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The King of Inventors

The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins

Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 528
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    The King of Inventors
    Book Description:

    In this major biography, Catherine Peters explores the complicated life of Wilkie Collins, the greatest of the Victorian "Sensation" novelists and author of the famousWoman in WhiteandThe Moonstone. An intimate of Dickens and of the Pre-Raphaelites Holman Hunt and Millais, Collins was called the "king of inventors" by his publisher. On the surface, he was charming, unpretentious, and extremely good company, beloved by men and women. Beneath this façade, however, he was a complex and haunted man, addicted to laudanum, and his powerful, often violent novels revealed a dark side of Victorian life. He supported two common-law wives and their children, and as Peters shows, he provoked scandal by refusing to cloak his complicated love affairs in the customary hypocritical pretense of the period.

    Having discovered a hitherto unknown autobiography by Wilkie Collins's mother, Peters draws on this document and on thousands of Collins's unpublished letters to create this provocative picture of his life and times. She describes in detail the saga of his exhausting struggle for better copyright protection for authors, especially for English authors in the United States. She has also studied the manuscripts of his novels, plays, and stories, including those which he did not complete, finding that some of his neglected novels turn out to be much more interesting than most readers realize today. This edition of the book has been supplemented to include an appendix describing Collins's "Tahitian" novel. Written when he was twenty, the manuscript of this work,Ioláni, was thought to have disappeared, but it has recently been rediscovered and sold to a private collector. For any Collins enthusiast, or for anyone interested in the literary history of the Victorian period,The King of Inventorsprovides a vivid account of Collins's unusual personal life in the context of his literary and artistic friendships and of newly revealed facts about the two women with whom he shared his "double life."

    Originally published in 1993.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6345-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. ONE Families (1788–1822)
    (pp. 1-18)

    All his life, Wilkie Collins was haunted by a second self. When he was a young man he told Percy Fitzgerald, on their first meeting, ‛how he was subject to a curious ghostly influence, having often the idea that “someone was standing behind him” and that he was tempted to look round constantly’.¹ In old age, suffering from painful illnesses and addicted to opium, this experience became not merely uncanny, but terrifying. When he worked late into the night, another Wilkie Collins appeared: ‛… the second Wilkie Collins sat at the same table with him and tried to monopolise the...

  6. TWO A Happy Family (1823–1835)
    (pp. 19-36)

    William and Harriet Collins had both been brought up in households in which an easygoing, unassertive man had been dominated by his more forceful wife. They tried not to repeat the pattern. Though Harriet had more natural energy and enthusiasm than William, there was no question that he was the man of the house. He had asserted himself against his mother’s wishes, perhaps for the first time, when he got married; he was to remain the pivot of the household, though at some cost to his tranquillity, until he died.

    He and Harriet escaped by themselves to Hampstead for the...

  7. THREE Educations (1836–1840)
    (pp. 37-54)

    Wilkie Collins always believed that the journey to Italy was crucial for his development as a writer. He was inclined to exaggerate its length: many of his acquaintances thought he had been educated almost entirely abroad. In 1862, looking back twenty-five years, he wrote that he learnt more in Italy ‛which has since been of use to me, among the pictures, the scenery and the people, than I ever learnt at school’.¹ As well as an education in art and languages, he learnt that the age of anxiety was not a universal phenomenon, and that a life went on in...

  8. FOUR The Prison at the Strand (1841–1847)
    (pp. 55-74)

    Wilkie was hustled into a tea importer’s office in the Strand – more to keep him busy than as a permanent solution for his future. The job was probably found for him by his father’s friend and banker Charles Ward, who worked at Coutts Bank, for Wilkie’s employer, Edward E. Antrobus, was a relation of one of the directors of Coutts. He was reassuringly public-spirited and serious: in the late 1840s and 1850s he wrote books on social problems. He became a friend of Wilkie’s parents: in 1842 William Collins painted a group portrait of his three children, for which...

