Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

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Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A 'brief life' of the Victorian writer, author of 'The Moonstone', often called the first true detective novel
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 199 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099287476

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While Peter Ackroyd has published some extremely long books over the last few years, he has also been responsible for some commendably concise volumes as well. This life of the Victorian novelist is one of the latter, the latest in his series of ‘Brief Lives’, which have also included Chaucer, the painter Turner and Edgar Allan Poe.

In a brisk 180 pages or so he provides a very succinct biography of William Wilkie Collins, the son of a well-known painter of the time, even if the latter is less remembered today. Born in 1824 in London, he disregarded parental recommendations to seek a career in the law or commerce, firmly convinced that writing was his vocation. Although he remained a lifelong bachelor, he led a rather unconventional personal life, maintaining two households and two mistresses, both of whom were well aware of each other’s presence in their man’s life. One of them actually left him when he refused to marry her and found herself a husband elsewhwere, but she left him two years later and went back to Collins afterwards. Short of stature and slightly deformed, his life was blighted by constant ill-health, assumed to be gout and perhaps syphilis. The need to maintain two families and of necessity a prodigious workrate, and the resultant stress, doubtless did not assist, even if the regular consumption of quinine and laudanum possibly did.

However it is only right that his lifelong friendship with Charles Dickens (another Ackroyd hero), and his talents and achievements as a writer are given due recognition. Even if he had never written anything else, his reputation would have been secure with 'The Moonstone', described many years later by Dorothy L. Sayers as ‘probably the very finest detective story ever written’ and ‘The Woman In White’. Like other Victorian writers, and Thackeray comes particularly to mind as an example, he was extremely prolific. On the page before the bibliography, the list of ‘major works’ given numbers only fifteen, yet by the time he died in 1889, aged 65, he had written thirty novels, over sixty short stories, fourteen plays and over a hundred essays on various non-fiction subjects.

In such a short biography there is little room for analysis and literary criticism, yet towards the end Ackroyd devotes the best part of a page to assessment. He says that Collins had a genius for construction, he turned the process of telling a story into a formidable art, and in his hands the sensation novel and the detective story became things of beauty precisely as he lent them an air of reality. Against that, he argues that the writer may have had no genuine insight into the vagaries of human nature.

There is also one pleasingly self-effacing little anecdote. Travelling by train one day, shortly after the publication of his novel ‘The New Magdalen’, the tale of a reformed prostitute, he was seated in the same carriage as a clergyman and his two daughters. When their father dropped off for a short sleep, one of them discreetly took a copy of the book from her bag and dropped it. He picked it up and handed it to her as she blushed, telling her sister that it was perfectly dreadful. That did not stop her from becoming thoroughly absorbed in it, at least until her father began to stir, when she swiftly replaced it in her bag. When Collins glanced at her she blushed again. There is nothing to suggest that she knew who her fellow passenger was.

Any reader wanting more detail on the life of Collins will find that amply catered for elsewhere. A longer narrative might have enabled Ackroyd to breathe a little more personality into this portrait in words, but that is often easier said than done, especially in the case of many a Victorian writer. Nevertheless, like this author’s other ‘brief lives’, this proves a perfectly adequate introduction for the general reader.

If this book appeals then we think that you'll also enjoy Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.

Buy Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon.com.


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