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(William) Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)


English novelist and short story writer, whose unconventional private life and determination to tackle social issues stirred some controversy among his contemporary audience. Many of Wilkie Collins's stories contain sympathetic portraits of characters who are disabled or who just aren't stereotypes. Critics often credit Collins, who was aware of the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Émile Gaboriau, with the invention of the English detective novel. Sergeant Richard Cuff from The Moonstone (1868) was modelled after a retired Scotland Yard Inspector named Jonathan Whicher. Dorothy L. Sayers has called the novel "probably the very finest detective story ever written."

"Good night, Mr. Betteredge," he said. "And mind, if you ever take to growing roses, the white moss rose is all the better for not being budded on the dog rose, whatever the gardener may say to the contrary!"
"What are you doing here?" I asked. "Why are you not in your proper bed?"
"I am not in my proper bed," answered the Sergeant, "because I am one of the many people in this miserable world who can't earn their money honestly and easily at the same time."

(from The Moonstone)

Wilkie Collins was born at 11 New Cavendish Street, Marylebone, London, into an artistic family. His father, William Collins, was a well-known landscape painter and a full member of the Royal Academy. His friends included the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Harriet Collins (née Geddes), Wilkie's mother, was the daughter of Lieutenant Alexander Geddes and his wife, the governess Harriet (née Easton). Wilkie was named after the famous genre painter Sir David Wilkie. William and Harriet were a devoted couple, and young Wilkie grew with his brother in a secure household, but he never outgrew his childhood sickliness. At birth he was small and had a large, slightly deformed head. 

Wilkie Collins was educated privately. For several years he studied painting. His favorite writer was Sir Walter Scott. At the age of eleven he began attending school. In 1836 the family visited France and Italy, where William Collins studied the old masters.

After nearly two years abroad, the family returned to England. With the help of his father, Collins found work in the office of a tea importer (1841-46). During this period he began to write fiction. Collins' first story, 'The Last Stage Coachman' (1843), which owed a lot to Charles Dickens, was published in The Illuminated Magazine. "Although I do not follow my father's profession," he wrote to the American novelist R.H. Dana, and added, "I live very much in the society of artists." (Wilkie Collins: A Literary Life by G. Law and A. Maunder, 2008, p. 20) In 1846, without much enthusiasm, Collins began to study law at Lincoln's Inn.

Collins's first novel, Ioláni, was rejected by Longman and Chapman & Hall; it was not published until 1999. He then worked industriously on Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome (1850), a historical story in the manner of Bulwer Lytton. The novel was well received by critics. One reviewer wrote: "It is, in fact, history as well as romance ; to readers who seek the former, it offers a clear and distinct picture . . . while to the other it is a beautiful and touching story, full of incident and feeling." (The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume XXXIII, 1850, p. 408) Nevertheless, Collins abandoned the historical mode and decided appeal "to the readiest sympathies and the largest number of readers, by writing a story of our own times". ('Letter of Dedication,' in Basil: A Story of Modern Life by W. Wilkie Collins, 1856, p. iv) The result was Basil: A Story of Modern Life (1852).

At the age of 27 Collins became a lawyer. He never practiced law but his knowledge of legal matters was a great help in writing crime fiction. William Collins died in 1847. The landscape painter and engraver John Linnell helped Collins during the compilation of his father biography, which came out in 1848.

Basil was Collins's first novel drawing on mystery and suspense. An anonymous reviewer for the Westminster Review classified it as being of "a very objectionaly school [that] . . . like others of the same kind, has not been  without its admirers, [so] we shall state our reasons for condemning it." (Wilkie Collins in Context, edited by William Baker and Richard Nemesvari, 2023, p. 170) Nevertheless, Collins had proved to himself that he could make a career as a popular novelist. At the same time, the anonymoys critique foretold the manner of receiving The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1863), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone – they were perceived as representing "the sensation novel." Basil was reprinted in 1856. A revised edition, which involved over a thousand deletions, came out in 1862.

Collins started in 1851 his long friendship with Charles Dickens. Inspired by the success of Dickens's A Christmas Carrol (1843) and other Christmas books, Collins published Mr. Wray's Cash-Box; Or, The Mask and the Mystery. A Christmas Sketch (1852).

