Do you ever root around in the wealth of biographical material about famous writers and come across something that surprises you? Does it ever affect the manner in which you read an author's work?
I confess that when I was searching for information on Wilkie Collins a few years ago I was rather surprised to learn that this popular Victorian novelist was a common law bigamist. After reading his novel Heart and Science recently, I did a bit more digging. He was in a relationship with Caroline Graves, a widow with a young daughter.
They weren't married, but after several years of cohabitation Collins met the proverbial Other Woman. Martha Rudd was more than twenty years his junior, and Wilkie Collins soon installed her in a decidedly less spectacular home near the residence he shared with Graves on Gloucester Place.
Martha Rudd -- stunner
That Collins maintained two households seems rather clandestine and melodramatic -- something one might read in the sensation fiction genre for which he was renowned. Shortly after Wilkie began dividing his time between the two women, Caroline Graves left Collins and married another man. As far as I've been able to tell from my oh-so-minimal research, it's unclear what caused the rift. The fact that the two events so closely coincide with one another suggests Graves was none too happy about it. In any case, she returned to the unconventional relationship she had with Collins after a short period of marriage.
Meanwhile, he fathered three children with Martha Rudd. In order to exude a charade of respectability, however, he went by the last name of Dawson during his time with her, even going so far as to bestow the name upon their children. It was all so secretive in a way that seems classically Victorian. Though Graves and Rudd maintained a firm distance from one another, it seems that the children would go from house to house.
indoctrination education I've become fairly adept at not letting my feelings about an author intefere with my feelings about an author's texts; you know, Death of the Author and all that. At least, I'm getting better at separating the two (see my complicated relationship with Dickens). I must say, though, that this knowledge of Collins's bohemian lifestyle did affect my reading of Heart and Science. It's not so much that I think Collins is a misogynist and therefore don't like his texts. (For the record, I'm betting he was a misogynist; Collins and Dickens were BFFs.) Rather, throughout the novel I consistently searched for subtextual clues that hinted at bigamous relationships -- without any success, I might add. That niggling detail was often present in my mind, interrupting my immersion in the narrative. Does that make sense?
Now I'm wondering if this literary investigation will continue as I further acquaint myself with fiction by Wilkie Collins. Hmm...In any case, I would be keen to learn more about Wilkie Collins's fascinating life. Perhaps I'll add a biography to the old TBR pile!
The house on the left is the home Wilkie Collins shared with Caroline Graves
(I just managed to snap a pic driving past in a coach)
Incidentally, Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived on the same street, Gloucester Place
Have you ever been surprised learning certain details about a particular writer's life? Did it affect the way you read/felt about their work?