Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins – Peter Ackroyd

I don't know if I count as a Wilkie Collins fan because I've only read one novel (The Woman in White) and some short stories. Nevertheless, I loved The Woman in White and enjoyed reading this anecdotal and brief biography (it must be nice to be Peter Ackroyd).

Wilkie Collins had a somewhat odd appearance, like the other nineteenth century writer, Victor Hugo, and like him, drew attention to deformity in his writing. As Ackroyd introduces him, he talks about Collins' sweet temper and the enjoyment he got out of riding the “omnibus” and seeing the classes mixing there. Collins' grandfather died in 1812, leaving the family penniless, and the parsimony Dickens later remarked upon seems to come from the same source as Dickens' fear of poverty. However, unlike Dickens, William Collins did not have to work in a factory; he was a “jobbing artist” (though with enough of a sense of humor to paint a dropped ink pen on his floor to fool visitors with the trompe l'oeil). Collins' background was rather unique among his contemporaries, however, for his father's artistic circle included his mother, whose sister was a painter, and it's tempting to wonder why Collins thought he was destined to write drama for the stage if visual art was such an important part of his upbringing. And as soon as his father had died, he immediately set to work on his biography.

Collins learned more from Italy than from school, and Ackroyd suggests he may have had his first sexual experience there as a teenager. (His particular fetish, it seems, was a nice backside.) Later, Collins loved Paris and the many particular joys this city had to offer, culinary and sexual as much as any other. Collins and Dickens would later tour Paris (on other tours, Dickens found Collins parsimonious and Collins found Dickens the guide from hell); Collins met Dickens, his elder by 12 years, through amateur theatricals in which they both appeared. Their friendship and literary partnership endured a long time. Dickens even carried Collins after the latter slipped on a stone during an ill-advised climb up a mountain.

Having not read much of Collins' work, I found there were many novels about which I knew nothing, including the Sir Walter Scott-influenced Iolani and Antonina. It's touching that Collins' painting, which remained unsold, stayed in his own living room on display.

When he observed the much more accomplished artist, William Holman-Hunt, gazing at it he told him that 'you might well admire that masterpiece. It was done by the great painter Wilkie Collins, and it put him so completely at the head of landscape painters that he determined to retire from the profession in compassion for the rest.'

It is somewhat comforting for me to reflect that Collins' lacked a “coherent political philosophy” and “is best described as an antinomian, happily contemplating diversity of opinion as well as a variety of churches” (47). Most unconventional of all was Collins' mature attitude toward women; marriage was out of the question, and at one time he housed two mistresses and supported them and their families. Stranger things have happened, but it does seem a bit extreme. Yet Collins' female characters are always interesting and often more three-dimensional than his contemporaries'. “He was intent upon exploring the female sensibility in ways foreign to other Victorian novelists, and he created heroines quite unlike those of his male contemporaries. Only George Eliot, perhaps, is his superior” (104). (I wouldn't know, I've never finished a George Eliot novel.) Nevertheless, Ackroyd believes that Collins did not create characters with the depth of Dickens'. I'm not sure if I agree.

I regret never seeing the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of The Woman in White, but if it had been four hours like the 1871 version, I'm not sure I could have sat through it.

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