Collins’s reputation nearly a century after his death rests almost entirely on two works—The Woman in White, published serially in All the Year Round between November 26, 1859, and August 25, 1860; and The Moonstone, published in 1868. About this latter work, Dorothy Sayers said it is “probably the finest detective story ever written.” No chronicler of crime and detective fiction can fail to include Collins’s important contributions to the genre; simply for the ingenuity of his plots, Collins earned the admiration of T. S. Eliot. The Woman in White and The Moonstone have also been made into numerous adaptations for stage, film, radio, and television. Yet, for an author so conscientious and industrious—averaging one “big” novel every two years in his maturity—to be known as the author of two books would hardly be satisfactory. The relative obscurity into which most of Collins’s work has fallen cannot be completely attributed to the shadow cast by his friend and sometime collaborator, Charles Dickens, nor to his physical infirmities and his addiction to laudanum, nor to the social vision which led him to write a succession of thesis novels. Indeed, the greatest mystery Collins left behind concerns the course of his literary career and subsequent reputation.
At its best, Wilkie Collins’s fiction is characterized by a transparent style that occasionally pleases and surprises the reader with an apt turn of word or phrase; by a genius for intricate plots; by a talent for characterization that in at least one instance must earn the epithet “Miltonic”; and by an eye for detail that seems to make the story worth telling. These are the talents of an individual who learned early to look at things like a painter, to see the meaning, the emotion behind the gesture or pose—a habit of observation which constituted William Collins’s finest bequest to his elder son.
The transparency of Collins’s style rests on his adherence to the conventions of the popular fiction of his day. More so than contemporaries, he talks to readers, cajoles them, often protesting that the author will recede into the shadows in order that the reader may judge the action for himself. The “games”—as one current critic observes—that Collins plays with readers revolve about his mazelike plots, his “ingenuous” interruptions of the narrative, and his iterative language, symbolic names, and metaphors. Thus, at the beginning of “Mrs. Zant and the Ghost,” published in Little Novels, the narrator begins by insisting that this tale of “supernatural influence” occurs in the daylight hours, adding “the writer declines to follow modern examples by thrusting himself and his opinions on the public view. He returns to the shadow from which he has emerged, and leaves the opposing forces of incredulity and belief to fight the old battle over again, on the old ground.” The apt word is “shadow,” for certainly, this story depicts a shadow world. At its close, when the preternatural events have occurred, the reader is left to assume a happy resolution between the near victim Mrs. Zant and her earthly rescuer, Mr. Rayburn, through the mood of the man’s daughter:
Arrived at the end of the journey, Lucy held fast by Mrs. Zant’s hand. Tears were rising in the child’s eyes. “Are we to bid her good-bye?” she said sadly to her father.
He seemed to be unwilling to trust himself to speak; he only said, “My dear, ask her yourself.”
But the result justified him. Lucy was happy again.
Here, Collins’s narrator has receded like Mrs. Zant’s supernatural protector, leaving the reader to hope and to expect that Mrs. Zant can again find love in this world. This kind of exchange—direct and inferred—between author and reader can go in other directions. Surely, when near the middle of The Woman in White, one realizes that Count Fosco has read—as it were—over one’s shoulder the diary of Miss Halcolmbe, the author intends that one should feel violated, while at the same time forced into collusion with the already attractive, formidable villain.
The Woman in White and The Moonstone
Because Collins’s style as narrator is so frequently self-effacing, it sustains the ingenuity of his plots. These are surely most elaborate in The Woman in White and The Moonstone. In both cases, Collins elects to have one figure, party to the main actions, assemble the materials of different narratives into cohesive form. It is a method far less tedious than that of epistolary novels, and provides for both mystery and suspense. Although not the ostensible theme in either work, matters of self-identity and control over one’s behavior operate in the contest between virtue and vice, good and evil. Thus, Laura Fairlie’s identity is obliterated in an attempt to wrest from her her large fortune; thus, Franklin Blake, heavily drugged, unconsciously removes a gem that makes him the center of elaborate investigation. In each novel, the discovery of the actual circumstances restores identity to these characters. The capacity to plot allows Collins to surprise his readers profoundly: In The Woman in White, one is astounded to be confronted by Laura Fairlie standing in the churchyard, above her own grave. In The Moonstone, one is baffled when the detective, Sergeant Cuff, provides a plausible solution to the theft of the diamond which turns out to be completely incorrect.
The novels of the 1860’s find Collins having firmly established his transparent detachment from the subjects at hand, in turn giving full scope to his meticulous sense of plot. No Name and Armadale are no less complex in their respective actions than their more widely read counterparts. Interestingly, though, all of these novels explore matters of identity and motive for action; they attest Collins’s ability to relate popular tales that encompass more serious issues.