A few years later he joined the staff of Dickens's Household Worlds, and contributed pieces for the magazine. Dickens listened to Collins's stories and adviced him. "He found out, as I had hoped," Collins wrote to his mother, "all the weak points in the story, and gave me the most inestimable hints for strenghtening them." (Dickens: A Memoir of Middle Age by Peter Ackroyd,  2012, p. 395) With the elder author Collins worked closely on the melodrama The Lighthouse (1855), loosely based on the short story 'Gabriel's Marriage.' It was staged at Tavistock House ("The Smallest Theatre in the World"), where Dickens lived between 1851 and 1860. Collins's brother Charles Allston married Dickens's daughter; he was a close associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In 1858 Collins met Caroline Graves, a 24-year-old widow. She became his mistress and life companion. Later her daughter Elizabeth Harriet became his amanuensis. Collins saw Caroline first near Regent's Park at a mysterious midnight encounter of which he made use in The Woman in White – he heard a cry, and then a "young and very beautiful woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight" ran from a garden of a villa, "she paused for a moment in an attitude of supplication and terror . . . suddenly moved on and vanished in the shadows cast upon the road." (The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais by John Guille Millais, 1899, p. 281) In addition, Collins had relationship with Mrs Martha Rudd ("Mrs Dawson"), the daughter of a shepherd, whose three children Collins acknowledged as his own. To avoid "dangerous publicity," Caroline Graves and Collins put on a conservative facede: she was a "housekeeper." Dickens often visited their lodgings in Harley Street. In 1868 Caroline married Joseph Clow, but returned to Collins within two years.

The still popular Woman in White appeared first in Dickens's periodical All the Year Roundin 1859-60. This novel, a multivocal narrative, is told in the form of eyewitness accounts from a number of witnesses. In the center of the plot is the evil Sir Percival Glyde's plan to steal Laura Fairlie's, his wife's inheritance with the help of a sinister Italian, Count Fosco. Like in Basil (or in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans) Collins has two opposite woman characters. Marian Halcombe has coal-black hair, she is intelligent, and "the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache." Walter Hartright is "almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended." Laura, light and pretty, qualifies as a conventional heroine, but Marian is strong enough to stand against Glyde. After he dies in a fire, Hartright marries Laura.

In No Name a young woman regains her inheritance. Armadale was a story of fate, criminal fraud, and an attempted murder. Its anti-heroine Lydia Gwilt has been called "the first femme fatale in the modern sense." (The BFI Companion to Crime, edited by Phil Hardy, foreword by Richard Attenborough, 1997, p. 86)

In Moonstone, early police procedural, Collins created Sergeant Cuff, whose traits would turn up in detective fiction for generations to come, including gardening. "I haven't much time to be fond of anything," says the Sergeant. "But when I have a moment's fondness to bestow, most times . . . the roses get it." Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe has a passion for orchids.

Moonstone unfolds through narratives of its various characters. Sergeant Cuff interviews people at a country house to discover who stole a huge diamond that has a bloody history. The plot includes also somnambulism and experiments with opium, Oriental magic, and three mysterious, well-dressed Indian Brahmins, who, at the end, take the sacred gem back to "its wild native land." "So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycle of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone. Who can tell?"

Many of Collins's stories feature themes of dream and fate. 'The Terribly Strange Bed' (1856), which opens in Paris, is filled with forebodings. The narrator, a youg man, seeks excitement in an obscure gambling-room. He has incredible luck, he wins all the time, and drinks much champagne. Then he meets an old soldier, who advises him to sleep comfortably in the house, it is too late to go home. In his room upstairs he rests in a four-post bed, and remembers a picnic party in a Welsh valley, and a young lady who quoted 'Childe Harold'. "Of all the wonderful faculties that help to tell us we are immortal, which speaks the sublime truth more eloquently than memory?" In the middle of his recollections he sees that the bed top is silently coming down. The canopy is a thick mattress and the whole bed a machine for secret murder by suffocation. He escapes, goes to the police, and in the end the villains are arrested. All the time the reader knows that the narrator's luck is not natural, that he should not trust the old soldier, and there is something wrong with the room.

