Thursday, March 22, 2012

The (Not So) Secret Life of Wilkie Collins

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.

Caroline Graves

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. 

After much 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?


amanda @ simplerpastimes said...

I hadn't heard that about Collins! I had heard that he had an opium addiction towards the end of his life and that some think that's why his later books aren't as good. (Or something like that, I'm going by memory.)

I don't usually let what I learn about an author affect my appreciation of their work, but sometimes it does influence the way I read it. Like you said, looking for clues. I don't know if I'd feel differently if the writer were still alive, though.

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Caro said...

Well, I have yet to read Collins, but I now have the feeling that I might become quite the clue-searcher myself when I do. Then again, I'm not big on Charlotte Brontë and I still love Jane Eyre. I guess I'll have to hurry up and read Collins to find out!

Violet said...

I spent years at uni pretending I believed the whole Barthes thing, but I concur with Lytton Strachey that it is only by reading a writer's letters [and diaries and biographies] that we come fully to understand their fiction.

Wilkie was such an interesting man and quite brave to fly in the face of convention and have two households, whereas a lot of people, such as Dickens, kept up the pretence of respectability, but had a mistress and an awful relationship with his poor wife.

Thanks for the post and the pics. Martha does look a bit grim! :) She looks as though she's had enough of Wilkie's drug abuse and weirdness.

Diana said...

Amanda: I did read that many regard Collins as a writer who peaked relatively early in his authorial career and that he suffered from an opium addiction, but I wasn't aware that people blame the supposed decline in his books on the drug use. How fascinating!

Diana said...

Caro: I, similarly, think Dickens was a misogynist pig, but I adore his novels.

I also love Jane Eyre, but since I borderline worship all three of the Brontes this is hardly surprising. :)

Diana said...

Violet: I don't recall having read Lytton Strachey at any point during my BA or MA. I'll have to read up on it though, as it sounds quite fascinating.

JoAnn said...

Fascinating post! It's only been in the past 10 years or so (well into my middle age) that I've developed a curiosity about writers' lives. I feel a literary biography spree may be in my near future...

Diana said...

JoAnn: My fascination with author biographies is fairly recent too. In fact, I don't think it was until last year when I was studying for my MA that this interest really developed. I've recently made lots of plans to read author biographies. So far it's been a great experience!

Mona said...

I'm reading Collins' The Woman in White right now and I'm guessing this will be in the back of my mind as I read. Perhaps I'll be looking for clues unconsciously as you did (though of what I've read so far, I don't see anything that fits).

Diana said...

Mona: It seems the more I learn about an author's life, the more I see their experiences mirrored in their work.

For example, learning about the Brontes really made me see how much biography influenced their fiction. Growing up on the moors, attending diabolical schools, teaching in foreign countries, working as governesses, writing as a woman in Victorian England. All of these things manifest themselves in their novels and poetry.

So far, however, I haven't seen much of this philosophy at work in Wilkie Collins's literature. Perhaps that will change as we read more of it? I'm interested to find out!