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wilkie-collins-a-life-of-sensationReleased: April 2014

Wilkie Collins, bestselling author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White, was a complex fellow – an opium addict, lover of two mistresses and master of the Victorian ‘sensation’ novel, who was eager to reveal the hypocrisies of the society he lived in as well as conceal his own impropriety.

Andrew Lycett’s biography is perhaps not as sensational as the man it casts light upon, but it is a highly readable and comprehensive study of a writer caught up in the drama of an extraordinary time. What makes the nineteenth century so fascinating? For many, it was the advancements in science, medicine, psychology and morality, and the conflicts that such progress created in society. The tension between the proper and the improper, the Dr Jekyll to one’s Mr Hyde. Wilkie Collins, in many ways, embodied this dichotomy, but even though he was a man leading dual lives, it was without the apparent repression associated with such a Victorian sensibility.

A successful writer from a reasonably wealthy, artistic and religious London-based family, Collins forged a path of his own in personal and public matters, in his private life and his career. It seems that Collins was a man unafraid to seek new ways to enlighten the reading public, to liven up the publishing industry and to live a life of romantic intrigue. Despite his privileged life, he took great effort to make his books more available to the expanding reading public.

From now on it may be best to go with Wilkie rather than Collins, as Lycett’s book definitely extricates the author from such formality. Wilkie, through Lycett’s keen writing, becomes companionable – a sociable pal rather than a spectacle. He is never entirely accessible though – he remains a mystery and certainly, in his time, a man who desired to live a life of sensation. Eager to cause controversy and go against the current, Wilkie was never content to remain idle or uphold the status quo.

Engagingly written and well-researched, this biography captures the Victorian writer in great detail, from an exhaustive list of meals eaten and trips undertaken to the content of his plays and novels within the context of social and cultural situations of the time. Wilkie’s diet is astonishing and particularly humorous considering his persistent gout, which was made practically incurable by his love of rich foods.

Among his friendships and acquaintances with the literary and artistic elite, Lycett writes of the interesting history of Wilkie and the inimitable Victorian author Charles Dickens, whose frequent travels and projects together are written like laddish jaunts by wannabe bachelors. Their various trips are escapes from domestic trappings of the city, which seem to become more like adventures in venereal disease than cultural tourism.

Drawing parallels between Wilkie’s work and the burgeoning interest in the psychology of perception, Lycett shows how the author’s work deliberately focused on the new rather than the old and how he utilised the trends of the time to create fiction beyond that of his contemporaries – at least in terms of success. The migratory qualities of the Collins family and Wilkie’s own kinetic and flighty lifestyle reflects the ease at which he grew tired of things in his life. Never content to settle, Wilkie enjoyed escaping the city, his work, business dealings, and dependents to see what else life had to offer. Rather heroic in a way, rather selfish in another. As with the great detective narratives he helped usher in, all stories have more than one side to them, and it is only by looking at the different strands together that one can see the whole.

Andrew Lycett has written a compelling account of Wilkie Collins and the book has a variety of illustrations as well as endnotes for further interest. It may not be a gripping read, but Wilkie’s life was certainly a page-turner.

★★★

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