A review of Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett

 Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Hutchinson (12 Sep 2013)
 1868, and bestselling author Wilkie Collins is hard at work on a new detective novel, The Moonstone. But he is weighed down by a mountain of problems - his own sickness, the death of his mother, and, most pressing, the announcement by his live-in mistress that she has tired of his relationship with another woman and intends to marry someone else. His solution is to increase his industrial intake of opium and knuckle down to writing the book T. S. Eliot called the 'greatest' English detective novel.

Of Wilkie's domestic difficulties, not a word to the outside world: indeed, like his great friend Charles Dickens, he took pains to keep secret any detail of his ménage. There's no doubt that the arrangement was unusual and, for Wilkie, precarious, particularly since his own books focused on uncovering such deeply held family secrets. Indeed, he was the master of the Victorian sensation novel, fiction that left readers on the edge of their seats as mysteries and revelations abounded.

In this colourful investigative portrait, Andrew Lycett draws Wilkie Collins out from the shadow of Charles Dickens. Wilkie is revealed as a brilliant, witty, friendly, contrary and sensual man, deeply committed to his work. Here he is given his rightful place at the centre of the literary, artistic and historical movements of his age.

Part biography, part history, part intimate family saga, Wilkie Collins brings to life one of England's greatest writers against the backdrop of Victorian London and all its complexities. It is a truly sensational story.

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) by Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896) in 1874 at the age of 50. Source: Wikipedia

Andrew Lycett will tell you in detail and well thought out painful research everything the reader wants to know about the life of ‘The Father of the Sensation Novel’ Wilkie Collins. He was born William Wilkie Collins to a well known painter father William Collins and his mother Harriet Geddes. They called him  Wilkie after his godfather David Wilkie, a Scottish painter.  He stood only 5ft 6ins in life which the author assures us was the average height of nineteenth-century men. He suffered from what today would be called,’rheumatoid arthritis’ but during the Victorian era it was called, ‘gout’ and all the best men suffered from it! This gout was genetically passed down to him by his father and would spread throughout his body including a later eye and vision problem. He physically took after his mother’s side of the family being short, dark featured and stout of body!  

Wilkie Collins wrote 12 novels, 2 plays, and 4 short stories during his lifetime. The stand-out theme in all his novels was the need to keep and hide a secret no matter the circumstances even the threat of death and murder.  ‘A Life of Sensation’ lays out for us the reasons why Wilkie Collins keeps secrets in the guise of two mistresses:  Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd by which he had a son named William Charles Collins Dawson.  

‘Nothing in this world is hidden for ever. The gold which had laid for centuries unsuspected on the ground, reveals itself one day on the surface. Sand turns traitor, and betrays the footstep that has passed over it, water gives back to the tell-tale surface the body that has been drowned. Fire itself leaves the confession, in ashes, of the substance consumed in it. Hate breaks its prison secrecy in the thoughts, through the doorway of the eyes; and Love finds the Judas who betrays it with a kiss. Look where we will, the inevitable law of revelation is one of the laws of nature: the lasting preservation of a secret is a miracle which the world has never yet seen.’  No Name, first scene, Chapter 4, opening quote in Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett

Andrew Lycett juxtaposes the life events of Wilkie Collins to his themes of every one of his novels including how they relate to storyline, characters and plot. It was so enjoyable for me to read an event in Wilkie’s life and then find out how it would transpose itself into one of his novels! For example, publicly Wilkie Collins lived the life of a true gentleman performing the plays he co-wrote with Charles Dickens even before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves. However, under the surface his secret life contained a true Bohemian lifestyle with similar artistic friends from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This could be a main reason  as to why Collins would never marry, choosing to live as man and wife with his first mistress, Caroline Graves and her son from her first marriage becoming widowed then meeting Collins soon afterwards. After ten years of bohemian bliss, she up and married a younger man and Collins attended but Dickens was away lecturing and sent a note afterwards upon his return!  His mate Wilkie filled him in I’m sure! It was while researching his novel, Armadale that Wilkie would meet his second and final love, Martha Rudd with whom he had three children. He kept two separate households living between the two. Author, Andrew Lycett explains how Collins and Caroline Graves maintained a friendship even after her marriage and he paid for various expenses until his death. 

Wilkie Collins was given the name, ‘Father of the Sensation Novel’ during his lifetime because around 1852 with the publication of his novel, ‘Basil’ he wanted to stir his readers and make them contemplate perception and the relationship between sensation, thoughts, and visions.  He wanted his readers to feel something physically and literally which I believe he has. Especially, with his two most popular works, ‘The Woman in White’ and ‘The Moonstone’.  

To me when I think of Wilkie Collins I think of him in terms of encapsulating every aspect of a Gothic writer. I would put him with Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne Du Maurier anyday!  It was interesting to learn that Collins is considered today by many to have started the detective novel  when he wrote The Moonstone. It is still used today as the template for a detective novel.  For Collins, he believed that it was Edgar Allan Poe who wrote detective and sensation novels first not himself and that he copied him! Either way, it is good to remember that when it comes to the British crime fiction of today it started with Poe and Collins long before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published Sherlock Holmes!

I just love this illustration of The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins. It could easily be himself with Caroline Graves. It was featured in The Graphic on 3 October, 1874. 

I highly recommend Wilkie Collins A Life of Sensation to everyone interested in discovering the man behind the mask of 'The Father of the Sensation Novel'.  You won't be disappointed. The entire biography is painfully researched and written with such love, respect and admiration for Wilkie Collins that I truly hope you all enjoy it!  The photographs and portrait paintings included are beautiful as well.  

Thank you to Hutchinson a division of Random House UK for providing me with a free copy. As soon as it is published in the United States I will let you know.


Pamela Britley said…
Great review. I love The Moonstone and your excitement is clear. Another book to add to my TBR pile, Kimberly.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Pamela,
I'm so glad you enjoyed my review and will be reading the book. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope you enjoy the biography.
Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberley,

A great review, I now feel as though I need to go out and get a copy.
It's interesting to see that in the photograph of Wilkie in 1874, he is only 50, but he looks quite old!
Sign of the times I guess.

Thank you for posting.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,

You are so kind. I guess I did my job then!
I know don't you just love that photograph, though.
Poor Wilkie, he truly did suffer such physical pain all his life which aged him terribly!
I'm so glad you stopped by. Thank you so much for commenting.

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