  9. FIVE Publication (1847–1851)
    (pp. 75-94)

    In a story written three years before his death, Wilkie Collins pondered the relationship of parents and children – no doubt considering his own equivocal role as a father of illegitimate children as well as his experiences as a son – and summed up his own feelings on the distinction to be drawn between love for a mother, and for a father:

    Our mothers have the most sacred of all claims on our gratitude and our love. They have nourished us with their blood; they have risked their lives in bringing us into the world; they have preserved and guided...

  10. SIX ‛The Fire of Artistic Ambition’ (1851–1852)
    (pp. 95-114)

    It was surprising that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had not met before. As Dickens wrote to Egg,‛I knew his father very well, and should be very glad to know him’.¹ Augustus Egg, their go-between, had acted with Dickens’ theatrical company since 1848, but he had known Wilkie even longer: he was a friend of the Collins family when Wilkie was a boy. At the Royal Academy he had been part of ‛The Clique’, a group of friends who met regularly to discuss and criticize each others’ work. Other members were W. P. Frith, Wilkie’s close friend E. M. Ward...

  11. SEVEN The Sorcerer and the Apprentice (1852–1853)
    (pp. 115-130)

    Bentley likedBasil, though he took fright at some too-explicit passages. In Wilkie’s first version, the hero followed his wife and her seducer to a house in a lonely street, and the door was opened to him by a girl: ‛I had intended to ask her who lived in the house, but the … sight of her made the question needless.’¹ In the published version this obvious reference to a brothel or house of assignation was omitted. The house becomes a hotel, and the prostitute a waiter: ‛… you will see that I have only mentioned “the Hotel” as a...

  12. EIGHT In the Sorcerer’s Footsteps (1853–1854)
    (pp. 131-146)

    Augustus Egg, the third member of the travelling ‛triumvirate’, as Dickens called them, was the son of a successful gunsmith. Egg was, according to Frith (himself the son of servants), ‛a tolerably well-educated man, but, either from a defective ear or from Cockney surroundings … he had some peculiarities in his pronunciation which were embarrassing and sometimes ludicrous’.¹ He had a private income, which he used generously to help his friends, buying their paintings and finding them rich patrons. Egg is known now for his paintings of contemporary life, and his much-reproduced triptych of 1858, ‛Past and Present’, showing the...

  13. NINE The Setting-up of a Balloon (1855–1856)
    (pp. 147-164)

    As Dickens grew more dissatisfied with his domestic life, his need to have Wilkie with him grew more urgent. Wilkie’s failings, so irritating during the Italian trip, were all forgotten. Now, instead of being pretentious about painting, Wilkie ‛has a good eye for pictures’.¹ It is to Wilkie that Dickens makes fun of others, Forster, Townsend, Wills; with Wilkie alone that he wants to prowl the streets of Paris and London. They were often seen together. One not entirely accurate eye witness described them ‛in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden and the Strand; Collins, short and rather thickset, with bold...

  14. TEN The Frozen Deep (1856–1858)
    (pp. 165-186)

    Wilkie returned to London on 12 April, crossing the Channel in a half-gale and arriving, ill once more, with nowhere to live. While he was in Paris his mother had taken a lease on a cheaper house, 2 (later 11) Harley Place, a terraced house between Harley Street and Devonshire Place, on the south side of the New Road. The house needed renovating, and was not yet habitable. There were disputes with the landlord; Wilkie approved the situation, but wrote that he did not want them to be committed to a ‛a long twelve years lease’.¹ Clearly, he did not...

  15. ELEVEN Secret Connections (1858–1859)
    (pp. 187-204)

    Dickens’ marriage had been in difficulties for years, as Wilkie was now well aware. At the time of the public performances ofThe Frozen Deep, and on the ‛Idle Apprentices’ tour, when he and Dickens went to Doncaster to see Ellen Ternan act, Wilkie, as close to Dickens as he was ever to be, was in the secret of his friend’s infatuation with the young actress, which finally brought the marriage to an end. In the last months of 1857 and early part of 1858 a series of incidents, designed, it would seem, to humiliate Catherine Dickens, culminated in an...