"What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition? / Some demon whispered ' Wilkie! Have a mission.' " (Charles Swinburne, 1889)

Collins, who suffered from agonies of rheumatic gout, became addicted to laudanum, a form of opium; it was used perhaps even more heavily by Thomas De Quincey or Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Laudanum was available everywhere and even given to infants. The doses Collins took were very high. To escape nightmares and hallucinations he visited with Caroline spas in Germany.

By the time when Dickens was writing his unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, John Forster had replaced Collins as confidant. After the death of Dickens in 1870, Collins became more interested in the theatre, which had been close to his heart from early on. Between 1871-73 three Collins's dramas were produced in the West End of London. The Woman in White was a commercial success at the Olympic Theatre, London, although the 700-page novel was reduced into an 88-page "sensation" drama. The New Magdalen, staged there in 1873, was even more  succesfull.

In 1873 Collins made a tour in the United States. He met Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendel Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier in Boston at the St. James Hotel, where a reception was given in his honour. Twain made speeches and Holmes read a tribute in verse. Collins himself had no talent for public speaking. The Boston Evening Transcript reported that "each gentleman was presented with a bonbon box, in shape and size like the cabinet edition of Mr. Collins's works." (Wilkie Collins: A Biography by Kenneth Robinson, 1951, p. 272) In the course of this profitable American tour, Collins earned about £2,500.

Despite being burdened by poor health and drug addiction, Collins continued to write in his final years. Concerned with treatment of women in Victorian society, Collins attacked the attitudes to "fallen" women in The New Magdalen (1873). The Evil Genius (1886) dealt with adultery, divorce, and child-custody. Collins's sympathy in general is on the side of the deserted wife and the mistress of the unfaithful husband.

Differing from other male Victorian writers, Collins paid attention to disabled women: the protagonist of Poor Miss Finch (1872) is a blind girl, Lucilla Finch, who looks like Raphael's 'Sistine Madonna,' but it is the eyes where the likeness ends: "The poor, dim, sightless eyes had a faded, changeless, inexpressive look– and that was all." Interestingly, the story is narrated by her paid companion and confidante, Madame Pratolungo. She is a fine observer, but with a little bit too self-satisfied attitudes. Collins said in the dedication of the book to Mrs. Elliot (Frances Dickinson, an amateur actor and writer), that blindness has been "exhibited, more or less exclusively, from the ideal and the sentimental point of view. The attempt here made is to appeal to an interest of another kind, by exhibiting blindness as it really is." ( Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture by Martha Stoddard Holmes, 2004, p. 75)

Wilkie Collins died from a stroke on 23 September 1889. Never yielding to Victorian conventions, Collins had insisted upon a simple funeral in his will. He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, also the burial place of William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. Collins's final novel, Blind Will (1890), which came out posthumously, was finished by Walter Besant.

For further reading: Wilkie Collins: A Biography by Kenneth Robinson (1951); Wilkie Collins by Robert Ashley (1952); The Life of Wilkie Collins by Nuel Pharr Davis (1956); Wilkie Collind: the Critical Heritage, edited by Norman Page (1974); Wilkie Collins: An Annotated Bibliography by Kirk H. Beetz (1978); 'Collins (William) Wilkie' by E.F. Bleiler, in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly (1985); Wilkie Collins: Women, Property, and Propriety by Philip O'Neill (1988); The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke (1988); The King of Inventors by Catherine Peters (1991); Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic by Tamar Heller (1992); Wilkie Collins to the Forefront, ed. Nelson Smith and R.C. Terry (1995); 'Wilkie Collins' by Audrey Peterson, in Mystery and Suspense Writers, Vol. 1, edited by Robin W. Winks (1998); Reality's Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins by Maria K Bachman, Don Richard Cox (2003); Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd (2012); Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation by Andrew Lycett (2013); Victorian Writers and the Stage: The Plays of Dickens, Browning, Collins and Tennyson by Richard Pearson (2015); Sensational Things: Souvenirs, Keepsakes, and Mementos in Wilkie Collins's Fiction by Sabina Fazli (2019); Clues from the Couch: Psychology in Detective Fiction from Wilkie Collins to Winspear and Penny by Laird R. Blackwell (2022); Wilkie Collins in Context, edited by William Baker and Richard Nemesvari (2023) - Suom.: Wilkie Collinsilta on käännetty mm. kertomukset 'Naisen haamu eli mysterio neljässä kertomuksessa' (Kaunokirjallisuutta ulosannettuna G.W. Edlundin kustannuksella n:o 1, 1880), 'Erään perheen tarina' (A Marriage Tragedy, 1858, suom. teoksessa Kariston 50 pennin romaaneja n:o 28, 1914), 'John Jagon henki tahi kuollutko wai eläwä?' (John Jago's Ghost, 1874, suom. teoksessa Kaunokirjallisuutta ulosannettuna G.W. Edlundin kustannuksella n:o 3, 1880), 'Avioliittotragedia' (A Marriage Tragedy, 1858, suom. teoksessa Murha maaseudulla, toim. Thomas Godfrey, 1990), 'Kaksi tuntia elinaikaa' (Mystery Digest 5/1961), 'Kamala yösija' (A Terribly Strange Bed, 1852, suom. teoksessa Hyvää yötä n:o 2, 1935), 'Lainattu elämä' (Mystery Digest 1/1961), 'Täydellinen herrasmies' (Mystery Digest 4/1961)

