According to Gordon Ray, writing in 1956, all that posterity could reasonably expect to know about the elusive Wilkie Collins was his name and dates of birth and death. This has proved to be an exaggeration. Thanks to Kenneth Robinson (whose revised Wilkie Collins, A Biography came out in 1974) and now, preeminently, to William Clarke, we now know much more – especially about Collins’s family affairs, or scandals, as they would have seemed to his contemporaries. As its title suggests, The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins is sensational stuff, both in the Victorian and modern senses of ‘sensation’. But what kind of insight does a ‘secret life’ give us, and why do we want this kind of book so urgently? More urgently than we want the bulk of Collins’s thirty or so novels, most of which are out of print and destined to stay so. Why does public demand commission ‘unauthorised’ biographies, designed to crash the barriers which authors erect around their private lives?
Writers will go to great lengths to preserve their secrets. They will fight impertinent biographers through the courts (like J.D. Salinger). They will (like T.S. Eliot or Jack London) set up vigilant estates to stand like pyramids over the author’s reputation and defy any tomb-robbing researcher. They will themselves incinerate mountains of correspondence (as did Dickens) or enjoin survivors to do it for them (like Auden). They will dictate to puppet biographers the ‘true’ story of their lives (like Hardy or Nabokov). The most determined will arrange to disappear from the face of the earth, like Thomas Pynchon, a major force in modern fiction who is, to all biographical intents and purposes, a cipher. The morbid secretiveness of authors as a class compared, say, to film-stars, sportsmen or pop-musicians is mysterious. Are they ashamed of their lives? Do they feel that attention to themselves will distract from their all-important works? Or do they think that their private lives are none of the public’s or posterity’s damn business?
The most sensitively indiscreet life of a Victorian novelist remains Gordon Ray’s two-volume Thackeray, which justifies its intrusions by the ‘buried life’ hypothesis. According to Ray, Thackeray’s fiction is a close allegory of the novelist’s experiences and acquaintanceships. In the interest of exegesis, Ray thus regards himself as licensed to exhume what Thackeray wished to keep for ever buried – namely, the affair with his best friend’s wife, Jane Brookfield. ‘No biography’ was Thackeray’s stern instruction to his daughters, which they dutifully observed. But a biography had to be written so that we, unlike the benighted Victorian, can thoroughly understand Henry Esmond. This mission to unlock the text is what sanctions – ostensibly – the vast expenditure of 20th-century biographical energy and treasure on such issues as Dickens and Ellen Ternan, Hardy and Tryphena Sparks, Trollope and Kate Field, James and his obscure hurt.
So when Monica Jones follows Philip Larkin’ s request by burning his diaries do we feel resentment because the destruction will set an eternal gap between reader and poem? Or is it something lower – frustration at not having served up on some not too distant Sunday the ‘secret life’ of Philip Larkin, conveniently excerpted in the Observer? And would the readers of that now impossible article be principally interested in forming a better reading of ‘Dockery and Son’, or in getting the dirt on how the poet’s mum and dad fucked him up, or whether he really didn’t have sexual intercourse till 1963? My own appetite for writers’ secrets is an impure thing in which a prurient interest in Jeffrey Archer’s spotty back and T.S. Eliot’s rupture truss (to which Stephen Spender enigmatically refers) mingles with a pious desire to be as well-informed as possible. On the whole, I’m not entirely sorry to be led from temptation by Jones’s obedient vandalism or Valerie Eliot’s stonewall around her husband’s life. At the same time, decently cooled by 99 years, I’m grateful for William Clarke’s disclosures about the murky doings of his great-grandfather by marriage.
