The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke

The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins After reading The Frozen Deep recently, my interest in Wilkie Collins was reawakened and I decided it was time to read the biography I bought when I was in the middle of my Collins obsession a few years ago. There were not many to choose from at that time and this one sounded like the best available. I ordered a copy, but by the time it arrived I had moved on to other authors and didn’t feel like reading it anymore. Since then, one or two other biographies have been published which sound more appealing than this one, but it made sense to read the one I already own rather than buying a new one.

The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins was first published in 1988, although the edition I have was revised in 1996. The author, William M. Clarke, is married to Wilkie Collins’ great-granddaughter, Faith Elizabeth Dawson, and maybe because of this connection, the focus of the book is on Wilkie’s private life and relationships with his family and friends rather than on his work. Clarke does attempt to show us the circumstances surrounding the writing of most of Collins’ books, plays and stories and what may have inspired them, but he doesn’t often go into any detailed analysis of these.

After a brief introduction, the book follows Wilkie’s life in chronological order, beginning with his birth in January 1824. Wilkie was the eldest son of the Royal Academy landscape painter William Collins and his wife, Harriet Geddes, who was also from a family of artists. The first few chapters describe Wilkie’s early childhood, some of which was spent in France and Italy and the rest in London. I found this the least interesting section of the book, but it does show us some of the influences Wilkie was exposed to from an early age which would have had an impact on his future career (an appreciation of Italian art, for example, and familiarity with all the writers, poets and authors who were part of his father’s social circle including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Constable). I also enjoyed reading about Wilkie’s school days and how one of the older boys bullied Wilkie into telling stories late at night!

Clarke then takes us through Collins’ adult life, including his friendship with Charles Dickens, his battle with rheumatic gout (an illness he suffered from for many years), his six-month reading tour of America, and his addiction to laudanum and his unsuccessful attempts to withdraw from it. I’ve mentioned that Clarke doesn’t spend much time discussing Wilkie’s writing, but I did find it interesting to read his thoughts on the effects of laudanum and how in the later stages of his career it may have affected Wilkie’s ability to write descriptions of visual landscapes and construct the intricate plots he was famous for.

There are also some accounts of Collins’ travels with Dickens and I enjoyed reading about these, especially their walking tour of the Lake District (which reminds me that I still haven’t read The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices). It seemed Dickens disapproved of his daughter, Kate, marrying Wilkie’s younger brother, Charles Collins, and this put a strain on their friendship in later years.

But it’s Wilkie’s romantic relationships that are given the most attention, which is understandable as this book is supposed to be about his ‘secret life’. Wilkie never married but was in long-term relationships with two different women, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. He lived openly with Caroline and Harriet, her daughter from a previous marriage, while having three children with Martha, whose household he established at a separate address. Each woman was aware of the other and their children even visited each other. I’m sure neither woman could have been very happy with the position they were in but it seems they were both prepared to accept it as this arrangement continued for more than twenty years! Caroline did leave him briefly to marry another man (Wilkie actually attended the wedding) but returned several years later. Collins does seem to have genuinely cared about both of his families but this sort of behaviour must have been scandalous by Victorian standards (and not very admirable by modern standards either) and led to his sister-in-law, Kate, describing him as “as bad as he could be, yet the gentlest and most kind-hearted of men”.

Wilkie’s life was fascinating to read about, but I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book as I found Clarke’s writing style quite dry and boring. This is a book I’ve been dipping into over the last few weeks and reading a few pages at a time rather than ever feeling a compulsion to sit down and read it from cover to cover. It has clearly been thoroughly researched with lots of quotes from Collins himself and from people close to him (references are provided), and there’s plenty of supplementary material – notes, photographs, family trees, bibliography and several appendices, including an analysis of Wilkie’s bank accounts (Clarke’s unique position as the husband of one of Wilkie’s descendants meant he could access this information) but I think I would have been more interested in a book with more balance between Collins’ private life and his writing.

I’m going to finish this post with a question: do you like reading biographies of your favourite authors or do you think knowing too much about an author’s personal life can affect your enjoyment of their work?

19 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke

  1. Naomi says:

    I find some of their lives fascinating to learn about, but I don’t tend to read biographies. So, you reading the biography and telling me about it works out perfectly for me – thanks!

  2. Lisa says:

    I do enjoy reading about the lives of my favorite authors, especially Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope & Dorothy L. Sayers. And I’ve been looking for a good biography of PG Wodehouse – I’ve bought two at used-book stores and given up on both after a couple of pages. I don’t think knowing about their lives makes me see their books any differently. But I avoid all “making of” episodes about films or TV shows, those do spoil the shows for me.

    Do you think you will look for another biography of Collins?

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure if I really want to read another one, but I do like the sound of the recent book by Andrew Lycett, “Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation”.

  3. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I used to love biographies, but I don’t read many of them any more because I find them poorly written and boring! I’d rather stick to novels. I think it takes a special talent to write a really first-rate biography. I am looking forward to a bio of Shirley Jackson that is being written by Ruth Franklin and is due out in 2016.
    Collins’s personal family life is pretty crazy! I had no idea he lived so unconventionally.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    It’s a tricky question because there’s always a risk you can end up not liking the author and that might colour your reading of the book. But that doesn’t usually stop me gobbling up literary biographies, though I do want them to be well-written and interesting – there’s nothing worse than a dry re-telling of someone’s life!

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t had much luck with the few literary biographies I’ve read as I’ve found most of them quite boring and repetitive, though I did enjoy Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens.

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    I haven’t read many to give a very full answer. I read and enjoyed a biography on the friendship of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. I have also read an autobiography/writing guide by Stephen King which I loved and found I had lot more respect for his work afterwards.

  6. Lark says:

    What were the other biographies of Collins that sounded more appealing? I like reading about authors, especially if I’m reading their novels at the same time. I read V. Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary when I was reading her novels, and it made both more interesting. (I read her biography, too, which I enjoyed.)

    • Helen says:

      “Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation” by Andrew Lycett and “Wilkie Collins” by Peter Ackroyd are both newer biographies that sound appealing to me. Virginia Woolf’s life sounds fascinating, though I haven’t read any biographies of her. I’ll probably wait until I’ve read more of her novels first.

  7. Fleur in her World says:

    I’m sorry the writing is dry, because the approach sounds right. I have Andrew Lycett’s book on my library pile and it does look good, but I’m hesitating because he seems to summarise plots and I’m not sure if it would be better to re-read No Name, The Law and the Lady and Armadale first – I know that I loved them but the details are lost.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, unless you could manage to skip those parts of the biography maybe it would be better to wait until re-reading the novels first. It would be a shame to spoil them for yourself.

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