Selected bibliography:

  • Memoirs of The Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A., 1848
  • Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome: A Romance of the Fifth Century, 1850
  • Rambles Beyond Railways; or, Notes in Cornwall Taken A-Foot, 1851
  • Mr. Wray's Cash-Box; Or, The Mask and the Mystery. A Christmas Sketch, 1852
  • Basil: A Story of Modern Life, 1852
    - Film 1998, prod. Showcareer Limited Production, dir. Radha Bharadwaj, starring Jared Leto, Derek Jacobi, Christian Slater, Claire Forlani
  • Hide and Seek, 1854
  • The Holy-Tree Inn, 1885 (in collaboration with Charles Dickens)
  • The Lighthouse, 1855 (play)
  • After the Dark, 1856
  • The Wreck of the Golden Mary, 1856 (in collaboration with Charles Dickens)
  • The Dead Secret, 1857
  • The Frozen Deep, 1857 (play; in collaboration with Charles Dickens)
  • The Two Apprentices, 1857 (in collaboration with Charles Dickens)
  • The Queen of Hearts, 1859
  • The Woman in White, 1860
    - Valkopukuinen nainen (suom. Aukusti Airanne, 1907; Hannes Korpi-Anttila, 1955)
    - Films: 1912, starring Marguerite Snow, James Cruze and William Garwood; 1912, starring Alexander F. Frank, Viola Alberti and Charles Perley; The Dream Woman, 1914, dir.Alice Guy, starring Fraunie Fraunholz and Claire Whitney; Tangled Lives, 1917, dir. J. Gordon Edwards, starring Genevieve Hamper, Stuart Holmes and Robert B. Mantell; 1917, dir. Ernest C. Warde, starring Florence La Badie, Richard Neill and Gertrude Dallas; Twin Pawns, 1919, dir. Leonce Perret; 1929, dir. Herbert Wilcox, starring Blanche Sweet, Haddon Mason and Cecil Humphreys; Crimes in the Dark House, 1939, dir. George King, starring Tod Slaughter, Hilary Eaves, Sylvia Marriott, Hay Petri; 1948, dir. Peter Godfrey, starring Gig Young, Eleanor Parker, Sidney Greenstreet; Kvinna i vitt, 1949, dir. Arne Mattsson, starring Margareta Fahlén, Georg Løkkeberg and Eva Dahlbeck; TV series 1966, starring Alethea Charlton, Jennifer Hilary and Louis Mansi; Die Frau in Weiß, TV mini-series 1971; La donna in bianco, TV mini-series 1980, dir. Mario Moroni; Zhenshchina v belom, 1982, dir. Vadim Derbenyov; TV mini-series 1982, starring Diana Quick, Ian Richardson and Jenny Seagrove; TV drama 1997, dir. Tim Fywell, starring Tara Fitzgerald, Justine Waddell and Andrew Lincoln;  Kiri ni sumu akuma, 2011, dir. Kento Kinouchi, Yûko Kanaya, starring Shigeyuki Totsugi, Noriko Iriyama, Kotomi Kyôno; TV mini series 2018, dir. Carl Tibbets, starring Jessie Buckley, Olivia Vinali, Dougray Scott
  • No Name: A Novel, 1862 (illustrated by John McLenan)
  • My Miscellanies, 1863
  • No Name, 1863 (play)
  • Armadale: A Novel, 1866 (with twenty illustrations by George H. Thomas) 
  • Armadale, 1866 (play)
  • No Thoroughfare, 1867 (play; co-written with Charles Dickens)
  • The Moonstone, 1868
    - Kuunkivi (suom. Aarre Lehto, 1949)
