Wilkie Collins, who invented the detective novel with The Woman in White and The Moonstone, led a bohemian life, dividing his time and his affections between women in two households, neither of whom he deigned to marry. Self-indulgent to an extreme degree, he was fond of pâté de foie gras, oysters, champagne by the pint, cigars, snuff, and laudanum, of which he could take in enough “to kill a ship's crew or company of soldiers.” It’s a wonder that he lived to be sixty-five, when he was felled by a paralytic stroke.
Collins was born January 8, 1824, in the Marylebone section of London to a prominent landscape painter, William Collins, and his wife, Harriet. He and his younger brother were home-schooled by their deeply religious evangelical mother, who enforced regular church attendance on the boys, much to Wilkie’s annoyance. At sixteen he was apprenticed to a tea-merchant, a job he hated, but stayed there for five years while also writing and publishing a few stories. He then began the study of law at Lincoln’s Inn, at the insistence of his father, and was called to the bar in 1851.
By this time, he was gaining some traction as a writer, so he never actually practiced law, devoting himself instead to his fiction and to hanging out with literary friends, especially his pal Charles Dickens. Collins’ brother, Charles, married one of Dickens’ daughters. Except for the fact they did not meet until eight years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, the curmudgeonly Collins might well have been the model for Ebenezer Scrooge. In various letters, Collins expressed a sour view of the Christmas holidays: he refers to “filthy Christmas festivities… when the Plague of Plum pudding extends its ravages from end to end of the land, and lays the national digestion prostrate at the feet of Christmas.” And in another burst of Scrooge-like spleen: “the most hateful of all English seasons (to me), the season of Cant and Christmas”
In 1859 Collins published his first major success, The Woman in White, an eerie mystery novel. This was followed by such other well-received works as No Name, Armadale, and his crowning success, The Moonstone. These suspenseful works, which made pots of money, were serialized in magazines, giving rise to Collins’ favorite expression: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”
In 1858 Collins moved in with a neighbor named Caroline Graves and her daughter. Although they never married, they lived as man and wife for more than thirty years, except for a brief two-year period when Caroline married someone else, but then decided she would move back in with Collins. Collins, meanwhile, struck up a relationship with another woman named Martha Rudd, whom he installed in a nearby house and with whom he had three children. When he was with her, he called himself William Dawson, and she and the children took the name Dawson as well.
Not surprisingly, given his diet and penchant for tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, Collins’ health began to deteriorate in the 1850s as he suffered constantly from what he called “rheumatic gout” and “neuralgia,” as well as failing eyesight. He turned for relief to a variety of so-called cures: Turkish and electric baths, health spas, hypnotism, quinine, and, finally, opium in the form of laudanum in increasingly large quantities.
Collins wavered between belief in the God of his evangelical upbringing and his later, doubt-ridden free-thinking. As for an afterlife, his friend Wybert Reeve wrote this about him after the death of his brother: “The death seemed to have made a strong impression on him, and led him to speak of a future state of existence, in which he had little belief. He was a Materialist, and urged that death meant a sleep of eternity; it was the natural end of all living things.” A few years before his own death, Collins mused as follows: “Are there not moments—if we dare to confess the truth—when poor humanity loses its hold on the consolations of religion and the hope of immortality, and feels the cruelty of creation that bids us live, on the condition that we die, and leads the first warm beginnings of love, with merciless certainty, to the cold conclusion of the grave?”
By the time he was in his late fifties, Collins’ health was a serious concern. Heart problems made him short of breath, and he began to take amyl nitrate and hypo-phosphate. In the last year of his life, he was thrown from a cab in a collision, and his injuries led to bronchitis, and on June 30 a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He lingered almost three months, growing steadily worse. Urged by a friend to go to the country for a more healthful environment, he declined, saying he was “too much of a cockney” to leave London. He died on September 23 in his home on Wimpole Street, at the age of sixty-five.
In his will (in which he left each of his “wives” the sum of £200—about £24,000 today), he expressed the wish to be buried in the cemetery at Kensal Green “and that over my grave there may be placed a plain stone cross and no other monument and that there shall be placed on such stone cross the inscription which my executors will find written and placed in the same envelope occupied by this my will and I desire that nothing shall be inscribed upon the said cross except the inscription which I have herein before directed.” That inscription reads simply: “In memory of Wilkie Collins, author of ‘The Woman In White’ and other works of fiction.”