Thanet Writers Spotlight Wilkie Collins

Martin Charlton highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and author Wilkie Collins, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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Late one afternoon during the summer of 1859 an exhausted man flopped down on the grass opposite the North Foreland lighthouse. An author by profession, he had gone for a walk along the Thanet coastline, hoping to come up with a suitable title for his latest story, a psychological thriller full of passion, intrigue, and deception.

The man regarded the structure of the lighthouse. It stood isolated and exposed upon the headland, its beam reaching out to sea. In the fading light it looked eerie—even spectral. After a moment’s contemplation, he said: “You are ugly and stiff and awkward; as stiff and as weird as my white woman.” He paused. “White woman,” he said to himself, “Woman in White—the title, by Jove!”

That man was Wilkie Collins and he had just named the first of the two novels which he is today best remembered, the second being The Moonstone. Both Broadstairs and Ramsgate were regular haunts in his life and would also be influential in his later work.

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Born on 8th January 1824, William Wilkie Collins was the eldest of two sons of the landscape and genre painter William Collins and former governess Harriet Geddes. Part of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Wilkies’ father counted amongst his friends the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and William Wordsworth.

Wilkie’s first trip to Thanet had been a family holiday in 1829. The trip—to Ramsgate—was taken on Coleridge’s recommendation and was the first of many the family made.

Ramsgate during this time was still developing as a seaside resort. The former fishing village had been turned into a military garrison during the Napoleonic Wars. After the conflict’s conclusion on 22 June 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo, the town had slowly morphed into a fashionable watering-hole for London’s elite. Princess Victoria made a number of visits during the 1820s, which only added to the town’s credibility, but it was the arrival of a steamboat service from London to Margate in 1816 that truly changed Ramsgate’s fortunes. Much of what is today urbanised was back then still fields, but even then an intense period of building had commenced. Officially the Ramsgate season ran from August to October. Many of its visitors, such as Coleridge, preferred to sojourn in the late autumn, taking in the sea air which they believed had numerous health benefits.

For young Wilkie, Ramsgate was a place of adventure. He learned to swim in the sea and was generally bewitched by the town and its people.

After a brief period attending a small prep school near Tyburn, London, Wilkie accompanied his family to France, and then onto Italy, where they stayed between 1836 and 1838. Here he and his younger brother, Charles, visited the ancient ruins and museums of Rome, Naples, and Sorrento. When the family returned home, Wilkie was packed off to Highbury Palace—a boarding school in Islington—where he spent the next three years. It wasn’t a happy experience. Wilkie wasn’t much of a scholar, but his response to the boredom of study was to lose himself and inhabit his own world of imagination—an essential talent for a future writer.

Towards the end of his life, Wilkie recalled how the head boy of his dormitory would bully him into telling stories.

The oldest of the boys, appointed to preserve order, was placed in authority over us as captain of the room. He was fond of hearing stories, when he had retired for the night […] and I was the unhappy boy chosen to amuse him. It was useless to ask for mercy and beg leave to be allowed to sleep.

‘Reminisces of a Storyteller,’ 1888

Aged 17, Wilkie started his first job with a tea merchant named Edward Antrobus, a friend of his father, who had a shop on the Strand. Now within spitting distant of the theatres, law courts, taverns, and newspaper editorial offices, young Collins found ample inspiration and began writing short article and literary features in his spare time. ‘Volpurno,’ a tale set in Venice about an ill-fated marriage of a young English woman to a moody student of astronomy with a history of derangement, is his first known published work. This was followed by ‘The Last Stage Coachman,’ which appeared in Illuminated Magazine in August 1843.

Wilkie’s first novel, Iolani, was rejected (it was finally published by Princeton University Press in 1999). He was still writing his second novel, Antonina, when his father died as a result of heart disease, age 58. Written in a laborious, deliberately florid style, Collins draw upon his childhood days in Rome and it reads like part-historical novel and part-travel guide. Antonina would be his first published novel in 1850, but not his first published book, as father’s death resulted in Wilkie putting it aside. On the unfinished manuscript of Antonina he wrote: “Thus far have I written during my father’s lifetime.”

