Wilkie Collins in 1874
Public DomainWilkie Collins in 1874 - Credit: Napoleon Sarony

William Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) spent much of his life in North West London, although he also travelled extensively in Europe. 

At 17, Collins left school and was apprenticed as a clerk to a firm of tea merchants.  He published his first story, The Last Stage Coachman, in the Illuminated Magazine, at the age of 19.  In 1844 he wrote his first novel, Iolani, or Tahiti as It Was; a Romance, but it was not published during his lifetime.  At the age of 22, under pressure from his father, Collins entered Lincoln’s Inn to study law.  He completed his legal studies, with some delays, and was called to the bar in 1851, aged 27. He never formally practised law, but he used his knowledge to good effect in his plotlines.   

In 1850 he published his first novel, Antonina, or the Fall of Rome. In 1851 a mutual friend introduced him to Charles Dickens, and a lifelong friendship and professional collaboration was born.  A number of Collins's works were serialised in Dickens's All the Year Round magazine.  The pair also collaborated on several dramatic and fictional works, and performed together in several plays.

Wilkie Collins photograph 1874
Public DomainWilkie Collins photograph 1874 - Credit: Napoleon Sarony

Collin enjoyed his first big success with The Woman in White, serialised in 1860.  His next novel, No Name, serialised in 1863, was a revenge thriller incorporating penetrating social commentary on the legal status of illegitimate children.  Armadale followed in 1866, and earned Collins £5,000.  At the time, it was the highest sum ever paid to any author other than Dickens.

His works were classified as ‘sensation novels’, the precursor to detective and suspense fiction.  The Moonstone, published in 1868, was described by TS Eliot as ‘the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels... in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe.’

Collins's personal life was unconventional.  In 1859 he began living with Caroline Graves, a young, poor widow, and her daughter.  Collins recorded Caroline as his wife in the census of 1861, but in fact never married her.  By 1868, Caroline was tired of waiting.  Collins was suffering from gout, and had started using opium to manage the pain.  He had also been having an affair with 19-year-old Martha Rudd. (He was 44 at the time – the pair mirrored the ages of Lucy Fairlie and Sir Percival in The Woman in White).  Caroline left him and married a younger man.  Two years later, however, she abandoned the marriage and returned to Collins.  For the rest of his life, Collins divided his time between Caroline and Martha, maintaining two entirely separate households.  With Martha he had a daughter in 1869 (they named her Marian after the courageous but plain sister in The Woman in White). They had a second daughter in 1871 and a son in 1874.

Collins continued to write prolifically.  He wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and more than 100 non-fiction essays. His novels and novellas of the 1870s and 1880s were less successful than his ‘suspense novels’.  They delivered less thrill and more social commentary, and as such lacked popular appeal.  Nonetheless, he continued to be professionally lauded, and in 1884 was elected Vice-President of the Society of Authors.  He died in 1889, at the age of 82, following a paralytic stroke. He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, and shares his grave with Caroline.