His name was Wilkie Collins. Though trained as a lawyer, he took to writing at an early age. He is distinguished by having written what was probably the greatest thriller of Victorian times, The Woman in White. The story is told that Gladstone actually missed a seating of Parliament because he was reading Collins masterpiece. Most of Collins work fitted into the category of literature that were known as sensation novels. That is, they were meant to make the reader feel sensations and were usually written about sensational stories, sensational in the sense of tabloids.
In his own way, Collins was an early champion of women’s rights. The main women characters of his major novels: Armadale, The Women in White and No Name were all very strong, unusual people. They were the antithesis of helpless Victorian women. One, Lydia Gwilt, was even a murderess. Collins manages to make her sympathetic regardless of her crimes. No Name’s heroine, Magdalen Vanstone, is a daring and talented young women who is wronged by the law of England (at the time book was written). She is disinherited by an accident of circumstance which costs her, a home, a fortune and those whom she loves.
The heroine of Collins’ masterpiece, The Woman in White, is not the main love interest of the protagonist, Walter Hartright, but her half sister, Marian Holcombe. Again and again, Collins tells us that Marian has the resourcefulness, strength and intelligence of a man. Unusual statements at a time when women were actually supposed to be weak and less capable than men. But even Marian must have some truly “feminine” qualities which exist in the form of her half sister, Walter’s true love, Laura Fairlie, who is as wispy and bland a Victorian lady as any male of the era could wish for. But the greatness of the book lies in the character of its villian, Count Fosco. He is enormously fat but very light on his feet. Wears very exquisite waistcoats, eats cream tarts by the dozen and yet is as cold, calculating and ruthless as the worst real villian you may know. I am unable to think about Fosco without seeing him played by Sidney Greenstreet of Maltese Falcon fame. The recent BBC dramatization of The Woman in White was unwatchable for me because of the miscasting of Fosco. Yet, where would you find someone worthy of playing such a great villian, one of the greatest since Shakespeare gave us his greatest baddies. I think that a not too aged Orson Welles might have done. Fosco is a totally self-centered man with no qualms of consience and a great share of intellectual talent. Welles played a man like this in The Third Man.
The point is that Fosco is a great creation by a great writer. T.S. Eliot credited Collins with inventing the detective story with his other great novel, The Moonstone. Dickens tried the genre with The Mystery of Edwin Drood and in my mind, failed. I will not claim that Collins is capable of the great prose that Dickens sometimes produces, but in his own way, for anyone who loves crime stories, Wilkie Collins deserves a much wider audience and greater appreciation than he usually gets when people talk about Victorian authors.
It was said by Collins’ friends that as he walked home one night, he heard a woman crying for help. The author rushed to her aid and would say nothing about the remarkable event. However, Collins had two homes simultaneously with two women, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. One was the woman who had cried for help in the night. Collins’ open liasons took place at a time when Dickens was afraid to speak publicly about his relationship with Ellen Ternan, for fear it would hurt his book sales.
Collins was not as good as Dickens at creating likeable characters, but he did create a cast of villians who will be remembered forever.