Laudanum, London and Love: Wilkie Collins

July 1, 2012

Peter Ackroyd, Wilkie Collins, London: Chatto & Windus, 2012

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Peter Ackroyd has written long and important books on London and London writers, such as Charles Dickens. His new biography of Wilkie Collins is a short and important book on another great London writer of the nineteenth century.

Wilkie Collins lived from 1824 to 1889 and contributed significantly to the entertainment of the rapidly expanding reading public of his time through melodramas of false identity, madness, deceit and poisonous revenge. His novels feature the struggle for inheritance, justice, and love in the face of slander, conventional morality and social prejudice. Wilkie Collins was particularly adept at deflating cant, exposing hypocrisy, and forensically examining the injustices of his society and British Law. He took particular interest in the way Law and moral convention applied to women and illegitimate children. His novels frequently present women stifled by tradition or forced to extremes. They exercise their wit and courage to escape blandness, conformity, or tyranny, to unravel mysteries and cast light on dark secrets, and to expose cowards and criminals. Collins wrote against a system that deprived women of freedom and security and which cut illegitimate children off from financial legacies.

Through complex and intriguing plots that kept readers like Thackeray awake all night to discover what happened next, Wilkie Collins perfected suspense and sensation, taking the reader beneath the surface of the Victorian family into what he described in the 1852 novel Basil as the “secret theatre of home.” Sometimes this secret theatre involved bigamy, seduction, forced incarceration in mental asylums, opium addiction, suicide or murder. But it was not just thrills, pills, and chills with Wilkie Collins. As a hard-working and meticulous writer, his experiments in narrative style, particularly his combination of diaries, letters and multiple first-person perspectives, contributed to the development of the English novel. The “Rashomon effect” of his contrasting narratives, where the reader is encouraged to question the presentation and interpretation of “facts” from various participants or eye witnesses, was path-breaking. He also promoted the emergence of modern detective fiction.

Trained as a lawyer but never practicing at the bar, Wilkie Collins includes lawyers as regular and prominent characters in his fiction. His narrative style is forensic and questioning, sometimes to the detriment of the individual “voice” of his narrators who are overwhelmed by his interrogative zeal. He closely examines tiny scraps and threads of evidence, and his fiction builds an atmosphere of “detective fever” through professional and amateur investigators.

Through debilitating illness and an addiction to laudanum Wilkie Collins wrote seventeen plays and twenty-one novels. Some of these novels, particularly The Woman in White of 1860 and The Moonstone of 1868 are undoubted masterpieces, and many others deserve re-examination and a new audience. Gout and the concentration of uric acid around his eyes left Wilkie Collins in great pain and temporarily blind, while the massive doses of laudanum and other drugs he took gave him frightful images of horned goblins. But regardless of pain and hallucinations Wilkie Collins was an amiable and sweet-tempered man, beloved by his friends, the reading public, and his two long-term mistresses, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd.

Wilkie Collins never married, and Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd never socialised together, but his three children with Martha were welcome at his home with Caroline and Caroline’s daughter Carrie, and he provided fully for both families and shared his time between them. When Wilkie Collins died in 1889 and was buried at Kensal Green, his carefully constructed will split his estate equally between Caroline and Carrie, and Martha and their three children. He ensured that the women and children in his life did not suffer the fate of so many others in British society of the time and in his fiction. Ackroyd ends his biography of Wilkie Collins with a fitting acknowledgment of the love and enduring bonds of his morganatic families, and Ackroyd’s final image of women grieving by the graveside provides a poignant reminder of similar scenes in the fiction of Wilkie Collins: “Caroline Graves took care of the grave at Kensal Green until her own death in 1895 placed her in the same earth. Martha Rudd then tended the grave until her death in 1919.”