  16. TWELVE The Woman in White (1859–1860)
    (pp. 205-226)

    Wilkie was the only friend asked to spend Dickens’ birthday with him and ‛the girls’ in 1859. ‛I have not had the heart to make any preparation for it – you know why’, Dickens wrote.¹ Wilkie was closely involved with Dickens’ personal and business life at this time. When Dickens closed downHousehold Wordsand launchedAll the Year Round(Forster dissuaded him from calling it, with Inimitable defiance of the scandal,Household Harmony), Wills and Wilkie went with him, and it was Wills and Wilkie, not Forster, who witnessed the contract for publishing the magazine in the United States.²...

  17. THIRTEEN The Top of the Tree (1860–1862)
    (pp. 227-246)

    By Christmas the success ofThe Woman in Whitewas certain. Dickens’ strategy of serializing full-length fiction had paid off, and Wilkie’s novel did much to secure the enormous circulation ofAll the Year Round, three times that ofHousehold Wordsat its best. Queues of eager readers formed outside the offices on press days; the story became the theme of dinner-table gossip. It inspired songs and dances: there was a Woman in White Waltz and a Fosco Galop. The cartoonists used it. Other writers produced women in various shades; evenAll the Year Roundpublished a Bluebeard story by...

    (pp. None)
  19. FOURTEEN No Name (1862–1864)
    (pp. 247-262)

    No Namewas published in three volumes on 31 December 1862, dedicated to Beard in gratitude for his help. The first printing of four thousand copies was almost sold out on the day of publication; but once the reviews began to appear sales fell off sharply. Reviewers were shocked that the novel contained sympathetic characters who outraged the standards of English society and got away with it. The story of the elder Vanstones, who lived in happy and apparently guilt-free domestic harmony for many years though unmarried, was bad enough. Still worse was that of their daughter Magdalen, whose devious...

  20. FIFTEEN Armadale: The Self and the Shadow (1863–1866)
    (pp. 263-284)

    Wilkie and Caroline took Carrie with them to Italy, on a journey that lasted over four months. Carrie was the age Wilkie had been when he first went there: he could relive, through her eyes, that enchanted experience. They travelled slowly, for Wilkie was still not strong, stopping in Paris before going in stages, by rail,vetturinoand steamer, to Rome. Fine weather met them at Nice, where everything had changed since Wilkie was there as a boy: now there were immense hotels all along the sea front, and the town had grown to three times the size. Wilkie was...

  21. SIXTEEN ‛Wild yet domestic’: Wilkie’s family mysteries (1867–1868)
    (pp. 285-302)

    In the summer of 1867 Wilkie’s work was once more disrupted by the urgent problem of finding somewhere to live. The lease on Melcombe Place ran out at the end of July, and for a while it seemed as though he would be turned out on the street. At the last moment he signed a twenty-year lease with Lord Portman for a house in Gloucester Place, parallel with Baker Street and just north of Portman Square.

    Number 90 (now 65) Gloucester Place was a substantial terraced house, five storeys high, with plenty of room for family, visitors and servants. There...

  22. SEVENTEEN The Moonstone (1867–1870)
    (pp. 303-318)

    Wilkie’s energy throughout this complicated and traumatic time was astonishing, and he was grateful to laudanum for helping to carry him through. One of the good stories he loved to tell aboutThe Moonstonewas adapted from Scott’s experience of writingThe Bride of Lammermuir: ‛I was not only pleased and astonished at thefinale, but did not recognise it as my own.’¹ Wilkie was no longer taking laudanum only at night, to help him sleep, but in larger and larger doses during the day. But this story would carry more conviction if he had not given such detailed accounts...

  23. EIGHTEEN After Dickens (1870–1872)
    (pp. 319-332)

    It was a tremendous shock. Yet there is a curious hardness in Wilkie’s reaction that shows the distance he had already put between them. On 8 June, the day Dickens was struck down, Wilkie heard the news from the Beards, and wrote to Catherine, Frank’s wife, that he was ‛shocked and grieved’ and would call later to hear if she had any news.¹ Perhaps he was too stunned to feel emotion at first. But his letters to William Tindell, who was now a friend to whom he confided intimate family matters, speak of Dickens’ death with a chilling remoteness. Wilkie...

