Authors: Wilkie Collins
was born in London in 1824, the eldest son of the landscape painter William Collins. In 1846, having spent five years in the tea business, he was entered to read for the bar at Lincoln's Inn, where he gained the legal knowledge that was to give him much material for his writing. From the early 1850s, he was a friend of Charles Dickens, acting with him, contributing to
, travelling with him on the Continent. Dickens produced and acted in two melodramas written by Collins,
The Frozen Deep
(1857). Of his novels, Collins is best remembered for
The Woman in White
(1868), which T. S. Eliot called âthe first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels'. Wilkie Collins, who braved Victorian morals by living with one mistress and maintaining another in a separate establishment, died in 1889.
, who has edited Anthony Trollope's
The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Finn
, and William Thackeray's
The History of Henry Esmond
, all for Penguin Classics, is currently Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London. His other publications include
Fiction and the Fiction Industry, Best Sellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s, The Longman Companion to English Literature, Mrs Humphry Ward
Is Heathcliffa Murderer
?, a collection of essays.
EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION AND NOTES
BY JOHN SUTHERLAND
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 1864â6
Published in Penguin Classics 1995
Introduction and Notes copyright Â© John Sutherland, 1995
All rights reserved
The moral right of the editor has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
âLike most of Collins' novels,
has the immense â and nowadays more and more rare â merit of never being dull' â T. S. Eliot
âNothing Boring about the Sensation Novel' â D. A. Miller
âAction! action! action!' â
, April 1863
Few novelists have made a reputation as suddenly and as spectacularly as did Wilkie Collins with
The Woman in White
in 1859â60. With its high-impact reportage style and new-fangled detective plot the novel took the Victorian reading public by the throat. Thackeray sat up all night reading it. Edward Fitzgerald (of
fame) devoured it three times, and named a herring-lugger he owned
âafter the brave girl in the story.'
The Prince Consort sent a copy to Baron Stockmar. Readers took bets among themselves as to what could be Sir Percival Glyde's dreadful secret (illegitimacy, as it turned out). Manufacturers took the opportunity to bring out
The Woman in White
perfume, cloaks and bonnets. Music-shops displayed
The Woman in White
waltzes and quadrilles and (most improbably) a âFosco Galop'.
According to Nuel Davis,
âThe Woman in White
was probably the most popular novel written in England during the nineteenth century.'
Popular in itself,
The Woman in White
popularized a new form of novel â variously called the newspaper novel, âmatter-of-fact romance', the bigamy novel and, most enduringly, the sensation novel. The term was double-edged: it denoted âsensation' as in
but also in the narrower psychological application of âviolent stimulation of the senses'. Sensation fiction was felt as much as read â âelectrifying the nerves of the reader' as one (indignant) commentator of the period put it. Its practitioners exploited the same shock-horror stories as the penny press of the day. Sensationalists specialized in a jagged style of narration that impacted on the reader's sensibility like bullets. In the manuscript of
, Collins paid minute attention to details of interruptive typography: the italics, white and black lines (i.e. line spaces and rules) and
dynamic paragraphing which break up the narrative flow are all of Collins's own devising. At times the narrative whispers, at others it shouts; volume, tempo and intensity are all controlled by narrative device and typographic effect. As a genre, sensation fiction works against the idea of the organic âbook' â preferring to fragment its narrative into segments (sometimes, as in
, perversely called âbooks'). The manuscript of
also shows Collins revising his text to sharpen âcurtain lines' â instalment endings designed to keep the reader in suspense for a month. D. A. Miller (who has done much to bring sensation fiction back into critical fashion) claims plausibly that âthe genre offers us one of the first instances of modern literature to address itself primarily to the sympathetic nervous system, where it grounds its characteristic adrenalin effects: accelerated heart rate and respiration, increased blood pressure, the pallor resulting from vasoconstriction, and so on.'