The title The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins deliberately recalls My Secret Life by the Victorian mystery man, ‘Walter’. In his confessions, which run to seven volumes, Walter sets out to record with Shandyan scrupulosity his whole athletic sexual career, from the nurse who first pulled back his prepuce to the last of the 1200 women whose private parts he lovingly investigated. The interminable literalism of Walter’s descriptions has never been equalled and outruns the appetite of even the most insatiable smut-hound. But his final joke on posterity is that we don’t know who Walter was. His life is no secret, but he is. To reverse Ray on Wilkie Collins, we know everything about him except his name and dates.
Clarke’s secret life uncovers the bare outlines of Collins’s relations with only three women: his mother and his two mistresses (or one mistress and morganatic wife, as Clarke prefers to classify them). Wilkie was born the eldest son of William Collins, a successful painter principally of landscapes. Collins senior was an odd mixture: High Church and yet bohemian in his way of life. The young Wilkie spent much of his early childhood being dragged around Italy and had the good fortune (for a little middle-class Victorian) of a very lax schooling and a gloriously irregular home life. He boasted to Dickens who passed it on with some relish to his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth that he lost his 13-year-old virginity in Rome. Nevertheless, it was William Collins’s first wish that Wilkie should go into the Church. This came to nothing, and Wilkie was subsequently placed as a trainee in a tea import firm. Finally, he read for the Bar – another false start. All this time, it was as clear as anything could be that what he really wanted to be was either a painter or a writer. His career in authorship started when William Collins died and the 22-year-old Wilkie wrote the dutiful whitewash biography. Its modest success and the liberating sense of having done his filial duty led to forty years of writing best-selling novels, most of them in the unbridled ‘sensation’ genre: tales centred on bigamy, passionate crime, fiendish conspiracy, wholly improbable dead-but-not dead plots.
Wilkie’s domestic life after his father’s death seems, on the face of it, odd. He remained resident with his formidably competent mother for ten years. During this time, as Clarke’s painstaking research discovers, he had no bank account of his own, but used hers. Yet he seems in other ways to have been notably unhampered by apron-strings. In 1851 a mutual interest in theatricals introduced him to Dickens and the two became comrades. Dickens was the older by a dozen years and literary immortal. He took an interest in Wilkie’s career, which was rather slow to get off the ground, while Wilkie catered to Charles’s off-duty and extramarital needs for ‘amiable dissipation and unbounded license’, mainly in the form of jaunts to Paris and other fleshpots. Their correspondence only survives in some severely pruned shreds which, perversely, encourage one to fantasise orgies out of what were probably schoolboyish escapades. But what these two authors got up to is a secret chapter in Dickens’s life that would be worth having.
Wilkie’s life in the 1850s is generally obscure, but one episode is legendary. Around summer 1853, as Clarke guesses, he was walking with Millais on a ‘beautiful moonlit night’ in North London when the young men were astonished by the vision of a ‘young and very beautiful woman dressed in flowing white robes’. She paused for a moment ‘in an attitude of supplication and terror. Then seeming to recollect herself, she suddenly moved on and vanished in the shadows cast on the road.’ Millais was enraptured. The more practical Wilkie raced after the lady.
Up to now, all that was known about this woman in white was her name, Caroline Graves, that she became Collins’s mistress and inspired a melodramatic scene in his best-known novel. By careful inspection of Census returns and marriage certificates, Clarke contrives to give Caroline a history. She was, when she met Collins, the young widow of a tubercular shorthand-writer, with an infant daughter. As Clarke plausibly surmises, on the night of her apparition she may well have been flying from some more predatory – or at least more brutally predatory – man. Wilkie evidently consoled her, seduced her and set her up with her little Harriet in lodgings. Meanwhile he continued living with his mother for a year or two more.
