’s Park”. 
At the time Charles Collins was married to one of the daughters of Charles Dickens, Kate Dickens who believed that the woman was Caroline Graves. This episode or incident is considered to have been the basis for Hartright’s first meeting with Anne Catherick.  However, Collins’s biographer, Catherine Peters believes Millais’ account doubtful since it was written forty years after the events described, does not correlate with what is known of her life, nor has it been corroborated by any other sources.

Interestingly enough, little is known about the life of Caroline Graves, the original Woman in White.  She often described herself as the daughter of Courtenay, she lied about her age and claimed her late husband, George Robert Graves, was independently wealthy. However, if the truth be known, she was the daughter of John Compton , a carpenter, and his wife Sarah. Caroline grew up in Gloucestershire and her christened name was Elizabeth. In 1850 when she married George Robert Graves they moved to Bath then Clerkenwell, London, where they had a daughter, Elizabeth Harriet was born eleven months later. Sadly, George Graves died in January 1852 just two years later, Caroline was twenty two years old and her deceased husband was only twenty three. 

Four widowed years later in 1856, twenty six year old Caroline Graves met thirty two year old Wilkie Collins. At this time, Wilkie was living at lodgings in Howland Street, Tottenham Court Road. Caroline was living with her mother-in-law, Mary Ann Graves in the same area. By 1858 Wilkie and Caroline were indeed living together, first at 124 Albany Street, then from the spring of 1859 they could be found at 2a New Cavendish Street. Even though they never married, they lived together until Collins died in 1889 with only one known break-up!  Did I mention that it was during the year 1868 that some interesting happenings occurred:

Caroline Graves married Joseph Clow, most probably because Wilkie Collins was in a relationship with Martha Rudd at the time and let’s not forget good old Mr. Collins refused to marry Caroline; so what’s a girl to do? Apparently, Caroline’s daughter and Wilkie’s doctor, Frank Beard, were the witnesses and Collins was there for the ceremony which took place at Marlybone parish church! Don’t worry the marriage did not last long! Three years later, in 1871 she was back living at 90 Gloucester Place with good old Wilkie. He left his dear Martha Rudd even though she had three children with him. How’s that for loyalty?  It seems that during their long and strange relationship, Wilkie referred to Caroline as his ‘housekeeper’ and she was usually at home when he went to the theatre or when he travelled.  She nursed him through his last illness until her death in 1895. They were buried in the same grave together!

Martha Rudd

90 Gloucester Place

Buried together forever at Kensal Green Cemetery

J.G.Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, Methuen, 1899, volume 1, pp. 278-79.
Catherine Peters: The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins, Sacker and Warburg, 1991, p. 191.

Comments are welcome,


Maggie said…
The Woman in White is one of my favorite books! I never knew there was a real woman! I always learn so much when I read your posts!
Thanks for this information!
Hermes said…
The Woman in White has never been out of print since its first publication.

Fascinating post, "The story is in part based on an eighteenth century case of abduction and wrongful imprisonment, taken from Mejan's Recueil des Causes Celebres. It uses the theme of substituted identity, a favourite with Collins, and also attacks the misuse of lunatic asylums." so the rest really puts a background to it.
Kimberly Eve said…
Thanks for visiting and commenting Maggie.
Hermes, thanks for the information and quote. As always, very interesting isn't it!
Laura Morrigan said…
That is a very odd and fascinating story, although it does not endear Wilkie Collins to me at all!
Kimberly Eve said…
I know. I feel that way about Dickens!

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