Compared to the conventions of Victorian morality as presented in the literature of the time, many Victorian novelists had private lives which may have raised some eyebrows. Dickens separated secretly from his wife in favour of the young actress Ellen Ternan, George Eliott lived openly with G.H. Lewes who was already married to someone else, and Thackeray confined his wife to an asylum in France due to her mental illness. But none had as unconventional a private life as Wilkie Collins. From 1858, except for a brief period, he lived as man and wife with the widowed Caroline Graves, and from 1864 he set up a second household with Martha Rudd, by whom he had three children. Caroline did leave Wilkie in 1868 to marry Joseph Clow (Wilkie attended the wedding) but by 1871 she had returned to him.Caroline managed the bills and paid Martha's rent, and the Martha's children were welcome visitors to their household. Yet this remained a secret to Wilkie's reading public.
Not that Wilkie Collins was a conventional ladies' man - he was short with tiny hands and feet, an odd misshapen forehead, overweight and unfit. Yet he loved women and they loved him in return - he was kind and charming, and, in his own way, very honourable.When Wilkie, his brother Charles Collins and John Everett Millais heard a woman scream whilst walking by Regent's Park, it was Wilkie who went to investigate what was wrong. It may be that this was when he first met Caroline Graves, but it is more likely that it provided him with the genesis of the dramatic first meeting with Anne Catherick in The Woman in White.
Throughout the 1860s, Wilkie Collins was the most influential English novelist barring Dickens alone. The Woman in White defined the sensation novel which dominated this period, The Moonstone gave the genre its most lasting modern incarnation in the shape of the detective novel. From 1870 onwards, Collins' powers started to decline, partly due to the loss of his close friend's Dickens' influence; partly due to an increasing desire to write issue-based novels (Swinburne wickedly wrote
What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition
Some demon whispered - 'Wilkie! have a mission' (Peters pg 313));
partly due to an increasing dependency on Laudenum to alleviate the pain of "rheumatic gout". Whatever the cause, he never recaptured the heights scaled in the 1860s.
Two contrasting books examine his life in detail. First published in 1988, William Clarke's The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins focusses almost entirely on the man, his life and that of his family. Clarke, who died earlier this year, was a leading financial journalist whose wife was a great-granddaughter of Collins. This family connection enabled him to access Collins' bank accounts and to try to explain why, despite the careful construction of his will in a manner worthy of one of the plots of his novels, both sides of his family saw little benefit from the wealth that he had accumulated. Clarke shows that in all probability the family was swindled by his lawyer/son-in-law Henry Bartley.
For all its meticulous research and in some cases the first-hand testimony of elderly family members, the Secret Life largely passes over the novels themselves. The King of Inventors by Catherine Peters remedies this shortcoming. Peters sets out the thesis that Collins was haunted by a second self, a double that was often behind him, especially in his later opium-influenced years. This double manifests itself in his novels which are primarily concerned with questions of identity. Certainly, doubles feature largely in his works, from Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White, to the multiple Alan Armadales, to the twin brothers Oscar and Nugent Dubourg in Poor Miss Finch. And even when doubles are not involved, the novels usually resolve round questions of identity, literally in The Law and the Lady, or as a question of legitimacy of birth in The Dead Secret or No Name, or of marriage in Man and Wife.
Peters combines a perceptive reading of the novels with a thorough and well-researched construction of Collins' life, and, whilst she doesn't have all the access that William Clarke has obtained, her use of the texts of the novels to illuminate the biography is much superior. As an example, Peters describes three aspects of Collins' own character revealed in The Law and the Lady. Physically he is akin to husband Eustace Macallan, with his gentle eyes, beard streaked with grey and limp. As a ladies' man, he is represented by the elderly roue Major Fitz-David, and as a writer and fantasist by Miserrimus Dexter. She goes on to show how further extreme aspects of this his most bizarre creation were to be seen in his temperamental actor-friend Charles Fechter, who was also a heavy-drinking, food-loving extrovert. Clarke, however, dismisses The Law and the Lady in a paragraph.
Yet Wilkie's private life ultimately remains a mystery. The circumstances in which he first met both Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd remain matters of speculation. Why Caroline Graves should choose to get married in 1867, and then return once again to Wilkie, is also out of the reach of the biographers. And most mysteriously of all, why should someone who dedicated his life to writing about identity, illegitimacy and the problems inherent in legal ambiguity choose not to attempt to legitimise in some way the two families for which he was responsible.Both Clarke and Peters attempt explanations, but in the end, Wilkie's own life proves the one intricate plot incapable of resolution.