Physical pain experienced over decades, and the serious themes of his fiction ranging from social prejudice, imperialism, and murder, to the ethical and physical horrors of vivisection, did not sour his writing or render it one dimensional. Many of Wilkie Collins’s novels are marked by persistent ironic humour, and he creates individual characters and scenes of great verbal and visual comedy. As he wrote in the preface to his 1862 novel No Name, “there is no such moral phenomenon as unmixed tragedy to be found in the world around us. Look where we may, the dark threads and the light cross each other perpetually in the texture of human life.” The Moonstone, for example, combines an old servant’s humorous narrative with domestic dramas and the mysterious theft of an extraordinary diamond from an English noble’s Yorkshire estate, all premised on earlier slaughter and plunder by British forces in India where the Moonstone was a sacred object protected over many generations by Brahmin priests. The septuagenarian servant Gabriel Betteredge laced his narrative of events surrounding the jewel’s disappearance with frequent comments about his dead wife and his spirited daughter, and with repeated references to his consoling pipe and to the wisdom he gleans, and the prophetic words he takes, from the good book Robinson Crusoe. In one prolonged comic episode the devoted but feisty Gabriel meticulously but sceptically tests the ground rules for recreating the scene of the crime so that the diamond’s disappearance can be reenacted a year after the event:

‘As to the first corridor next,’ [Gabriel] resumed. ‘When we moved the ornaments in that part, we moved a statue of a fat naked child – profanely described in the catalogue of the house as “Cupid, god of Love.” He had two wings last year, in the fleshy part of his shoulders. My eye being off him, for the moment, he lost one of them. Am I responsible for Cupid’s wing?’

Moving beyond the sacred statuary to the profane task of serving a young English gentleman recently returned from the Continent, Gabriel continued:

‘as to Mr. Franklin’s bedroom (if THAT is to be put back to what it was before), I want to know who is responsible for keeping it in a perpetual state of litter, no matter how often it may be set right – his trousers here, his towels there, and his French novels everywhere. I say, who is responsible for untidying the tidiness of Mr. Franklin’s room, him or me?’

Approximately one-fifth the length of a typical Wilkie Collins serialised novel, Ackroyd’s succinct biography takes the reader immediately into the world of the odd little man with an oversized head full of fictional crimes, colourful characters, and ingenious plot lines. Wilkie Collins had the power to imagine vivid scenes and recreate them on the page, and his visual sense, enhanced by his own experience and training as a painter, was inherited from his father William Collins, a Royal Academy painter about whom Wilkie Collins wrote a successful two volume biography (his first major publication). He owed largely to his mother Harriet Geddes Collins his poetic imagination, his love for stories including The Arabian Nights, Frankenstein, and Don Quixote, and his sympathy for spirited female characters, such as aspiring actresses or the beautiful and intelligent governesses who populate his fiction. Wilkie Collins described his mother, herself an aspiring actress and former governess, as “a woman of remarkable mental culture.”

Ackroyd draws attention to Wilkie Collins’s youthful experiences in Europe, especially Italy, when the small, smart, but physically different boy was liberated from conventional English society and from bullying English school. Collins was very short with a large, oddly shaped head and weak eyes. Other children were not kind, and Collins would later include many deformed, disabled, or unusual characters in his fiction. Italy was particularly memorable to Collins because of his sexual awakening as a teenager, the power of the sun, colour, and vivid life, and for the various characters, city scapes, and historical or cultural themes that eventually populated his fiction. Europe was liberating and inspiring. Ackroyd also focuses on the sense of freedom Collins experienced as an adult sailor. The sea or the coast stand out as metaphors or dramatic settings in Wilkie Collins novels.

Significantly, Ackroyd’s fair assessment of his subject’s literary range and artistic merits inspires a reading of Collins’s original work. The Woman in White and The Moonstone have remained in print ever since first publication in the 1860s and are justifiably famous, but Ackroyd also draws attention to the neglected novels such as Basil, No Name, and Heart and Science (his 1883 work on vivisection). Like the best of Wilkie Collins’s fiction, Ackroyd’s biography is a page turner full of striking phrases, humour, and drama. Ackroyd also has a keen eye for material London and the social, political, and cultural context of Wilkie Collins’s reality:

‘The bus was known as the ‘omni’ because it catered for everyone, and thus can be seen as an indispensable preliminary to the Parliamentary Reform Acts of 1867 and 1870. [Wilkie Collins] liked to ride on the omnibus because he wished to immerse himself in what he called ‘the Actual’, as opposed to ‘the Ideal’.

