A Life of Sensation
London: Hutchinson, 2013
Hardcover. xvii+525 p. ISBN 978-0091937096. £20.00
Reviewed by Ingrid Hanson
University of Hull
‘Marriage and murder – murder and marriage, will alternately threaten me for the remainder of my life’ cries Wilkie Collins’ character Potts, hero of an 1852 vignette published in Bentley’s Miscellany, ‘A Passage in the Life of Mr Perugino Potts’. Andrew Lycett’s biography of Collins, which quotes this passage , is shot through with the sensationalism of marriage attempted, completed, averted, aborted or avoided, in Collins’ works as well as variously in his own life and the lives of his family, friends and acquaintances. From the opening chapter’s account of the courtship and marriage of Collins’ parents, Harriet and William, to its closing description of the lives of Wilkie’s own mistresses after his death, this lively, detailed and accessible biography sets Collins’ unconventional life and his tales of murder, mystery, money and mental illness in the context of the vagaries of sexual desire and the costs of domesticity. At the same it is full of rich allusions to the wider cultural, literary and legal life of the period, situating Collins in relation to contemporary events, ideas, and literary and artistic figures. It touches on changing Victorian marriage laws and lawsuits, emerging ideas of associationism, the mid-century fascination with spiritualism and mesmerism, changing patterns of drug usage, the anti-vivisection campaign, and even devotes a couple of entertaining pages to discussing the significance of beards, making connections throughout with Collins’ works and the development of the sensation novel – a term Lycett explains for those unfamiliar with it [232-233].
It is meticulously researched – with copious notes at the back instead of in-text references – but aimed at the general reader, divided into six chronological ‘Epochs’, and written with the kind of cracking pace and racy turn of phrase that Collins himself would have appreciated. Forty-seven illustrations, including portraits, sketches, book covers, letters and paintings are included, as well as a bird’s eye map of London with Collins’ chief haunts marked on it. The book details Collins’ comings and goings through the years: to John O’Groats with his father as a child, to the south coast with Dickens, to the east coast with his publisher George Smith, to the Continent repeatedly, to the USA and back, but always returning to London, so much more congenial to him than the countryside with its ‘unnecessarily large supply of fresh air’ as he put it in a letter of 1849 . Sexual relationships loom large in the tale of Collins’ travels, from his own account of teenage passion for an older married woman in Italy in his youth to unspecified liaisons on travels with Dickens in France and his friendship with Mary Anderson, the American actress, as well as his late long-distance infatuation with the twelve-year-old Nannie Wynne, whom he addressed in letters as ‘Mrs Collins’ and ‘carissima sposa mia’ . Lycett airily notes that what seems ‘suspect’ now carried ‘no suspicion of impropriety’ with it .
In London, too, romantic relationships feature centrally in the story of Collins’ artistic development: his involvement in the early marriage adventures of Ned Ward offers a focus for an account of his formative relationships with the Clique, while his relationship with John Everett Millais allows for a discussion of Millais’ developing passion for Effie, Ruskin’s wife and later his own. At the same time the book includes an outline of the Pre-Raphaelite manifesto, introduces Holman Hunt’s ‘The Awakening Conscience’ as a touchstone for Collins’ early treatments of the complexities of sexual desire and discusses the works of other Clique artists William Powell Frith and Augustus Egg, making effortless connections between literature, art and culture.
In much more detail, the book maps the connections between Collins and Dickens, noting not only their literary relations but also their amorous exploits. It explores their long working relationship, with Collins’ stories appearing in Household Words and All Year Round and the two of them working together on theatrical productions from Bulwer Lytton’s Not so Bad as We Seem in 1851  to Collins’ own The Frozen Deep in 1857 [172-175]; it notes their family ties, cemented with the rather reluctant marriage of Collins’ brother Charley to Dickens’ daughter Katey; and describes their shared interest in travel and the freedom to make seedy liaisons that travel afforded. Dickens’ deteriorating relationship with his wife Catherine provides a backdrop for Lycett’s account of Collins’ own reluctance to marry and his literary investigation of secrets and lies in marriage. While noting Collins’ interest in women’s rights in his fiction, Lycett’s depictions of his relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd, his two mistresses, are more illuminating about the precariousness of life for women outside of marriage than about Collins’ own sexuality or attitude towards his mistresses, which remain rather opaque.
