Peter Ackroyd: The temperate biographer
The Victorians were a peculiar lot and no one more so than Wilkie Collins. His globular head was too large for his frame, his legs a little too short, he liked to ride the omnibus, chronically complained of nervous maladies, always wore a “florid fur coat,” and a “rakishly tied Belcher scarf,” bickered with waiters over pourboires and disparaged what he called “the claptrap morality of the 19th century”. The latter is, perhaps, what distinguishes him most from his contemporaries as Peter Ackroyd points out in his biography of this most “sweetest tempered of all the Victorian novelists”. A progenitor of the “popular novel” Collins left a large and varied fictional output, upon which Ackroyd draws in order to show how the writer’s life is inexorably intertwined with his work. This line of narrative is both potentially lucrative and illuminating yet in this case derogated by the biographer’s deadpan reportage style. Collins’ most intimate relationships, apart from that with Charles Dickens, are largely unexplored and given little sustained appraisal. Certainly, his family and women make an appearance, but Dickens is almost always at the fore of the page whether he is lamenting Collins’ choice of mistress, his slatternly comportment or offering grudging praise.
For a while Collins was Dickens’ preferred companion, with the two men often socialising, holidaying and collaborating together. But by the end of Dickens’ life, Collins was so disenchanted with his former mentor he politely declined to attend his funeral. The cause of the fissures in their relationship is unknown or at least undocumented here. Yet once bound together by success, a mutually assiduous work ethic and a somewhat questionable reputation, the two men eventually parted ways. Ackroyd deliberates on this fact by stipulating that Collins may have taken offense to Dickens’ professional haughtiness, but one cannot be sure. What is well documented, however, is that Dickens once speaking of his friend in a literary capacity said: “Collins was a master of plot rather than of character.” Ackroyd elaborates further suggesting Collins was “an adult in craft and an adolescent in sentiment”. But if so a rather rebellious one, who wrote about the breaking down of class barriers, the inequality of marriage laws and women who defied 19th century stereotypes. Collins was intent upon “exploring the female sensibility in ways foreign to other Victorian novelists, and he created heroines quite unlike those of his male contemporaries”. Something else he was largely unsurpassed in were his plots, the “perfectly calibrated mechanisms,” which both fascinated and beleaguered readers as they periodically agonized to find out what happens next.
Ackroyd’s work, unlike that of his subject, lacks precisely this quality. And, for all the book’s outward elegance and promise, its success is stymied by the narrative’s perfunctory haste and the dearth of dramatic action and climax. This is made particularly conspicuous because Collins’ highly-wrought personal life contained incident and intrigue in abundance. As an expert of clandestine relationships and cloaked identities in his work, he covered his own tracks with equal skill. Collins had two illegitimate lifelong affairs, with women he refused to marry, once describing the institution as a “ridiculous dilemma”. His maverick views made their way into every one of his books, which contain cogent and sustained repudiations of the status quo. And this is where Ackroyd thrives, in his devotion to show parallels between Collins’ life and his work as he points out that Basil, for example, “alludes to an unhappy love affair” based on Collins’ own reminiscences; The Woman in White is set in Hampstead Green where the young writer and his family lived in 1826; and Hide and Seek depicts the cheap delights of a town “suffused with glitter and gas…the chop-houses, the gin shops, the cookshops, the burlesque shows” which Collins knew quite intimately. Ackroyd excels at joining up the dots to show a comprehensive picture of how Collins’ life enriched his work, but fails to make it as extraordinary or as interesting as it really was.
Speaking of himself Collins once said that he was “averse to respectability in all its forms”. This was at great variance with the character of his father, the minor painter William Collins, who was said to be “the epitome of respectability and propriety”. His liberated attitude then had to have come from his mother, Harriet Geddes, who was a “woman of remarkable mental culture”. The writer did, however, like his father, “possess a painter’s eye” which, as Ackroyd points out, he later used in writing books that came to “resemble a series of pictures rather than a sequence of scenes” demonstrating great “sympathy between character and landscape”. Not only that, Collins had a knack for elaborate and ingenious story lines, which kept the public “reading, reading, reading”. In doing so, he established a new precedent, which saw the first edition of The Woman in White sell-out on publication day, quickly prompting merchandise lines and nation-wide fan clubs. It is now rather strange to think that the “novelist who invented sensation” was originally “consigned to a career in commerce,” stranger yet, that this once much loved and much admired writer is now seldom remembered.
There was a time when Collins was said to have had “the brightest future” of all his contemporaries, and yet today his legacy occupies a marginal place in English letters. Ackroyd’s biography doesn’t attempt to explain why that is, or why this fine writer, whose work was once a “spring of the English detective mystery,” has been largely reduced to a second-rate scribe. Ackroyd does, however, suggests to the contrary saying Collins is “still a living presence in English literature,” which is debatable at best, even if his works remain “powerful and ingenious, striking and persuasive”. William Wilkie Collins was born on 8th January 1834 in Marlybone, London. Soon after, the family moved to Hampstead Green and was enlarged by the arrival of Wilkie’s younger brother, Charles Allston Collins. By his own account, Collins’ childhood was unexceptional if happy. Collins took to travelling around Europe from an early age, where he received much of his informal education through experiences “quite different from that of middle-class England”. Stimulated and transformed by these experiences he transferred them onto paper and “delighted in violating Victorian convention”. Sadly, one would never guess from the temperate biographical account on offer.