Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Classic Ghost Story Writers: Wilkie Collins

Recently Bronwyn and I rewatched this old British miniseries from the 1980s - The Woman in White. I remember back in the day experiencing ever increasing anxiety and horror as poor Jenny Seagrove sank deeper and deeper into the clutches of the evil Count Fosco.

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (1860)

Which makes it sound like some kind of comic melodrama, but anyone who's ever read the novel knows it to be anything but. The creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere of the story seems to come out of some profound depth of personal paranoia and depression. Some of this can be perhaps attributed to Wilkie Collins' habit of taking opium, which took an ever greater hold on him in the decades after this, his first great success.

Deadwood, Series 1, episode 10: Mr. Swearengen & Mr. Wu (2004)

But then, the nineteenth century was full of 'dope-fiends' (as Al Swearengen in Deadwood was wont to refer to them), and none of the others showed any signs of producing anything like The Woman in White ...

Kathleen Tillotson: Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (1954)

Or did they? Kathleen Tillotson's fascinating book on the English novel of the 1840s points out a number of its distinctive features: a greater sexual frankness, in particular, than was possible later, as the Victorian era gradually became more and more morally bankrupt and intellectually stultifying.

Given that the four novels she chose to illustrate her thesis were Dickens' Dombey & Son (1848), Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) and Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848), she might actually have called it "Novels of 1848", if it weren't for the fact that that would have sounded as if she meant to draw some parallel with the Year of Revolution.

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1860)

What, then, of the novel of the 1860s - the decade dominated by Wilkie Collins and The Woman in White? If, like me, you have a taste for the intricate pathways of the disturbed mind, spiritualism and psychogeography, then this is certainly the period for you.

Dostoevsky did not begin to appear in English translation until the 1880s, so it would be difficult to draw close parallels with Crime and Punishment (1867) or his memoir of exile in Siberia, The House of the Dead (1862). Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862) certainly had a strong influence on the English writers of the 1860s, however.

But the fact remains that The Woman in White predated all this, so the craze for novels of mystery and the occult does have to be seen as a home-grown phenomenon - a reaction, perhaps, to the predominant social realism of the preceding decades.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Lady Audley's Secret (1862)

Lady Audley's Secret was (in John Sutherland's words) "the most sensationally successful of all the sensation novels."

Elaine Showalter accounts for at least some of its appeal when she summarises it as follows:
Braddon's bigamous heroine deserts her child, pushes husband number one down a well, thinks about poisoning husband number two and sets fire to a hotel in which her other male acquaintances are residing.

Wilkie Collins: No Name (1862)

The same anxieties about gender and the chafing constraints it imposes on individual freedom can be seen in Wilkie Collins' follow-up to the Woman in White. No Name is an almost equally fascinating novel, which has unfortunately languished under the shadow of its supererogatory predecessor. Its heroine, Magdalen, while not quite as anarchic as Lady Audley, is just as determined to make her way in the world - in spite of the unfair obstacle of illegitimacy.

Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend (1864)

By now Dickens, too, was affected by the trend. His last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, is a strangely labyrinthine narrative full of doubles and dead men who won't lie down. It does include a love story - of a sort - but the nightmarish vision of a spectral London it concentrates on makes it, for most Dickensians, either their favourite or their least favourite among his works. I am, mind you, decidedly of the former persuasion.

Some of these 'sensationalist' tendencies were already apparent in its immediate predecessor Great Expectations - with its speaking tombstones and hideous convicts - the return of the repressed with a vengeance. Our Mutual Friend took him much further down the peculiar paths of the guilty conscience, however.

J. Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)

There is a certain atmosphere of playacting, at times, even in the most bloodcurdling of these mystery novels. Those written by English writers, at any rate. The same could not be said of Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas. As in his ghost stories, Le Fanu shows every sign of believing what he writes, and of having a more intimate acquaintance with evil than any of his contemporaries.

Uncle Silas is grotesque, exaggerated, even burlesque at times, but it's not actually unbelievable. There's something only too credible about it all, since its author is clearly not joking. Killing a young girl for her inheritance is a standard melodramatic plot from way back, but if you did mean to do it, this might be how you might go about it. And, after all, it is something people do do - and did do - so it can't really be dismissed as a fantasy.

Wilkie Collins: Armadale (1866)

I suppose that Wilkie Collins must have felt the pressure of all this competition, because his next novel, Armadale, really pulls out the stops. I must confess that there were moments while reading it when I could hardly believe my eyes. Did he really just say that? Shipwrecks, doubles, hauntings - you name it, it's all there.

The fever of an opium dream is combined here with the precision of a forensic accountant. I think it's safe to say that there can be few weirder novels in the whole of English literature than Collins's Armadale.

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (1868)

But in the end, this was the one that scooped the pot. Long famed as the first English detective story, The Moonstone, too, has opium dreams, sinister orientals, lurking gypsies, damsels in distress, and all the usual trappings of a Wilkie Collins fantasia. The method of telling it through overlapping documents - while hackneyed enough - is deployed particularly effectively here.

I suppose, in the long run, it can't really be compared with the spectral complexities of The Woman in White, one of the great English novels, but it is understandable how many people still prefer The Moonstone to any of its predecessors.

Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)

And, since one has to end somewhere when discussing the sensation novel of the 1860s, where better than with Dickens' last, unfinished serial, The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

It can't really be judged as a whole, since only the opening portions survive, but they're enough to convince readers then and now that a radical readjustment both of style and subject matter was going on in their favourite author. From the opening scene in an opium parlour to the strange, haunted cathedral which dominates it, Edwin Drood reads more like a precursor of Kafka than a natural outgrowth of what had gone before in Dickens' work.