It was a usual enough arrangement. As Clarke reveals, Caroline was not the well-born lady she later claimed to be but the daughter of a village carpenter – hardly an eligible match for the son of an RA. Nevertheless, Collins faithfully kept her and after 1858 cohabited with her, slyly entering himself as ‘married lodger’ on the 1861 Census return. They had no children, but the relationship was evidently stable for about ten years, during which the adept Caroline became sufficiently sophisticated to entertain Wilkie’s friends socially. But in the early 1860s, his eye wandered to a younger woman, Martha Rudd, the daughter of a Norfolk shepherd. Martha was Caroline’s opposite: slow-witted, docile, virginal and a peasant. After the success of The Woman in White Wilkie was a £5000-a-title author, and could afford expensive vices. He persuaded his innocent Norfolk girl to come to London where he installed her in another love-nest while still living primarily with Caroline.
Wilkie’s affairs came to a crisis in 1868 when he was stricken with a near fatal attack of ‘rheumatic gout’, a disease which racked his body and turned his eyes into bags of blood. The normally meticulous Clarke is strangely incurious about this Victorian diagnosis of an ailment which may have been venereally-contracted Reiter’s syndrome. In March 1868, to complete his prostration, his mother died of ‘internal neuralgia’ – another odd Victorian malaise. At this moment Collins evidently began imbibing grossly large doses of laudanum, an abuse which he continued until his death. In October 1868, Caroline married Joseph Clow. Why is mysterious. Clarke suggests it was a bluff on her part that backfired. Even more mysterious is that Wilkie attended the wedding – an act of extraordinary impudence. Nine months later Martha Rudd bore Wilkie’s first child. By the time she was pregnant with her second, Caroline had deserted Clow and was back managing Wilkie’s house. Thereafter, until the end of his life, he lived with her and – as Mr Dawson – supported and occasionally slept with Martha, who in 1874 bore him a son, William Charles Collins Dawson, grandfather of William Clarke’s wife. On his death in 1889, Collins divided his £11,000 estate equally between the two women. He is buried with Caroline. Martha, who outlived them both, tended the grave.
Literary biographers will profit from studying Clarke’s methods and ingenious trail-following. He is a journalist and banker by training, and his use of official records and documents is masterly. But, at the end of it all, one still has the sense of bricks without straw. We have no direct statement by Collins on how he felt about either woman. There survives not a single letter to or from Wilkie and either woman. There is no scrap of testimony from Collins or anyone else as to what kind of relationship he had with them or how the relationships changed over time. There are a very few incidental (and guarded) mentions of Caroline in Collins’s letters, none whatsoever of Martha. Family connection has yielded Clarke a few photographs, including one of Wilkie and Martha, she with her left fist towards the lens, aggressively ringless. Both faces are inscrutable; they could be a churchwarden and his wife.
In the absence of reliable evidence, Clarke is driven to over-ingenuity. He firmly asserts, for instance, that after Caroline’s return in 1870 or 1871 the relationship was no longer sexual, as Collins’s relationship with the child-bearing Martha clearly was. His only evidence for Wilkie’s having a new asexual relationship with Caroline is that on the 1871 Census return he entered himself as unmarried and her as a widowed housekeeper. This is surely flimsy. Since Caroline had a living husband (living, as the indefatigable Clarke reveals, until 1927), it would have been foolhardy to raise suspicions and invite either blackmail or a punitive law suit by the aggrieved Clow. A more weighty clue to their relationship is that Caroline, not Martha, is buried in the same grave at Kensal Green. But the truth is we simply don’t and probably never will know what went on in the Collins-Graves bedroom.
Clarke’s research, rich though it is in new information, still cannot explain why Collins did not marry either of these women. The reason offered is that over the years Wilkie ‘grew to despise marriage and the effect it had on his friends’ (like Dickens and Millais, presumably). This is not entirely convincing. The evidence is that Collins was a considerate man in his personal dealings and solicitous where arrangements for the women in his life were concerned. He was an exemplary son, and the comfort of his mother’s last years. He treated Harriet Graves as his own daughter, both as a child and an adult. He allowed Caroline’s mother-in-law to live with them. He conscientiously took out insurance policies to protect his female dependents against his sudden death and his will was a model of thoughtfulness.
