In Praise of Spiders

Caleb Crain

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
    Vintage, 609 pp, £5.99, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 09 951124 3

To slip the leash in the 19th century, it was usually enough to move without leaving a forwarding address, and that was how some in the working class shook off inconvenient debts and marriages. Most in the bourgeoisie lacked the option, however, because they valued their social identity too highly to sacrifice it, not to mention the property associated with it. Their fantasies of release had to be extreme in order to be plausible: what if I went insane? What if everyone thought I was dead? What if there were another person with my name and one of us took the other’s place? What if my legal identity turned out to be a sham because my parents were never really married? If all else failed, there was always laudanum, which blurred the edges very nicely.

It was in these improper fantasies that the novelist Wilkie Collins found his raw materials. In his world, the tags are always falling off the luggage. The narrator of Basil (1852) has been ‘obliged in honour to resign’ his surname, because his father has literally torn his page out of the family history. In The Woman in White (1859-60) – recently reprinted by Vintage without any notes or even Collins’s own prefaces – the uncanny resemblance of two women makes them vulnerable to identity theft, incarceration in a lunatic asylum, and poisoning. The heroine of No Name (1862-63) discovers after her parents’ death that she has no right to the name she had been using. The two heroes of Armadale (1864-66) happen to share a name, because one of their fathers dispossessed the other of his, along with his inheritance; in revenge, the second father then committed the imposture of pretending to be the first. And a crime seems to take place without a criminal in The Moonstone (1868), because the natures and actions of some of the characters are hidden, in one case from the man in question himself. In almost all these books, the story is driven forward by a subtle villain, expert in the small deceptions that attach people to their names and detach them from their interests. Provoking excitement, redirecting attention, impersonating other people and playing on mental associations, the villains deploy skills that resemble those of Collins himself.

William Wilkie Collins was born in 1824, with a large, deformed head and tiny feet, to a governess who had wanted to be an actress and a painter whose pursuit of wealthy sitters had turned him into something of a snob. The actor William Macready once regretted the senior Collins’s ‘submissive menial-like tone’. Perhaps in compensation, the son grew up to flout English propriety by relishing sauces, wearing bright colours, living in sin, and asking nearly everyone to address him by his middle name.

He started his nonconformism young, according to his biographer Catherine Peters. At the age of 13, he had an affair in Rome with a married woman while on vacation with his family, or so he later claimed. At 17 he was placed as an apprentice in a tea importer’s office, where over the course of five years he proved himself lacking in ‘industry and perseverance’ in business matters, to borrow from his description of Frank Clare, the worthless young love interest in No Name, and began to write and publish fiction. At 22, as his father was dying, he was sent to read law at Lincoln’s Inn; he spent his time there working on his second novel manuscript. On his father’s death he set the novel aside to write a two-volume memoir of him, and its critical and commercial success launched him as a writer. He published a Gothic novel soon after (set during the fifth-century invasion of Rome, it had actual Goths in it), and in 1851 Charles Dickens distinguished him with an invitation to act in his amateur dramatic troupe. Dickens had a starring role, and Collins was to play his valet, but Collins didn’t mind.

Soon the two were slumming and probably whoring together. Collins suffered in later life from a disease that he called ‘rheumatic gout’, which Peters suspects may in fact have been Reiter’s syndrome, a kind of reactive arthritis often associated with sexually transmitted disease. In any case, he and Dickens became fast friends, more and more intimate as Dickens grew estranged from his wife. Travelling together to France, Italy, Switzerland and north-west England, they became familiar with each other’s foibles. Dickens complained in letters of Collins’s moustache, his ‘code of morals taken from modern French novels’ and his slovenliness. ‘I am perpetually tidying the room after him,’ Dickens wrote. Peters suggests that Collins took quiet revenge by making finickiness a signal trait in Percival Glyde, one of the villains in The Woman in White. Overall, however, Collins seems to have found Dickens worth putting up with. In 1856 he was put on the staff of Dickens’s magazine Household Words, and his best novels were written during their friendship. When Collins’s addiction to laudanum, which had been prescribed for his supposed rheumatic gout, nearly derailed the writing of No Name, Dickens offered to finish it for him. (Collins declined.)

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