Unfortunately it proved difficult for Wilkie Collins to keep up these levels of intensity in his subsequent fiction. Many of his later novellas and short stories show just as much invention and skill as these long works of his maturity, but his novels began to suffer from the diffusion of concentration attendant on his longterm addiction.

Sheridan Le Fanu, too, having written a succession of strange masterpieces in the 1860s, fell off in his later work (except, again, in short stories such as the ones in his 1872 collection In A Glass Darkly). If you do want to go on from Uncle Silas, though, all three of the novels below can be strongly recommended:
  1. The House by the Churchyard. 1863. Introduction by Elizabeth Bowen. The Doughty Library. London: Anthony Blond, 1968.
  2. Wylder’s Hand. 1864. New York: Dover, 1978.
  3. Guy Deverell. 1865. New York: Dover, 1984.

John Everett Millais: Wilkie Collins (1850)

William Wilkie Collins


  1. Iolani, or Tahiti as it was: A Romance. 1844 (1999)
  2. Antonina (1850)
  3. Basil (1852)
  4. Hide and Seek (1854)
    • Hide and Seek, or, The Mystery of Mary Grice. 1854. Rev. ed. 1861. Introduction by Norman Donaldson. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1981.
  5. The Dead Secret (1856)
  6. A Rogue's Life (1856/1879)
  7. The Woman in White (1860)
    • The Woman in White. 1860. Ed. John Sutherland. 1996. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
    • The Woman in White. 1860. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., n.d.
  8. No Name (1862)
    • No Name. 1862. Ed. Mark Ford. 1994. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004.
  9. Armadale (1866)
    • Armadale. 1864-66. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.
  10. The Moonstone (1868)
    • The Moonstone. 1868. Introduction by Dorothy L. Sayers. Everyman’s Library, 979. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. / New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1944.
    • The Moonstone. 1868. Afterword by T. S. Eliot. 1928. Ed. Sandra Kemp. 1998. Penguin English Library. London: Penguin, 2012.
  11. Man and Wife (1870)
  12. Poor Miss Finch (1872)
    • Poor Miss Finch. 1872. Ed. Catherine Peters. Oxford World's Classics. 1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  13. The New Magdalen (1873)
    • The New Magdalen. 1873. Pocket Classics. 1993. Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1998.
  14. The Law and the Lady (1875)
  15. The Two Destinies (1876)
  16. The Fallen Leaves (1879)
    • The Fallen Leaves. 1879. Pocket Classics. 1994. Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997.
  17. Jezebel's Daughter [novelisation of Collins' play The Red Vial (1858)] (1880)
  18. The Black Robe (1881)
  19. Heart and Science (1883)
  20. I Say No (1884)
    • 'I Say No'. 1884. Pocket Classics. 1995. Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1998.
  21. The Evil Genius (1886)
  22. The Guilty River (1886)
  23. The Legacy of Cain (1889)
  24. [with Walter Besant] Blind Love (1890)

  25. Short Stories:

  26. Mr Wray's Cash Box. Or, the Mask and the Mystery. A Christmas sketch (1852)
  27. A Terribly Strange Bed (1852)
  28. Gabriel's Marriage (1853)
  29. The Ostler (1855)
  30. After Dark (1856)
  31. The Lady of Glenwith Grange (1856)
  32. [with Charles Dickens] The Wreck of the Golden Mary (1856)
    • Dickens, Charles, & Wilkie Collins. The Wreck of the Golden Mary. 1856. Illustrated by John Dugan. Venture Library. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1961.
  33. [with Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell & Adelaide Anne Procter] A House to Let (1858)
  34. [with Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Adelaide Anne Proctor, George Sala & Hesba Stretton] The Haunted House (1859)
  35. The Queen of Hearts (1859)
  36. Miss or Mrs? (1873)
    • Miss or Mrs? 1873. Pocket Classics. 1993. Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1995.
  37. The Frozen Deep and Other Stories (1874)
    1. The Frozen Deep
      • The Frozen Deep. 1874. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2012.
    2. The Dream Woman
    3. John Jago's Ghost; or The Dead Alive
  38. The Haunted Hotel (1878)
    • The Haunted Hotel. 1878. Penguin Red Classic. 2008. Melbourne: Penguin Group (Australia), 2009.
  39. My Lady's Money (1879)
  40. Who Killed Zebedee? (1881)
  41. The Ghost's Touch and Other Stories (1885)
  42. Little Novels (1887)
    1. The Queen's Revenge
    2. Mad Monkton
    3. Sights A-Foot
    4. The Stolen Mask
    5. The Yellow Mask
    6. Sister Rose
  43. [with Charles Dickens] The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices (1890)
  44. Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. Ed. Herbert van Thal. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972.

  45. Non-fiction:

  46. Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. (1848)
  47. Rambles Beyond Railways, or, Notes in Cornwall taken a-foot. Illustrations by Henry C. Brandling (1851)
  48. My Miscellanies (1863)

  49. Plays:

  50. [with Charles Dickens] The Frozen Deep (1857)
  51. The Red Vial (1858)
  52. [with Charles Dickens] No Thoroughfare (1867)
  53. Black and White (18––)
  54. Miss Gwilt (18––)

  55. Secondary:

  56. Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. 1991. Minerva. London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1992.

Wilkie Collins: After Dark (1856)

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