Would such a man, and he the author of No Name, lightly and out of mere bohemian prejudice bequeath the terrible burden of bastardy on his children? (Clarke’s epilogue confirms that their lives were indeed blighted.) Collins was a long time dying, realised it was the end and had time to entrust the completion of his last manuscript to Walter Besant. Why did he not summon Martha and marry her on his deathbed? It is all the more confusing since Collins’s notional scorn of marriage was contradicted by his being quite prepared dishonestly to assume its protections when it suited him To the world, he was, when in Bolsover Street, William Dawson barrister-at-law and Martha Rudd was Mrs Dawson. It was as Dawson that Collins signed bills and even his son’s birth certificate. Clarke asserts that Wilkie ‘took every precaution to see that Martha was protected by the aura of respectability’. If it was that important, why not protect her (and his children) with respectability itself?
Collins’s plots are full of marriage traps, and it used to be hypothesised that he himself might, like the hero of Basil, have been tricked into a foolish match in his youth, about which we still do not know. Clarke is rightly sceptical of this theory. But the mass of evidence that he has amassed testifying to Collins’s essential decency makes one want to think that there must have been some let or hindrance to his doing the right thing by the mother of his children. Otherwise one has to judge Wilkie Collins for all his charm a man with a strange streak of selfish cruelty running through him.
It is unlikely that there can now be a fuller or more factual life of Collins than Clarke has given us. But it remains a short book, as authoritative biographies go. Its shortness is partly explained by the author’s professional deference in never trying his hand at literary criticism. It would be nice to shake his book up with Philip O’Neill’s Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety, a critical monograph which contains not so much as a paragraph’s worth of biographical summary in its relentless new-Marxist, male-feminist analysis of half a dozen Collins texts. Louis Althusser gets three mentions in the index, Caroline Graves none.
O’Neill’s thesis is that Collins’s fiction ‘deliberately subverts the popular literary representation of women’. Collins ‘sees the situation of women as both symptomatic of, and supportive to, bourgeois patriarchy’. In its entirety, O’Neill concludes, ‘Collins’s work goes a long way towards illustrating how society, supported by the legal system, subordinates women in its own interests.’ Coming to O’Neill’s propositions with Clarke still warm in the mind is confusing. O’Neill clearly casts Collins with the subversive angels. But in his forty years’ authority over Caroline as his housekeeper and his ‘morganatic’ folderol as paterfamilias of the ‘Dawson’ establishment was it society supported by the legal system which subordinated women, or Wilkie Collins, bachelor? It is doubtless true that bourgeois patriarchy imprisoned Victorian women by the imposition of propriety and the institution of marriage. But did Wilkie in any sense liberate Caroline or Martha by not marrying them? Poor Martha Rudd had propriety by the cartload: in the world’s eye, she was Mrs Dawson, wife of William Dawson, a barrister who evidently worked exceedingly hard since he could only manage a few hours every week with his family. No neighbour or shopkeeper can have known she was living in sin. But in sustaining this false front was Collins subverting the system or paying it a double due – first by furtively breaking its rules, then by pretending not to?
According to O’Neill, who is prepared to argue the point at great length, Collins’s novels mount ‘a very basic objection to the common representation of women in literature’. But does his conduct to the women in his life in any sense oppose their common place in Victorian society as either upper servants or dolls, housekeepers or mistresses? Most Victorian gentlemen vainly sought a wife who would combine the roles. Wilkie very rationally set up two kept women to supply him separately with what they did best. He loved pâté de foie gras and gorged it despite his doctor’s prohibitions. He loved women – especially those with well-developed haunches – and served himself to a double helping, defying convention’s ration of one mate per man. It was not of course subversive but exploitative. Wilkie was perfectly happy being a Victorian. He would have hated being a screenwriter in present-day Hollywood where a contingency-fee lawyer would easily nail him on a double palimony suit and triple child support and where his secret life would be splattered all over the front page of the National Enquirer.