The latest installment in the author’s Brief Lives series is dedicated to the popular British novelist Wilkie Collins (1824-1889).
Uber-prolific biographer and novelist Ackroyd (Alfred Hitchcock, 2015, etc.) calls Collins the "sweetest-tempered of all the Victorian novelists." His fictional London was one of "confused identities, both sexual and social, in which no one had a secure home." Thanks to his accomplished painter father, Collins' home life was very secure; his first book was a biography of his dad. Ackroyd begins by describing Collins' "peculiar" appearance. He was shortish, as were his arms and legs, and his head was large and had a noticeable bump on one side. Ackroyd thinks the attention that Collins always draws to his characters' physical abnormalities can be traced back to his own. He was also plagued throughout his life by frequent pains in his face and eyes and became addicted to laudanum early on. He went to law school but never practiced. His knowledge of the law, however, was put to good use in his novels, and Collins and Charles Dickens became close friends and collaborators. Dickens' magazines published some of Collins' works, and they acted together in plays each had written. Collins’ first published novel, Antonia, about pagan Rome, which Ackroyd calls "essentially hokum," sold well. Other workmanlike novels—plot and suspense were his strengths—followed, but the 1860s brought him massive popularity and sales. Ackroyd makes a strong case for reading (and rereading) the masterpieces from this period: the "elaborate and ingenious" The Woman in White, his "greatest" novel, and the innovative, influential The Moonstone, the "paradigm of the detective story." He also resuscitates and rescues from obscurity some of Collins' lesser-known works, such as No Name and Armadale.
A compact, pithy, and generous biography of a novelist who found great success despite writing in the age of Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope.