The brilliant and prolific Ackroyd charts the life of a man who should be better known. Wilkie Collins was the son of the painter William Collins and knew John Millais and Holman Hunt. Later he came to know and work with Charles Dickens. Short and ugly he nevertheless enjoyed the love of a good woman, or a bad woman if possible. Although he never married he kept two mistresses (they seem to have got on with one another), by one of whom he had three children. This was in perfect defiance of all the laws of Victorian society. He suffered throughout his life from gout or maybe rheumatism or maybe both.
He adored sensational and labyrinthine plots; his work is full of mistaken and assumed identities, murders and suicides, mysterious goings on and strong-minded women. In The Moonstone he more or less assembled all the classic elements of detective fiction for the first time: a country house; a list of suspects, all of whom are considered; a clever detective and an inefficient and bumbling local force; the crime solved by an amateur in a "dramatic reconstruction of the events of the fatal night". The novel also tells the story from a multiple first-person perspective.
If he is not so popular now it is because of his love for melodrama. This showed particularly in his work for the stage. His melodramas must have been strong even for the time: two of his works were laughed off the stage.
He was typical work horse of a Victorian novelist. He wrote for serials and had to keep up with the demands of the printer. He then adapted his work into full novels and as plays. The insufficient protection of copyright mean he had to keep going.
This is a brief introduction to an author who should enjoy wider fame. Ackroyd's spare narrative rather undermine the verbose stories of his subject. Nevertheless it is fun.
Easy to read and very interesting. May 2013; 183 pages.
Books by Peter Ackroyd reviewed in this blog:
- The Clerkenwell Tales
- The House of Doctor Dee
- The Lambs of London
- Milton in America
- The Fall of Troy