Where the vast majority of the book provides ample and detailed evidence for its conclusions or questions, in relation to Caroline, Lycett seems to fall back on occasion on stereotypes that made this reader, at least, feel there must be scope for a feminist re-reading of the lives of Collins’ mistresses. Detailing Caroline’s marriage once Collins took Martha as a mistress, Lycett attributes to her, with little apparent evidence, a ‘brittle character’ ; later he comments on Collins’ ‘amazing lack of rancour’ as he continues to support Caroline and her daughter. Given the novelist’s own sexual promiscuity noted in the book, this characterisation seems rather unwarranted. Lycett reads the domestic life of the Great Man with scant interest in its effect on his mistresses, despite an acknowledgement in the book’s concluding chapter that in apparent contradiction of his ‘proto-feminist principles’, he ‘kept his two women in their economically and socially disadvantaged positions, ignoring any desire they might have had for matrimony and respectability’ .
Lycett effectively weaves together the story of Collins’ life with descriptions of his works, offering both evidence and well-founded speculation about the genesis of his stories in his own life as well as in legal cases of the time. Later chapters offer helpful synopses of the works, locating them both chronologically and contextually. A discussion of Basil places it alongside Pre-Raphaelite art, noting that ‘the idealized angel in the house was powerless against the immediacy of sexual lust. But, also like the Pre-Raphaelites, the message of Wilkie’s novel was ultimately moralistic’ . An account of The Moonstone notes the significance of Collins’ own experience of using laudanum [276-281]; a chapter on The Woman in White weaves in the story of the Commission of Lunacy and the cases with which it dealt, as well as details of the criminal cases in France on which Collins drew for the story [191-202]; and the publication of Armadale is tied in with the economic crash of 1866.
Notwithstanding this apparent blind spot, Lycett offers brief critical comments which are both acute and accessible and draws a complex picture of theVictorian literary and publishing scene, discussing, for instance, Collins’ negotiations and financial deals with Smith, Elder in the 1860s and with George Bentley and Chatto and Windus in the 1870s. He discusses the rise and demise of the three-volume novel  and offers an insight into the vagaries of nineteenth-century publication with his account of Collins’ decision to produce a play of Armadale in order to prevent publication of pirate copies . He circles back again and again to family relationships, drawing attention, for example, to a scene omitted from the second (1861) edition of Hide and Seek, which appears to throw light on the marriage relationship of William and Harriet Collins, but also urges caution in considering the relationship between Collins’ fiction and his parents’ life: ‘it should not be read, as some have done, as gospel truth’ [130-131]. Significantly, Lycett notes that Collins, ever secretive about his own life and alert to the uses of private information, destroyed many of the letters sent to him, so that much of the correspondence on which Lycett draws so effectively is one-sided. What remain, of course, are extracts from Collins’ own letters to his various correspondents, which provide glimpses of his character: in a letter to his mother and father he prefaces a description of a wedding with the claim, ‘I don’t take much interest in Matrimony’, allowing Lycett to note that indeed he did not ever take much interest in it for himself, and conducted his own relationships outside it, while examining it from all sides in his novels.
The book, which is run through with accounts of Collins’ various ongoing and generic ailments (gout, rheumatism, ‘rheumatic gout’), concludes with an account of his death and the suitably dramatic story of the last living trustee of his estate, Caroline’s son-in-law Harry Bartley, creaming off Collins’ money for his own purposes until it ran out and he was forced to sue for bankruptcy. In a rather oddly unfounded assumption of cause and effect, akin to his cavalier judgements of Collins’ women, Lycett suggests, with no apparent evidence, that the burden of this bankruptcy ‘told on Harry who, just over two years later, himself succumbed to cancer and died in Guildford, aged just forty-four’ . He finishes with an overview of the waning and now waxing popularity of Collins’ novels, noting their ‘sheer page-turning readability’ . That would certainly be a fitting description of his own wide-ranging, deeply informative and thoroughly enjoyable sashay through Collins’ eccentric, productive life.
Illustrated version on The Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/collins/lycett.html
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