THE KING OF INVENTORS by Catherine Peters


A Life of Wilkie Collins
Email this review


 ``All his life, Wilkie Collins was haunted by a second self,'' begins this briskly authoritative portrait of the greatest of all the Victorian sensationalists--and British academic Peters (Thackeray's Universe, 1987--not reviewed) convincingly applies her thesis both to Collins's life and his work. Certainly Collins's notorious private life invites the revisionary interpretation Peters shares with W. M. Clarke's Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (1991--not reviewed) and William Palmer's novel The Detective and Mr. Dickens (1990). Unlike the properly bourgeois Dickens, who labored to keep his affair with Ellen Ternan secret, Collins lived openly for many years with his common-law wife Caroline Graves while carrying on an equally open liaison with the young servant Martha Rudd--and acknowledged the children of both women as his own. Peters traces Collins's scorn for the hypocrisy of Victorian social convention--he was a far more steadfast and consistent opponent of Podsnappery than Dickens--to an early infatuation with continental mores that, in his novels, is transformed into a fascination with the problem of personal identities thrown into question by doubles, dreams, hallucinations, and guilty secrets. Determined that his own ``other self'' should escape the trap of marriage and respectability, Collins rooted the sensational plots of his best novels, from The Woman in White to The Moonstone, in a closely observed critique of English prudery and provincialism that Peters aptly compares to the work of Balzac and Flaubert, ascribing the decline of Collins's later novels--which lack the ``mythic, fairy-tale quality'' of his earlier syntheses of melodramatic nightmares and social pathology--to the dating of his call for change, overtaken by spreading literacy and feminine empowerment. Peters persuasively recasts Collins's sensationalism as a prophetic social modernism that explains both his meteoric rise and his later decline. Seldom has a novelist so completely expressed, in both life and art, the contradictions of his moment. (Photographs)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-691-03392-7
Page count: 523pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1993


NonfictionCHARLES DICKENS IN LOVE by Robert Garnett
by Robert Garnett