    - Films: 1915, dir. Frank Hall Crane, starring Eugene O'Brien, Elaine Hammerstein and Ruth Findlay; 1934, dir. Reginald Barker, starring David Manners, Phyllis Barry and Gustav von Seyffertitz; TV series 1959, starring James Hayter, Mary Webster and James Sharkey; La pietra di luna, TV series 1972, dir. Anton Giulio Majano, starring Valeria Ciangottini, Aldo Reggiani and Bruno Alessandro; TV series 1972, starring Basil Dignam, Robin Ellis and Vivien Heilbron; TV film 1996, dir. Robert Bierman, starring Greg Wise, Keeley Hawes and Terrence Hardiman; TV mini series 2016, dir. Lisa Mulchay, starring Josh Silver, Leo Wringer, Terenia Edwards
  • Man and Wife, 1870
  • The Woman in White, 1871 (play)
  • Poor Miss Finch: A Novel, 1872
  • After Dark, 1873
  • The New Magdalen: A Dramatic Story, 1873
    - Films: 1910, dir. Joseph A. Golden, 1912, dir. by Herbert Brenon; 1914, dir. by Travers Vale, starring Louise Vale, Charles Hill Mailes and Vivian Prescott; La place d'une autre, 2021, dir. Aurélia Georges, starring Lyna Khoudri, Sabine Azéma, Maud Wyler
  • Miss or Mrs?  and  Other Stories in Outline, 1873
  • The Frozen Deep and Other Tales, 1874
    - Jäätyneellä syvyydellä (suom. Elisabet Löfgren, 1877)
  • The Law and the Lady: A Novel, 1875
  • The Two Destinies: A Novel, 1876
  • The Moonstone, 1877 (play)
  • Percy and the Prophet: Events in the Lives of a Lady and Her Lovers, 1877
  • My Lady's Money, 1878
  • The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice, 1879
  • A Rogue's Life: From His Birth to His Marriage, 1879
  • The Fallen Leaves, 1879
  • Jezebel's Daughter, 1880
  • The Black Robe, 1881
  • Rank and Riches, 1881 (play)
  • Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time, 1883
  • "I Say No", 1884
  • Love’s Random Shot, and Other Stories, 1884
  • The Ghost's Touch and Other Stories, 1885
  • The Evil Genius: A Domestic Story, 1886
  • The Guilty River: A Novel, 1886
  • Little Novels, 1887
  • The Legacy of Cain, 1889
  • Blind Love, 1890 (finished by Walter Besant)
  • The Yellow Tiger and Other Tales, 1924
  • Tales of Suspense, 1954 (edited by Robert Ashley and Herbert van Thal)
  • Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, 1972 (selected and introduced by Herbert van Thal)
  • Mad Monkton and Other Stories, 1994 (edited with an introduction by Norman Page; with the assistance of Kamal Al-Solaylee)
  • Wilkie Collins: The Complete Shorter Fiction, 1995 (edited by Julian Thompson)
  • The Letters of Wilkie Collins, 1999 (2 vols., edited by William Baker and William M. Clarke)
  • Ioláni, or, Tahíti as It Was: A Romance, 1999 (written 1844; edited and introduced by Ira B. Nadel)
  • Sensation Stories: Tales of Mystery and Suspense, 2004  (edited and with an introduction by Peter Haining)
  • The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters, 2005 (4 vols., edited by William Baker, et al.)
  • Jezebel's Daughter, 2016 (edited with an introduction and notes by Jason David Hall)
  • The Moonstone: A Romance, 2019 (new edition; published by Oxford University Press; edited with an introduction and notes by Francis O'Gorman)

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