The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins was Wilkie’s tribute to his father. William had always hoped his eldest boy would write his biography after his death, saying: “I think it quite possible that my dear son, William Wilkie Collins, may be tempted, should it please God to spare his life beyond that of his father, to furnish the world with a memoir of my life,” a request which Wilkie obliged. Published in 1848, it received generally good reviews for its clear and unaffected style. The Kent-born poet Walter de la Mare called it “a remarkable book […] for its modesty, insight, judgement, dignity and quiet and sedate style.”

In the spring of 1846, at the same time as the postponement of Antonina and the commencement of writing of his father’s biography, Wilkie became a law student at Lincoln’s Inn. He was called to the bar in 1851 but never practice his profession. The experience wasn’t wasted, as several lawyers would feature in his subsequent novels, including The Woman in White.

During the 1850s Willkie wrote the novels Basil (1852), Hide (1854), and The Dead Secret (1857), but his main source of income was derived from journalism, with numerous contributions appearing in Bentley’s Miscellany, The Leader, and Dickens’ periodical, Household Words.

Wilkie first met Charles Dickens during the first half of 1851. It would become a firm friendship that would radically alter Collins’ life. Dickens was the greatest writer of his generation—not only a celebrated author, but also the owner and editor of his own magazine. He would influence the nature of Wilkie’s writing, who became a frequent visitor to Dickens’ homes: Tavistock House and Gad’s Hill. They would also regularly travel together, either on the continent or closer to home, to places such as Broadstairs in Thanet. Two of Wilkie’s plays, The Lighthouse (1855) and The Frozen Deep (1856), were produced by Dickens and his company. He even joined permanent staff of Household Words in November 1856, earning five guineas a week.

It was during the mid-1850s that Wilkie had a strange encounter that would lead to his writing one of his best-known novels, The Woman in White. The story goes that the artist John Millais was accompanying the Collins brothers one night to his home in Gower Street, London. Suddenly, they all stopped dead in their tracks by a scream coming from the garden of a house they were passing. Moments later an iron gate flung open and a beautiful young woman, dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight, suddenly came into view. She soon fled into the shadows and, according to Millais, Wilkie gave chase. The next day Wilkie explained how he had caught up with the woman and asked what was amiss. She told him how she had fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous man who kept her prisoner by means of mesmerism. It was only when he threatened to kill her that she made her escape. Her name was Caroline Graves, and not only would she be the inspiration for Wilkie’s psychological thriller, but she would also become his lifelong mistress.

In August 1859, they took a six-week lease on Church Hill Cottage, in Broadstairs, which overlooked the sea on the Ramsgate Road. Here Collins continued to work on The Woman in White, which was later serialised in All the Year Round. During this visit Wilkie’s health began to suffer and would continue to plague him for the rest of his life.

While renting Fort House in Thanet, a regular haunt of Dickens later renamed Bleak House after the novel it inspired, Collins was again struck by poor health, this time in the form of a nervous seizure. Wilkie was working in part on No Name (1862), and his younger brother, Charles, was convinced Wilkie’s profession was having a detrimental effect, saying: “Your work is tiring work.” The atmosphere in the house was at times very tense because of this, and Wilkie quarrelled with two of his servants so much that they left (though it’s not known whether they resigned or were dismissed).

The 1860s was when Wilkie Collins achieved enduring fame. This was the decade in which he published his four great novels. As well as The Woman in White and No Name, he also wrote Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868).

Later described by T.S. Eliot as “the first, the longest, and best of modern English detective novels,” The Moonstone has its origins, at least partially, in the Road murder of 1861, which was given great prominence by the news media at the time. A young woman called Constance Kent was suspected of having slit the throat of her infant half-brother. The then government was keen for a rapid conclusion to the case, given that the boy’s father was estate owner with social ambitions. The local police had failed to identify the killer, and so Scotland Yard was instructed to send their best man. Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher soon came to the conclusion that Constance was the killer (and not the governess, as the local police believed), but his case was undermined by the resident Superintendent. Whicher would lose his position at the Yard as a result and the world would have to wait four years until the summer of 1865 before Constance would confess to murder.

