cover image Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life

Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life

Peter Ackroyd. Doubleday/Talese, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-53739-1

This compact but detailed biography illuminates the literary career of Wilkie Collins (1824–1889), whose “sensation stories” made him one of the Victorian era’s most popular authors. Collins, the son of a respected painter (whose biography would be one of his first publishing successes), escaped from the drudgery of a civil service career—his father’s idea—while still in his early 20s by unleashing a torrent of novels, short stories, essays, and journalistic pieces that ensured his literary fame. He befriended Charles Dickens, becoming his frequent collaborator on stories and amateur theatrical adaptations in which the two occasionally acted. Ackroyd (Charles Chaplin: A Brief Life) identifies “contemporary melodrama” as Collins’s métier. He was “a master of plot rather than of character” whose novels—notably The Woman in White and The Moonstone (regarded as the first detective novel)—are memorable for their suspense and narrative ingenuity. Collins also flouted Victorian mores and sometimes incensed critics with his realistic depictions of working-class life and the plight of women. The depiction of Collins as an artist afflicted with gout and neuralgia who worked himself to the brink of nervous prostration with each book he wrote makes him as interesting as one of his own fictional characters. Ackroyd’s appraisal of his subject—that “he breathed upon facts and kindled them into life”—is applicable to his own achievement here. (Oct.)