  24. NINETEEN Wilkie and the Theatre (1871–1874)
    (pp. 333-354)

    With Caroline back at Gloucester Place Wilkie’s life was comfortable and well-organized again. Mary Cunliffe, meeting him at Woodlands, noticed that he was, for once, in much better health, ‛very bright and pleasant’, looking ten years younger and taking an uncharacteristically optimistic view of French politics, arguing with Fred, just back from Paris, that the Commune would be forgotten in three years.¹

    His literary life, too, took a new direction. The most successful phase of his career as a dramatist began, with the production at the Olympic ofThe Woman in White. The part of Count Fosco was taken by...

  25. TWENTY America (1873–1874)
    (pp. 355-366)

    Wilkie seems to have felt that he might not survive the six-month absence in America. It was generally believed that the strain of Dickens’ last American tour had hastened his death, and Wilkie had been told in 1871 that his heart was weak.¹ In addition there was the chronic ‛rheumatic gout’ which often crippled him for weeks or months at a time. He could not, of course, take Caroline to look after him, as he did when he travelled privately on the Continent. As Dickens rapidly realized in 1867, a female companion who was not a wife would have scandalized...

  26. TWENTY-ONE The Law and the Lady (1874–1879)
    (pp. 367-384)

    Wilkie was back in London at the end of March. He quickly found a new home for Martha and the children, at 10 Taunton Place, then a row of semi-rural cottages off Park Road, Regent’s Park. He had only to walk the short distance to the north end of Gloucester Place to see her. He located the idealized love-nest of Amelius Goldenheart and Simple Sally in his 1879 novel,The Fallen Leaves, in the same spot.

    He turned northward towards the Regent’s Park.

    The cottage was in a by-road, just outside the park: a cottage in the strictest sense of...

  27. TWENTY-TWO The Unknown Public (1878–1885)
    (pp. 385-406)

    Wilkie’s original intention of writing a series of novels illustrating the theme of ‛those who have drawn blanks in the lottery of life – the people who have toiled hard after happiness, and have gathered nothing but disappointment and sorrow; the friendless and the lonely, the wounded and the lost’ survived in his next novel only in the title,The Fallen Leaves.¹ The histories of the unfortunate, in the only part he completed, are looked at from two perspectives: that of the ruthless capitalist society in which they live, which has nothing to give them, and the Utopian Christian socialism...

  28. TWENTY-THREE The Final Years (1885–1889)
    (pp. 407-426)

    Though Wilkie continued to work as hard as ever, he was perceptibly failing. The painful and increasingly frequent attacks of angina which clawed at his chest seemed worse when he was at rest than when he was working. He had what he called ‛neuralgia’, some of it certainly ascribable to the heart condition. The ‛rheumatic gout’ attacked his eyes as often as his joints; he suffered from bronchitis in wet weather, weakness in hot weather, ‛nervous exhaustion’ when he stopped work. He vividly described his state after finishing a book in a letter to Nina Lehmann:

    Fidgets, aching legs, gloom,...

  29. TWENTY-FOUR The Journey’s End (1889)
    (pp. 427-434)

    Rather to his surprise, Wilkie was still alive to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday on 8 January 1889. Ten days later he survived a potentially serious accident. As he was coming home in a four-wheeler from a dinner with Sebastian Schlesinger on 19 January, there was a collision as the cab turned from Wilton Place into Knightsbridge. He gave a graphic account to Watt:

    Smashed glass flying all over me – the cab tipping over – and I flying out of the uppermost door like a young man of 20. Not a morsel of the glass touched my face or my...

  30. APPENDIX A Charles Collins’ ‛Secret Connection’
    (pp. 435-438)
  31. APPENDIX B Wilkie Collins’ Travelling Desk
    (pp. 439-440)
  32. APPENDIX C Wilkie Collins’ First, Unpublished Novel
    (pp. 441-444)
  33. References
    (pp. 445-478)
  34. Bibliography
    (pp. 479-492)
  35. INDEX
    (pp. 493-502)