Although often referred to as such, The Moonstone is not a true murder mystery. Wilkie took certain elements of the Road murder case—the falsely accused governess, the incompetent local bobby, and the sharp-as-a-knife London detective—and weaved a tale of mystery that centres on the theft of a gemstone. Although T.S. Eliot was wrong to say it was the first English detective story (Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) is widely accepted to hold that accolade), The Moonstone did create the ground rules that subsequent crime writers have followed.

Dickens initially praised The Moonstone, but would later claim it “wearisome beyond endurance,” following friction between the two authors. This was regarding Collins’ relationship with Caroline Graves. Dickens believed Graves was too “flinty”—as did Wilkie’s mother—and suggested she was unsympathetic and possessing a chip on her shoulder. The fact she also had a young daughter, Harriett, who was another man’s child, also did not go in her favour.

Wilkie’s personal life during this time was becoming increasingly complex, for as well as Caroline he was seeing Martha Rudd, whom he met when she was just 19 during the mid-1860s. She went on to become his common-law partner and would have three children by him.

The Moonstone’s success was marred by the death of Wilkie’s mother in March of 1868. Collins was too ill with rheumatism and gout to attend her funeral. His failure to show up only compounded his feelings of uselessness and exacerbated his pain.

He would be grief-stricken again two years later with the death of Dickens in June 1870. During their friendship Wilkie had fallen in love with Broadstairs, but now that love affair was over. The town had become “the most dreadful place in the world” and held “too many memories.” Remembering happy childhood holidays, Ramsgate became his new refuge.

Out of the two Thanet towns, Ramsgate had the biggest influence on his work. It held scenes in many of his later novels, including Poor Miss Finch (1872) and The Law and the Lady (1875). In his 1879 novel The Fallen Leaves, he paints a vivid picture of Victorian Ramsgate:

The cries of the children at play, the shouts of the donkey boys driving their poor beasts, the distant notes of brass instruments playing a waltz, and the mellow music of small waves breaking on the sand.

The Fallen Leaves, 1879

When not staying at the Hotel Granville (where he completed The Haunted Hotel in 1878), Wilkie would either rent 10 Nelson Crescent or 27 Wellington Crescent. In order to avoid scandal, when chaperoned by Caroline he’d stay at Nelson Crescent, but when accompanied by Martha and the children he rented Wellington Crescent, and used the alias William Dawson. The subterfuge even went as far as Wilkie informing close friends that all correspondence to Wellington Crescent should be addressed accordingly, telling them that, when visiting, he “disappeared from this mortal sphere.” Of course, it was very unlikely people didn’t know what Wilkie was up to, especially the proprietors of the two houses he rented. It seems they were both happy to turn a blind eye to his indiscretions as long as scandal didn’t come knocking.

During the 1880s, Wilkie’s health continued to decline. Breathing difficulties due to weak heart became more common. He had already become addicted to laudanum as a means of levitating the pain cause by his rheumatism and gout, but the drug became more of a hindrance than a help. Willkie now resorted to capsules of amyl nitrate and hypo-phosphate. He also believed that the sea air at Ramsgate was beneficial, but the sea air wasn’t enough. The standard of his work suffered and many of his later stories lacked the force and freshness of earlier novels. His last play, Rank and Riches (1881), was a failure. Nevertheless, he remained immensely popular with his public readings and wrote five more novels, with the final two, The Legacy of Cain (1889) and Blind Love (1890), published posthumously.

In June 1889, on what would be his last visit to Ramsgate, he suffered a stroke which left him paralysed on his left side. Three months later Wilkie Collins was struck by another stroke which would prove fatal. He died in London on the 23 September, aged 69, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. His will divided the proceeds from his writing between the two women in his life.

Wilkie Collins was the first author to use a literary agent. He was also involved in the initial formation that the intellectual rights of authors (copyright as we now call it) should be protected. In 1884 he even helped setup the Society of Authors. His work has gone on to inspire generations of subsequent writers from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and to P.D. James and Val McDermid. Though today somewhat overshadowed by his friendship with Dickens, he was, nonetheless, a genius for construction and suspense. Through his work he often championed the underdogs of Victorian society: the treatment of women, the poor, and foreign nationals. Though not a saint in his personal life, he is no doubt, at least in my mind, one of the greatest writers this country has ever produced and will be continue to be read for years to come.

Published queer author, blogger and historical crime enthusiast.

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