Both Ackroyd and Collins are inspired by London, both are liberal in sentiment, and both enjoy pricking the bubbles of religious bigots, moral absolutists, and hypocrites. Ackroyd’s treatment of Collins’s families and Collins’s decision to defy convention, put him onside with the vigorous heroines of Collins’s fiction, women like Magdalen in No Name who dared to become an actress, dared to defy and deceive the rich, and who risked disgrace, the temptation of suicide, and calumny to seek justice for herself and for her disinherited sister: “I know how the poor narrow people who have never felt and never suffered would answer me if I asked them what I ask you. If they knew my story, they would forget all the provocation, and only remember the offense; they would fasten on my sin, and pass all my suffering by.” Ackroyd would likely find both humour and cause for regret in the action and words of Collins’s pious frauds, narrow people obsessed with sin such as The Moonstone’s Miss Clack: “Let your faith be as your stockings, and your stockings as your faith. Both ever spotless, and both ready to put on at a moment’s notice!”

Wilkie Collins, like his friend, travelling companion, and literary collaborator Charles Dickens, had a passion for theatre and wrote his novels with dramatic flare. Both men were wildly popular as writers, with the serialisation in All the Year Round of their novels A Tale of Two Cities and The Woman in White never dropping below a circulation of 100,000. Both made handsome profits through public readings of their works in Britain and the United States of America, and they shared a predilection for loud waistcoats and colourful clothes. They lived their lives exuberantly in the public eye, but with many exciting escapades going on backstage, sometimes with actresses. (Dickens starred alongside Maria Ternan, sister of his longterm mistress Nelly Ternan, in Collins’s play The Frozen Deep.) Collins’s dedication to Basil, his novel of obsessive love, class prejudice, and revenge, captures his theatrical attitude to character and representation: “the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of Fiction.”

Modern script writers for television costume dramas and feature films, who have thrilled audiences with representations of Dickens’s unforgettable characters including Miss Havisham, Bill Sykes, and Ebeneezer Scrooge, could creatively rediscover and reimagine the characters of Wilkie Collins. The first midnight appearance of the woman in white on a lonely crossroad in Hampstead calls out for directors, cinematographers and actors who can capture the power of this unforgettable scene as Collins has electrifyingly set it down on paper. There is great delight in speculating on the identity of character actors who would relish such roles as Count Fosco, corpulent criminal, chemical genius, bird fancier, and white mouse enthusiast from The Woman in White. Fosco can tame a vicious dog, eat a large fruit tart with cream, whip up a vial of medicine, and then tell you objectively why a gloomy lake is precisely the wrong place to commit a murder. The diminutive scoundrel Captain Wragge from the 1862 novel No Name, is another wonderful character who would delight audiences on screen, a tiny trickster with one brown eye and one green eye which he cynically turns on the world or directs at his disorderly giant of a wife, a kindly fool always losing her shoe or sitting crooked in her chair. Captain Wragge is a snappy dresser and a meticulous fraudster, alive to stratagems and the cunning of more vicious people, diligently recording in account books his every swindle and expense as he gradually gains compassion for a young woman disinherited through cruel English laws about illegitimacy. Moving from callous grifting and small-time theft to legitimate capitalism (which Collins shows is far more lucrative), Wragge becomes an early and indefatigable exponent of advertising. In postcards and through the pages of newspapers, magazines and novels he circulates pictures of his massively healthy wife to prove the restorative powers of his patented medicine, a blend of three herbal purgatives designed to serve the unquenchable demand of sufferers in an age of neuralgia, nervous disorder, and hypochondria.

