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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brisk historic narrative; not so much of the inner life, 3 Mar. 2014
This review is from: Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation (Hardcover)
Wilkie Collins wrote some of the best 'sensation' novels of the Victorian period, chief among them 'The Woman in White', 'Armadale', and 'No Name', all from his middle period. He is also credited with putting the detective novel on the literary map, notably with 'The Moonstone'. Besides these, there were many other novels, novellas, short stories and plays, as well as a lot of journalism. The best of them are still compulsively readable, not least because they deal with mysteries, secrets, elaborate deceptions, betrayals, obscured identities, dysfunctional families, lost or life-changing wills, adultery, in novels that pit evil characters (such as Count Fosco) against the pure (usually a young and virginal heiress). Influenced by earlier Gothic novels (eg Mrs Radcliffe's), and mentored by Dickens, it is a world Collins made very much his own.

One cannot help but wonder, then: did he live such a sensational life himself or move in circles that brought him in contact with it? Or did he merely have a fertile imagination and an acute sense of what the Victorian reading public was hungry for?

The dustwrapper talks of a "life of sensation" and "a truly sensational story". What does this refer to? Much has been made elsewhere of his two households, his two mistresses (and their children), his unexplained refusal to marry either of them or anyone else, and of the lifelong secrecy this required in an unforgiving society. Scandal was at the heart of his life, then; expectations are high. But in fact Lycett gives us a workmanlike, unrevealing account of this aspect of his life, avoiding anything that might sound sensational. He presents it only from Collins's point of view too. As Collins's life had little else in it one might call scandalous (perhaps the occasional visit to a brothel?), especially by today's standards, it can hardly be called 'a life of sensation' then. In fact, it was more a life of gout and rheumatism, of managing a painful and inconvenient illness with the use of laudanum and opiates, a life at the writer's desk or on tour, the ordinary life of a Victorian writer.

We learn a lot about the social aspects of the time in which he was writing, about the economics of the publishing industry, about the publication of the novels and their reception, about what happened when and with whom: Lycett is chiefly concerned to set the historical record straight and he does this admirably. It's the chief strength of the book and will alone will satisfy many of its readers.

He is not, however, much interested in speculating about Collins's interior life. In the absence of diaries and letters (Dickens burnt most of Collins's letters) perhaps this is inevitable, yet there were many opportunities for Lycett to have ventured further. It would have been interesting, for instance, to hear the voices of the two mistresses and of Caroline's daughter who became Collins's amanuensis: what were their perspectives on him and the domestic arrangements? How did he really feel about them? What did he feel when Caroline left him for a younger man? Again, how close were his bonds with his male friends? And what did he really feel about Dickens? Again, did his preference for fiction based on deception have any deep roots in his own experience? If not, what was the lifelong attraction to it? These are just a few of the questions that occurred to me as I read. In this book we do not hear much of Collins's inner voice, we don't get under his skin. At the personal level he remains obscure to me.

I was hoping, then, that the author might have been more wide-ranging, speculative and bolder. He might have drawn more on the disciplines of psychology, gender perspectives, literary studies. I was informed of the historic facts in a brisk, clear, straight-forward narrative, but I wasn't gripped. It is expertly done and very well researched, but so much is merely touched upon and little probed in any depth. But perhaps I'm demanding too much of biographers who are writing about figures from two centuries back, figures who did not leave a trail of personal confessions, who believed as much in privacy as Collins did. Perhaps I'm asking for a different kind of biography. As it is, within its self-imposed limits, this is a very good one.
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Location: Hove, E.Sussex, UK

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