It is a feature of the sensation novel that it wholeheartedly embraced the century's new-fangled communications, its transport systems and its technological inventions (displayed to a wondering world at the Great Exhibition of 1851 â an event on the edge of
's narrative). The telegraph figures centrally in sensation fiction, and the terseness of the still-expensive medium (it costs five shillings to use the âelectrical fluids', a character notes in
) conditions the writers' prose. So does the âagony column' advertisement in the daily newspaper (another form of communication that cost by the word) â a precursor of today's computer bulletin board. In several sections of
, characters exchange letters by the incredibly quick penny post, which from 1839 allowed same-day reply at near-fax speed. They routinely exploit the new transport and communications systems in ingenious ways. Take, for instance, the following passage from Lydia Gwilt's journal (7 o'clock, 8 August 1851):
I have just come back from a long round in a cab. First, to the cloak-room of the Great Western, to get the luggage which I sent there from All Saints' Terrace. Next, to the cloak-room of the South Eastern, to leave my luggage (labelled in Midwinter's name), to wait for me till the starting of the tidal train on Monday. Next, to the General Post Office, to post a letter to Midwinter at the rectory, which he will receive to-morrow morning. Lastly, back again to this house â from which I shall move no more till Monday comes. (p.
Lydia Gwilt uses the machinery of the modern metropolis with the
expertise of a Victorian James Bond (she also anticipates the secret agent's âdead drop' routine). On another occasion, as she goes off to be fitted for her wedding dress (part of a diabolic personation scheme) Lydia senses that something is wrong. Someone is tailing her:
I drove straight to the milliner's shop â which I had observed, when I was there yesterday, had a back entrance into a mews, for the apprentices to go in and out by. I went in at once, leaving the cab waiting for me at the door. âA man is following me,' I said; âand I want to get rid of him. Here is my cab-fare; wait ten minutes before you give it to the driver, and let me out at once by the back way!' In a moment I was out in the mews â in another, I was in the next street â in a third, I hailed a passing omnibus, and was a free woman again. (p.
If Collins had taken out a patent on this âthrowing the tail' gimmick, his heirs would be millionaires. It has become a clichÃ© with thriller writers. Also interesting is the emancipatory âIâ¦ was a free woman again'. Lydia is liberated from the traditional constraints on nineteenth-century women by the technologies of modern civilization which allow her to melt invisibly into the London crowd. (It is significant that in the country â where no escape into anonymity is possible â she feels caged and can find release only in suicidally excessive draughts of laudanum.)
Lydia loves new mid-century technology for its own complicated sake. When, at the grisly climax of the story, she plots to kill Allan Armadale, she spurns arsenic (the poison of choice for lesser women) as too primitive. With her ominous purple flask of carbonic acid (a chemical whose toxic applications were first explored in 1858) she generates a subtle poison gas which she elaborately wafts into her victim's room via a âfumigation system' (i.e. air-conditioning vents). It is high-tech homicide, 1860-style, and far more complex than strictly required for the purposes of extermination. But Lydia wants a modish murder to crown her career â poisoning with style.
It is one of the characterizing features of the âsensationalists' that they came as close as libel permitted to headline stories of the day. No moderately wide-awake reader of
during its serial run, for instance, would have failed to make the connection between Lydia Gwilt's foster-mother, Maria Oldershaw (âMother Jezebel'), and âMadame Rachel' â i.e. Rachel Leverson. This lady, proprietor of a New Bond Street beauty salon (which opened in 1863, as Collins was laying the groundwork for
, was accused of fraud in December 1865 and was, while Collins wrote, one of the most notorious and
criminally glamorous figures in the country.
Shortly after the novel's publication she was to be sent to prison. Collins anticipates the jury's verdict and comes as near as he (or his publisher George Smith) dares to contempt of court. Behind her beautician's front Mother Jezebel is a blackmailer, a procuress and an abortionist. So was Madame Rachel Leverson. Collins broadly hinted as much to his readers, before they had juridical confirmation in the newspapers of 1867. Another headline item which hovers over the narrative of
is the âsensational' Yelverton bigamy case (Lydia Gwilt is â among her other criminalities â a skilled bigamist; see Book the Fourth, Chapter
). There is also multiple allusion in
to the spectacular domestic poisoning trials of the 1850s which had all the country agog (Lydia poisons one husband and tries to poison the two other men in her life; there are hints that she may have had other victims over the years). The other chic crime of the day, âpersonation', also figures centrally in the novel (Collins, I suspect, had caught wind of the Tichborne affair as it was brewing up; see Book the Third, Chapter
, in short, is a novel which reverberates to the headlines of the popular press in the 1850s and early 1860s.
Sensationalists were sometimes called âthe school of Dickens' (in the 1850s and 1860s many of them worked on
All the Year Round
, the 2
. weekly newspapers both edited by Dickens).