Wilkie Collins, who Ackroyd explains suffered from a series of physical complaints and nervous exhaustions that required rest, seaside retreats, and massive doses of laudanum that would kill less accustomed patients, populates his fiction with hysterics, hypochondriacs, and characters doomed to die from “fatty degeneration” of the heart or “incurable internal complaints.” The rich, self-obsessed Frederick Fairlie from The Woman in White is one notable, and hilarious, example of Collins’s weak and selfish hypochondriacs. In the words of the courageous and resourceful Marian Halcombe, who was later left homeless and disinherited by callous inaction from the bedridden Mr. Fairlie: “I don’t know what is the matter with him, and the doctors don’t know what is the matter with him, and he doesn’t know himself what is the matter with him. We all say it’s on the nerves, and we none of us know what we mean when we say it.” Uncaring about anyone but himself, Fairlie was always hypersensitive in his own interest. This is how he described Count Fosco’s appearance in his bedroom: “He looked like a walking-West-Indian-epidemic. He was big enough to carry typhus by the ton, and to dye the very carpet he walked on with scarlet fever.”

The half caste Ezra Jennings, a prematurely aged and dying man from The Moonstone, is a far more sympathetic character, both morally and physically, than the selfish hypochondriacs like Frederick Fairlie and Noel Vanstone, the “self-satisfied little man” who kept the young women’s inheritance in No Name. Sharing with Collins great pain and an addiction to opium that first stimulates but then sedates and conjures ghastly dreams, Ezra Jennings appeared in fiction at a time in British history when the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858 had seemingly legitimised racism in the British mind. Ezra Jennings had a “gipsy complexion” and extraordinary features that literally provoked screams when nervous women first encountered him in their English sitting rooms. He knew what it was to be despised or suspected.

Outsider that he was, in many ways Ezra Jennings stands at the moral core of The Moonstone. He was certainly the catalyst for the happy ending of the two primary lovers. However, there is no happy ending for Ezra Jennings. He is not reunited with his lost love. He is not cured of his pain or accepted as an equal by the wider British society. But his words and his actions in the weeks before his death show the true quality of his character to Gabriel Betteredge, to the frank but fair lawyer Mr Bruff, and to the two grateful lovers Franklin Blake and Rachel Verinder. Without overt preaching from Wilkie Collins, Ezra Jennings stands as refutation to the destructive folly of racism in an age of aggressive imperialism.

Dramatic in his own characters and themes, Wilkie Collins admired the trope of literary predecessors. Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare asked “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” For Wilkie Collins, “the sensation of a moment often makes the thought of a life.” His eponymous hero Basil falls instantly, hopelessly and, ultimately, tragically in love with a dark-haired young beauty he sees on an omnibus. Margaret is disgraced and dies. By contrast, Captain Kirke in No Name falls instantly, hopefully and, ultimately, requitedly in love with a gray-eyed young beauty he sees on the seacoast. Magdalen is disgraced but, with Kirke’s compassionate nursing and understanding of her trials, courage and redeemed character, lives to love.

Reading Wilkie Collins beyond the few famous titles that have remained in print ever since first publication provides further examples of the real and potential benefits of new media devices and electronic resources. Ackroyd’s biography discusses interesting works of Wilkie Collins long out of print and unavailable at my local bookstores and the local libraries. On my iPad and through Project Gutenberg I located and downloaded these novels in minutes. Furthermore, the reading experience was pleasurable and for me contrary to the biblio doomsayers who would have us smash the tablets. Rather than necessarily destroying a reader’s attention span or condemning the consumer to the eternal present of text messages, emails, Facebook, instant images, hyperlinks and other temptations of “smart devices,” readers can use these devices to explore rich and deep material from the past and the present and become immersed or engrossed in a writer’s material and the experience of reading intensively. Good writing and exciting stories keep the reader’s attention. In Ackroyd’s memorable phrase, with Wilkie Collins the reader “is in a state of perpetual anticipation.” Reading Wilkie Collins on my iPad did not stop me from sitting still and concentrating on the action for many hours on end. Rather than holding a 700 page book in my hands for prolonged periods and juggling a notepad to take down quotes and comments, I found it extremely easy, and comfortable, to read and annotate Wilkie Collins on the iPad balanced on my lap. Reading these novels in the dark with the iPad’s night vision – black screen with white words – also added to the atmosphere of murder, candle-lit mystery, opium-induced visions and redemptive love. Peter Ackroyd’s slim volume Wilkie Collins is a joy to read, but be warned: it is a gateway drug to heavier things.

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