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Wilkie Collins | Biography

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Early Life

William Wilkie Collins was born on January 8, 1824, in London. His father was the well-known landscape painter, William Collins. Wilkie Collins studied law in school, but he decided to pursue a career in writing.

Writing Career

Collins published his first book, a biography of his father, Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. in 1848. His debut novel, Antonina (1850) was highly praised by critics, who compared him favorably with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a popular historical novelist.

Introduced in 1851 by a mutual acquaintance, Collins and English novelist Charles Dickens became lifelong friends and literary collaborators. The Woman in White, Collins's fifth novel, was originally published as weekly installments in Dickens's literary magazine, All the Year Round, beginning in the autumn of 1859. The story proved wildly popular and was issued in book form in 1860. Sales of The Woman in White earned Collins enough money to support himself independently.

The Woman in White is widely regarded as the first "sensation novel," a Victorian genre that combined the melodramatic excitement of earlier gothic romances with Realism (artistic movement with the purpose of representing reality as it is). The book also incorporated elements of the mystery novel, which Collins further developed in his 1868 masterpiece, The Moonstone.

Domestic Life

Collins met Caroline Graves, a widow, in the spring of 1856. Graves and Collins never married, but they lived together on and off for 30 years. In 1868 Collins began a relationship with a second woman, Martha Rudd. Angered, Caroline Graves left him and married a younger man, Joseph Clow—with Collins in attendance at the wedding. After two years, Graves divorced her husband and returned to Collins. For the remainder of his life, Collins maintained two homes—one with Graves and the other with Rudd and their three children.

Beginning in the 1850s, Collins suffered from rheumatism and other medical conditions for which he turned to opium as a painkiller. Over the following decades, he developed an incredible tolerance for the drug. Despite his drug dependence, Collins wrote 25 novels, more than 50 short stories, 15 plays, and numerous nonfiction articles.

Death and Legacy

Collins's health continued to decline, and in June 1889 he suffered a severe stroke. He survived through the summer but died of complications on September 23, 1889. Collins was 65.

He remains one of the best-loved of the Victorian fiction writers. His most famous novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, are widely acknowledged as the best examples of the sensation and detective fiction genres.

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