Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett

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Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A very full biography of Wilkie Collins, master of the Victorian 'sensation' novel and a man who was later remembered particularly for his unconventional life which he shared with two mistresses.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 522 Date: April 2014
Publisher: Windmill
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099557340

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Wilkie Collins has come down to us as the chief exponent of the Victorian ‘sensation novel’. This was the genre of story written specifically to expose deep-rooted domestic or family secrets, uncovering illegitimacy, bigamy or other irregular activities by supposedly respectable citizens leading outwardly normal, uneventful lives. There were mysteries, deceptions, betrayals, evil characters and good innocent ones. Measured by these standards, he led a ‘sensational’ life himself. When not writing novels, short stories, plays or articles for journals in order to earn a living, this apparently fine upstanding bachelor maintained two households, two mistresses, and children at the same time – and managed to keep them a secret from the public who would doubtless have been scandalized to know the truth.

Born in London in 1824, he travelled widely throughout part of Europe in his youth, then spent some years as a clerk with a firm of tea merchants before finding his true vocation as a writer. Lycett deals thoroughly with his life, the complicated ménage à trois, the gout, general ill-health and reliance on laudanum, the circles he moved in, especially his friendship with Charles Dickens, unquestionably the major novelist of the era. Both men were regulars around the seedier parts of London and Paris and in letters would joke about their brushes, imagined or otherwise, with venereal disease. Collins was clearly very much a man of his time, believing that he lived in a man’s world with a sangfroid which perhaps looks rather heartless to us today. To him, his life was that of a carefree bachelor’s existence when he chose to lead it, except when he needed a nurse or a secretary.

The story is a shade one-sided in places, given that it is written largely from his point of view. We are left to wonder how his mistresses and children felt about being in the shadows of a very successful man, placed in an often humiliating situation which was not of their making. Lycett cannot be blamed for shortcomings in his insight into their side of the story, as there is an absence of paper trail in the form of letters and diaries from those involved, and a discreet silence from the biographer is perhaps better than an imaginative and often inaccurate imagination. Collins was approached to write his memoirs but declined on the grounds that too many were being published, and it would soon become ‘a distinction not to have written one’s autobiography.’ Lycett also avoids the temptation to be judgemental about the matter. Even allowing for the fact that we can hardly judge our Victorian forefathers by 21st-century standards, the occasional personal view is often justifiable, as long as it is kept within bounds.

Naturally there is more to the story of the man than a complicated love life. Lycett looks in detail at Collins’ published works. ‘The Woman in White’ and ‘The Moonstone’ are regarded as among the precursors of the modern detective tale, and the fact that they have been regularly reprinted to this day says much, although the rest of his output is virtually forgotten today, and the quality as well as success of his later work seems to have declined with his failing health. I also found his account of the background to publication, changes in the bookselling industry, Collins’ business dealings with his publishers, and above all an assessment of the 1870 Education Act and its implications for literacy among the public, particularly interesting. At around that time he told his publisher George Smith that he believed the next few years would see ‘a revolution in the publishing trade’ for which most of them were unprepared, and he did not believe the gigantic monopolies which were crippling free trade would last much longer. So the Victorian age was more similar to ours than we might imagine.

Having said that, it struck me that there is a sense of remoteness about this biography. Lycett tells the story very efficiently and comprehensively from cradle to grave, discussing his major works well, including plot, reception and success as well as his family life, and the research into all aspects of his life and work has clearly been a labour of love. However, I get the impression that he did not fully engage with his subject. This comes across better in some biographies than others, but the sense of distance between the author and his subject has meant that this is a measured and magnificently detailed life but maybe not a totally engrossing one.

We can also recommend:

Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd for a shorter alternative life

Drood by Dan Simmons - a novel inspired by and based on the story of the friendship between Collins and Charles Dickens

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Buy Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett at Amazon.com.


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