Collins was the Inimitable's favourite protÃ©gÃ©. Although Dickens did not entirely approve of the over-engineered quality of Wilkie's plots (and took the maestro's privilege of telling him so) he had fostered his young friend's career.
The Woman in White
had been first serialized to huge effect in Dickens's new weekly paper,
All the Year Round
. But Dickens, for all his literary grandeur, did not have the financial resources of the mid-Victorian publishing giants. In the wake of
The Woman in White's
success, Collins was approached in July 1861 by George Smith, founder of the
(edited by Dickens's great rival, Thackeray). Smith â legendary for the lavishness of his bids to writers â offered Collins Â£5,000 for a new serial (subject unspecified) to run in his monthly magazine. Collins accepted, with the proviso that he clear an outstanding commitment to Dickens
, as it was to be).
Collins fairly crowed about the size of Smith's offer in a letter to his mother: âFive thousand pounds for nine months or at most a year's work â nobody but Dickens has made as much.'
It was not quite true. At around the same time, Smith offered no less than Â£10,000 to George Eliot for
(serialized in the
, 1862â3). But George Eliot was no journalist happy to toss a novel off in a few months. Her
tale of fifteenth-century Florence would be a Herculean labour of historical research â one which, as she later recorded, she would embark on as a young woman and emerge from as an old woman.
did, in the event, need much more than nine months to come to birth. For one thing, Collins resolved to make it something supremely good; his masterpiece. He wanted, in a word, to out-Dickens Dickens. This involved lengthy fore-planning. He undertook a wealth of primary research in exotic locations for what was to be â by comparison with
The Woman in White
â an extraordinarily far-flung narrative (the action starts in the Black Forest, jumps parenthetically to the Caribbean, returns to the English West Country, makes a gloomy excursion to the Isle of Man, plays out the main romantic plot among the flat waters of the Norfolk Broads, and climaxes bloodily in Naples and London's newest suburb, Hampstead). Collins also authenticated the medical, nautical and legal subplots in which the narrative abounds. While not as fetishistic about such research as his fellow sensationalist Charles Reade, Collins was very careful about eyewitness confirmation and getting technical details right.
Research was not, however, the main retardant to
completion. Collins suffered a collapse of health before and during composition. His doctors (particularly his and Dickens's close friend, Frank Beard) had prescribed in early 1863 a total sabbatical from writing which put back the eventual publication of
almost two years. George Smith, always the best-natured of employers, was patient. No one knows exactly what ailed Collins, and if he himself knew he was deliberately vague on the subject. He was not an old man (he turned forty during the composition of
. His sexual athleticism might have been envied by men half his age. The term used to describe his chronic complaint â rheumatic gout â disguises more than it reveals. Like other gout sufferers Wilkie had excruciating pain in his joints (specifically he had a bad ankle and foot, which he alludes to in the characterization of Mr Neal in the first chapter). But when feeling well, he could go sailing with his journalist friend Edward Pigott. It was a sport which he loved, and which he projects on to the yacht-mad Allan Armadale the younger. Wilkie's most disabling symptoms seem to have been nervous. Light and sound were intolerably painful to him during his bad times. He was also prone to crippling bouts of depression. Writing exacerbated his symptoms (something he projects on to Ozias in the Naples episode
. He had what seems to be a major nervous collapse just before the publication of the novel's first number. During the subsequent composition of
he persuaded his
physician Beard to refer him to a nerve and brain specialist. As is well known, Wilkie was intermittently (and while writing
addicted to opium â in the form of laudanum. In the short term, the narcotic soothed him; but in the long term he suffered the extra burdens of toxic overdose and withdrawal.
Wilkie's father had died prematurely (aged fifty-eight) of an unspecified disease. His brother Charley (who had married Dickens's daughter Kate) was slowly dying of cancer in the 1860s (he had also proved impotent after marriage â something that concerned his super-potent father-in-law).
is a novel obsessed with fate, congenital doom and inherited blight. The sins of the novel's fathers (Ozias's mark of Cain and his ânegro blood', for instance) are relentlessly visited on their sons. It is significant, as Catherine Peters points out, that in the first episode the patriarchal Allan Armadale is clearly dying of tertiary syphilis. Put all this together and the hypothesis that Collins feared that he had inherited some venereal affliction (euphemistically called ârheumatic gout') suggests itself irresistibly.