BBC Radio 4, 27 February - 2 March 2012
Adored by generations of readers for The Woman in White and
The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins (1824-89) was a considerable celebrity in his day, with his penchant for colourful
clothing making it seem as if he were "playing a certain part in the general drama of life."
Read by Michael Pennington, this newly-published biography portrayed Collins as a
pleasure-seeker, fond of taking tours around Europe as well as Great Britain in the search for new sensations. Partly this
spirit was inspired by his father, the artist William Collins, who took the family on various cultural jaunts, often
for long periods. One such tour lasted all of two years.
William Collins died when Wilkie was still a young man, leaving Wilkie to fend for
himself. Although he originally trained as a lawyer, Wilkie soon found his true metier as a writer. Success came to him at
a relatively young age; by the time he was thirty years old, he had already acquired a substantial reputation as a novelist
and journalist. He formed a life-long friendship with Charles Dickens, who was some twelve years his senior; the two men collaborated
on various projects, while Collins followed in Dickens' footsteps by embarking on lecture tours of the United States.
Collins led a colourful life; like Dickens he had a complicated personal life, living
for thirty years with the widowed Catherine Graves, while enjoying a second liaison (under the pseudonym "Mr. and Mrs. Dawson")
with Martha Rudd, with whom he had three children. Both women remained devoted to him, even though they were well aware of
one another's presence in Collins' life.
Despite his success, Collins battled throughout his life with rheumatism and
other ailments. The only way to relieve the pain was through opium - as a result, Collins became something of an addict. He
died at the age of sixty-three in the middle of writing his last novel - Blind Love.
Unlike Dickens, whose life was obsessed by the desire for success (both personal
and professional), Collins came across in Ackroyd's biography as a level-headed, rather generous person, beloved by his public
in spite of his anti-establishment attitudes. In a world obsessed by form and respectability, he advocated freedom, particularly
in one's sexual life. Michael Pennington's calm, unhurried reading of the text emphasized this positive side
of Collins' character.
The producer of this Book of the Week was Joanna Green.