William Wilkie Collins was an English author and playwright. He was born in 1824 in London, and died in 1889, also in London. His father was the well-known landscape and portrait painter, William Collins. Collins’s name “Wilkie” comes from his godfather, Sir David Wilkie.
Collins’s schooling began in 1835 at Maida Hill Academy, and he later continued his schooling at Cole’s Boarding School. He says he began his career as a storyteller while at boarding school, in order to appease the dormitory bully. Collins had a distinctive and strange appearance, with a prominent bulge on the right side of his forehead, and his head and shoulders being disproportionately large. He also possessed knowledge of other European languages like French and Italian, which compounded the unwanted attention from less-educated classmates. Based on pictures, he began wearing glasses at the age of 21.
After leaving school in 1841, Collins apprenticed for tea merchants. Here, he wrote his first signed publication for a magazine. In 1846, he became a law student and completed this degree, although he never practiced his profession. However, many lawyers are featured in his novels, as evident even in The Moonstone. When his father died in 1847, Collins wrote a memoir based on his father’s life: The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. His first novel was published in 1850 (Antonina, a historical novel), and this was followed by three novels that took place in his own time.
In 1851, Collins met Charles Dickens, and the two became good friends. Collins, who also dabbled in theater, became involved in Dickens’s productions. The two writers traveled to the Continent and visited each other’s homes frequently. They are noted for influencing each other, as well, with Dickens’s penchant for creating and establishing character working its way into Collins’s work; in return, Collins’s remarkable ability to create and sustain exciting plot can also be seen in Dickens’s subsequent works. George Eliot and Anthony Trollope were also among Collins’s friends. Collins was, interestingly, the first author to use a literary agent (by the name of Alexander Pollock Watt), and helped found the Society of Authors, which lives on today.
Collins suffered from poor health throughout his whole life, but he began to decline severely in the 1850s and 1860s after contracting rheumatic gout. This affected his eyes, and he often needed a secretary. His lifelong friend and doctor Frank Beard helped him during these times; eventually Beard prescribed opium (in the form of laudanum) as a painkiller. Over the course of the years, Collins developed a great addiction and tolerance to the laudanum, and took enough daily that “would have sufficed to kill a ship’s crew."
Although he never married, Collins was involved in two long-term relationships, with overlap. The first was with was Caroline Graves, a widow with a young daughter. Collins and Graves met in 1856, and lived together from 1858 until the 1880s (Collins’s death.) In 1864 Collins met Martha Rudd when she was only 19 (he was 40 at the time.) They had three children together, and assumed the identities of “Mr. and Mrs. William Dawson”; the name Dawson was given to their children as well. In 1868, Caroline suddenly married another man; but in spring of 1871, she returned to live with Collins. Collins maintained two families over the course of these overlapping decades.
Collins's most famous and successful novels are The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), which have never been out of print. The Woman in White is viewed as the quintessential sensation novel, and its titular character was most likely based on Collins’s real-life encounter with Caroline Graves in the mid-1850s. The Moonstone is considered as the first true detective novel. After his initial run with sensation fiction earlier in his career, most of Collins later work is more “serious” and “purposeful,” and some works even read politically, such as Man and Wife (1870).
In 1889, Collins was involved in a cab accident and suffered a bronchitis attack, and with further complications he died in September. While for years after his death he was overshadowed by his friend Dickens, he has made his way back out of obscurity in English literature, with a continuing and unique legacy. During his 65 years, Collins wrote 30 novels, 14 plays, and 60 short stories.