Because he had a painter’s eye for detail, Collins was a master of characterization, even when it appears that a character is flat. Consider, for example, this passage from “Miss Dulane and My Lord” published in Little Novels:
Mrs. Newsham, tall and elegant, painted and dyed, acted on the opposite principle in dressing, which confesses nothing. On exhibition before the world, this lady’s disguise asserted she had reached her thirtieth year on her last birthday. Her husband was discreetly silent, and Father Time was discreetly silent; they both knew that her last birthday had happened thirty years since.
Here an incidental figure in a minor tale remains fixed, the picture of one comically out of synchronization with her own manner; before she has uttered a syllable, one dislikes her. Consider, on the other hand, the initial appearance of a woman one will grow to like and admire, Marian Halcolmbe, as she makes her way to meet Walter Hartright in The Woman in White:
She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!
Not only does this passage reveal Collins’s superb sense of pace, his ability to set a trap of astonished laughter, but also it reveals some of Hartright’s incorrect assumptions about the position he has taken at Limmeridge House; for example, that the two young women he will instruct are pampered, spoiled, and not worth his serious consideration. Preeminently, it shows the grace of Marian Halcombe, a grace that overcomes her lack of physical beauty in conventional senses and points to her indefatigable intelligence and loyalty so crucial to future events in the novel. Marian is, too, a foil for her half sister, Laura Fairlie, the victim of the main crimes in the book. While one might easily dismiss Laura Fairlie with her name—she is fair and petite and very vulnerable—she also displays a quiet resilience and determination in the face of overwhelming adversaries.
The most memorable of Collins’s characters is Count Fosco in the same novel, whose name immediately suggests a bludgeon. To Marian Halcombe, Collins gives the job of describing the Count: “He looks like a man who could tame anything.” In his characterization of Fosco, Collins spawned an entire race of fat villains and, occasionally, fat detectives, such as Nero Wolfe and Gideon Fell. One is not surprised that Sydney Greenstreet played both Fosco and his descendant, Caspar Gutman, in film versions of The Woman in White and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930). In one of his best speeches, Fosco reveals the nature of his hubris, his evil genius:
Crimes cause their own detection, do they? . . . there are foolish criminals who are discovered, and wise criminals who escape. The hiding of a crime, or the detection of a crime, what is it? A trial of skill between the police on one side, and the individual on the other. When the criminal is a brutal, ignorant fool, the police in nine cases out of ten win. When the criminal is a resolute, educated, highly-intelligent man, the police in nine cases out of ten lose.
In pitting decent people against others who manipulate the law and social conventions to impose their wills, Collins frequently creates characters more interesting for their deficiencies than for their virtues. His novels pit, sensationally at times, the unsuspecting, the infirm, or the unprepossessing, against darker figures, usually operating under the scope of social acceptance. Beneath the veneer of his fiction, one finds in Collins a continuing struggle to legitimize the illegitimate, to neutralize hypocrisy, and to subvert the public certainties of his era.
Principal long fiction
Antonina: Or, The Fall of Rome, 1850; Basil: A Story of Modern Life, 1852; Hide and Seek, 1854; The Dead Secret, 1857; The Woman in White, 1860; No Name, 1862; Armadale, 1866; The Moonstone, 1868; Man and Wife, 1870; Poor Miss Finch: A Novel, 1872; The New Magdalen, 1873; The Law and the Lady, 1875; The Two Destinies: A Romance, 1876; A Rogue’s Life, 1879; The Fallen Leaves, 1879; Jezebel’s Daughter, 1880; The Black Robe, 1881; Heart and Science, 1883; I SayNo, 1884; The Evil Genius: A Dramatic Story, 1886; The Legacy of Cain, 1889; Blind Love, 1890 (completed by Walter Besant).
Other major works
Short Fiction: Rambles Beyond Railways, 1851; Mr. Wray’s Cash-Box: Or, The Mask and the Mystery, 1852; The Seven Poor Travellers, 1854; After Dark, 1856; The Wreck of the Golden Mary, 1856; The Queen of Hearts, 1859; Miss or Mrs.? and Other Stories, 1873; The Frozen Deep, 1874; The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice, 1879; The Guilty River, 1886; Little Novels, 1887; The Lazy Tour of Two Apprentices, 1890 (with Charles Dickens).
Plays: No Thoroughfare, pr., pb. 1867 (with Charles Dickens); The New Magdalen, pr., pb. 1873; Man and Wife, pr. 1873; The Moonstone, pr., pb. 1877.
Nonfiction: Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, R. A., 1848 (2 volumes); The Letters of Wilkie Collins, 1999 (edited by William Baker and William M. Clarke).
Miscellaneous: My Miscellanies, 1863; The Works of Wilkie Collins, 1900, 1970 (30 volumes).
Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins: An Illustrated Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Nayder, Lillian. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1997.
O’Neill, Philip. Wilkie Collins: Women, Property, and Propriety. New York: Macmillan, 1988.
Page, Norman. Wilkie Collins. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.
Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Pykett, Lyn, ed. Wilkie Collins. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Taylor, Jenny. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth Century Psychology. New York: Routledge, 1988.