This Day In Writing History
On January 8th, 1824, the famous British novelist Wilkie Collins was born in London, England. He was born William Collins, Jr. His father, William Sr., was a well-known Royal Academician landscape artist. William, Jr. called himself by his middle name, Wilkie, to honor his godfather, the renowned Scottish painter, David Wilkie.
After spending his early childhood in London, at the age of twelve, Wilkie Collins went to live with his parents in Italy, an experience he enjoyed greatly. He returned to London three years later. At the age of seventeen, Collins left school and took a job as an apprentice clerk for a tea merchant firm. He hated it. During the five years he worked for the tea company, he wrote his first novel, Iolani. It would be published posthumously in 1999.
Collins switched gears and entered Lincoln's Inn to study law. In 1847, after his father died, he produced his first published book - Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. As he continued his law studies, he considered a career in painting; he exhibited a picture at Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1849. The following year, however, his first published novel Antonina was released, thus beginning his career as a writer.
Although it was a work of historical fiction, Antonina introduced Wilkie Collins' distinctive style of "sensation novel," which is what suspense novels and crime thrillers were called at the time. Antonina is a young woman who finds herself caught up in the struggle between the old pagan and new Christian religions of 5th century Rome, which are seen as equally destructive.
Antonina's father, Numerian, wants to restore Christianity to its founder's ideals. His steward, Ulpius, a pagan, secretly plans to restore Rome's old gods to prominence. Meanwhile, Numerian's neighbor, the wealthy Vetranio, has become enamored with Antonina. When Numerian catches them in an apparently compromising position, Antonina flees Rome - just before the city is encircled and seized by the Goth army.
In 1851, through a mutual friend, Collins was introduced to legendary novelist Charles Dickens - an event that would have a huge effect on Collins' life and writings, as the two men became lifelong friends and collaborated on plays and short stories. Most of Collins' novels and novellas would first appear in serialized format in the pages of Dickens' weekly literary magazine, All The Year Round. Collins' younger brother, Charles Allston Collins, would marry Dickens' daughter, Kate.
Throughout his life, Wilkie Collins suffered from rheumatic gout, a form of arthritis. To relieve the pain, he frequently took laudanum (opium tincture) and became severely addicted to it. He began experiencing delusions. He came to believe that he had a subjective doppelganger, whom he called "Ghost Wilkie." Opium use and addiction would play a part in his most famous novel, which is considered the first major detective novel in English literature. Published in 1868, it was called The Moonstone.
The Moonstone is a legendary large yellow diamond, acquired by corrupt British soldier Colonel Herncastle through theft and murder. Shunned by his family, Herncastle wills the diamond to his niece, Rachel, as a gift for her 18th birthday. In addition to its monetary value, the Moonstone has huge religious significance, as it came from the head of a statue of Vishnu in India. The stone's guardians - three Hindu priests - are determined to get it back.
At Rachel's birthday party, she wears the Moonstone to show it to her guests. Later that night, the gem is stolen from her room. Suspicion first falls on Rosanna, a maid and ex-thief. After Rosanna commits suicide, evidence is found implying that Franklin Blake - whom Rachel had become enamored with - is the real thief. Despite the efforts of brilliant detective Sergeant Cuff, the crime goes unsolved.
Believing that Rachel suspects him of theft, Blake meets with her and she tells him that she saw him steal the gem and has been protecting his reputation. Blake has no memory of stealing the Moonstone. He decides to do some detective work himself. He discovers that he was secretly drugged with laudanum at the party by Dr. Candy, in retribution for Blake's criticisms of medicine. Then, in a drug-induced trance, Blake took the Moonstone in a subconscious attempt to move it to a safe place. But the stone has disappeared again! It later turns up at a London bank, sending Blake on the trail of more skulduggery as he tries to solve the crime.
The Moonstone was a huge hit with both Victorian literary critics and readers. It's rightfully considered one of the all-time classics of crime fiction. It was considered shocking at the time of its publication due to its sensationalized depiction of opium addiction. It would prove to be Collins' last great success, coming at the end of his most productive period, where four previous novels, including The Woman In White (1860), No Name (1862), and Armadale (1866) also proved to be bestsellers.
The Black Robe, published in 1881, would prove to be Collins' most controversial novel. It told the story of a scheming Catholic priest, Father Bentwell, who plots to swindle nobleman Lewis Romayne out of his estate, Vange Abbey, which once belonged to the Church. Romayne is racked with guilt after accidentally killing a man - an opponent in a card game - who challenged him to a duel. Romayne goes to London to visit his old friend, Lord Loring. There, he meets Stella Eyrecourt, who falls in love with him.
The Lorings' spiritual adviser is Father Bentwell, a Jesuit priest. When he learns of Romayne's position and situation, he decides to induce Romayne to convert to Catholicism, then manipulate him into willing his estate to the Church. To achieve this end, he employs young priest Father Penrose to befriend Romayne and offer him spiritual support. After Romayne marries Stella, Father Bentwell does all he can to undermine the marriage. He succeeds, and Romayne changes his will, leaving his estate to the Church instead of his wife and child.
When Romayne learns that he's dying, he finally decides to visit his wife and son. Father Bentwell brings a lawyer to Romayne's deathbed to make sure the Church inherits his estate. Seeing through the priest's scheme, Romayne proclaims his love for Stella and his son and has the new will destroyed. After he dies, as stipulated in his original will, his wife and son receive his estate.
Although not considered one of Collins' best works, The Black Robe remains a strong and searing indictment of religious hypocrisy and corruption. It was denounced as anti-Catholic when it was first published.
After the publication of The Moonstone in 1868, Wilkie Collins' laudanum addiction worsened over the years, affecting his health and his writing. The death of his friend Charles Dickens in 1870 devastated him. He died in 1889 at the age of 65. Collins never married, but he fathered three children with his girlfriend, Martha Rudd. In his prolific career, he published 30 novels. He also wrote over 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 pieces of non-fiction, establishing himself as one of the greatest British writers of all time.
Quote Of The Day
"We had our breakfasts - whatever happens in a house, robbery or murder, it doesn't matter, you must have your breakfast." - Wilkie Collins
Today's video features a reading from Wilkie Collins' short story, The Dead Hand. Enjoy!