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Wilkie Collins Paperback – 7 Mar 2013
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"Four stars, (A) perfect little biography" (Craig Brown Mail on Sunday)
"With deft strokes, Peter Ackroyd’s biography portrays his character and sets him in context, weaving critical appraisals seamlessly into the story of his life. The bravura of this biography lies in its brilliantly judged brevity." (Iain Finlayson The Times)
"Unfailingly perceptive" (Andrew Taylor Independent)
"This biography is compulsive reading" (The Economist)
"Insightful" (Judith Flanders Sunday Telegraph)
Ackroyd at his best - a gripping short life of the extraordinary Wilkie Collins, author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White.See all Product description
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Top customer reviews
Peter Ackroyd's concise biography of Collins acts as something of an impressionist picture of the author and his work, it may be brief and a touch sketchy but it does definitely give a good indication of the man and his novels and Ackroyd's comments and observations are unfailingly perceptive and thought-provoking throughout. Collins's curious and unorthodox life (most male Victorian novelists had a wife and a mistress, Wilkie cut out the wife and settled for the more bracing arrangement of having two mistresses) is discussed, as is his always delicate health, his reliance on laudanum and his passion for foreign travel. His friendship with Charles Dickens is also given the space and importance it deserves but where the biography really shines is with the analysis and detail given regarding Collins's work - both his fiction and his plays. The Woman in White and The Moonstone are staples for anyone with a love of the Victorian novel but it is reassuring to find Ackroyd arguing for a greater appreciation of novels such as The New Magdalene and Heart and Science, both of which came towards the end of Collins's career and both of which are much better novels than historical opinion would suggest. I think Ackroyd may be a touch harsh in his dismissal of the novel Poor Miss Finch (seriously, how can anyone fail to be enthralled by a novel that features a (literally) blue man?) but his discussion of novels such as Basil and The Dead Secret made me want to head back and reread the books straight away.
For all of his ill-health Wilkie Collins lived to a fairly good age, writing his sensational novels, tales, short stories and plays right up until the end. His great books have remained in the public eye ever since the date of their first publication and many of his less well known novels are coming back into print. Hopefully Ackroyd's biography will allow the author behind them to, once again, step into the limelight. I think it is always the sign of a good biography of a literary figure when having finished the book you head straight back to the novels of the author under discussion. Personally speaking, on that basis, Ackroyd's biography works beautifully.
Wilkie Collins is one of the most productive writers of the nineteenth century, with a number of his books never going out of print, and yet, here we have a slim book (of less than 200 pages with actual narrative, somewhat repetitive and not as detailed as I would have hoped) devoted to the private life, public life and career of this great British author. Moreover, the slim tome is full of typos and misplaced punctuation.
Still, Peter Ackroyd writes with gusto and this biography is enjoyable, but Wilkie Collins portrait is that not of a very pleasant man.
Three and a half stars. Peter Ackroyd could have done better.
Collins was befriended by the older Dickens early in his career. He owed his publishing breaks to him and fondly followed him on amateur dramatic tours, long hikes and dirty weekendesque trips to Paris. However, he developed very much his own literary style and reputation.
Collins was the son of a prominent painter and thus inherited a well-established social milieu. He was short and oddly formed. He suffered greatly from gout and other ailments against which he self-medicated with prodigious dosages of laudanum. His sex life was unconventional: instead of a wife and a mistress, he maintained (apparently in relative harmony) two mistresses. The surviving one of these tended his own grave until she was unable. He resisted his father's attempts to launch him on a commercial or legal career and took to writing at an early stage achieving his vindication through both fame and fortune.
Ackroyd writes with his usual aplomb and confidence. There are some signs of haste (a tendency to repeat words or near homonyms within the same or a contiguous sentence, for example), but his close knowledge of literature, London and human nature shine through and we are treated to a fair helping of Ackroydian aperçus.
The book is a helpful guide to Collins' writing: his debt to Poe, his effective invention of the detective genre, his social messages. While I am not sure that Ackroyd has persuaded me to rush to buy such works as "The Law and the Lady," "The Woman in White" is shuffling its way towards the top of my reading list and I shall shortly mount a search in the attic for my dog-eared, third form paperback version of "The Moonstone."