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Wilkie Collins

I raced through Peter Ackroyd’s short biography of WILKIE COLLINS (2012) in a day. I finished it with new respect for WC and his books. Poor Wilkie was always ill with one ailment or another – always trying some new remedy or treatment.. In our time I expect he would have been cured easily. In spite of illness he still managed to produce a considerable body of work. He, like his friend Charles Dickens, is a model of Victorian industry.  He was also unconventional in his rejection of Victorian morals and living, in spite of censure, with women who were not his wives. Ackroyd is enthusiastic about the books and discusses each novel, not just the famous ones like ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘The Woman in White’ both of which have never been out of print since they were first published.

Peter Ackroyd is enthusiastic about Wilkie Collins’ THE NEW MAGDALEN (1873) so I read it over a couple of days. Not for nothing is WC called ‘The King of Inventors’. His plotting is brilliant, event following event, twist following twist, so that the reader reads on eager to know what will happen next.  The New Magdalen begins in France in 1870 near a battlefield. Two women meet - Grace Roseberry on her way to England to become companion to a titled lady - Mercy Merrick a woman with a dubious past now working as a nurse on the battlefield. The two women exchange confidences then a shell explodes on the farmhouse where they are. Grace is pronounced dead and Mercy assumes her identity and travels to England and takes up Grace’s position with Lady Janet Roy.  Mercy (now Grace) becomes indispensible to Lady Janet.  But the real Grace isn’t dead and arrives to claim her position.  From this point Collins weaves an intricately woven tale, all taking place on one day, as Grace attempts to prove her identity and Mercy is torn betwen concealment and guilt. And there are two men in love with her, Horace Holmcroft and Julian Gray. Who will win the prize? Collins has written something of a tour-de-force in this book. For chapter after chapter, largely in conversation, (did he intend it as a play?) the five principal characters deal with the difficult situation in which they find themselves. Their emotions, moralities and loyalties are ever-changing. The characters are complex and fascinating, especially Lady Janet.  Collins frequently pulls the rug from under  the reader’s feet when his characters don’t behave as you think they will.  An excellent read.

An illustration to the first editiion

I have been checking at random some of the older posts and came across theis one.  I am amazed that The Moonstone and The Woman in White have never been out of print.  Mind you The Moonstone is one of only two or three books (probably the former) that I have rated 20+.  I just loved it.

Another Victorian who was a model of industry was Anthony Trollope who I think got up at 5am and wrote regularly before going to his job at the Post Office.

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