Wilkie Collins A brief Life
by: Peter Ackroyd
***** 5 out of 5 Stars
Review by: Mark Palm
When all other criterion fails, many believe that time is the best test of whether a work of art has merit. True art, some folk say, is timeless, and if a work doesn't last, it must have failed the test. If you believe that, then I have some prime beach-front real estate for sale, cheap. Fashion, and even more likely, luck, are as important as artistic merit, and if you think I am wrong check out the clunkers that find their way on nearly every inane list of “Must Read” books.
Wilkie Collins isn’t a forgotten writer, but it’s not too hard to imagine it happening. He was one of the most popular and acclaimed writers of his time, but it’s hard to find most of his works now. He is known now primarily for The Moonstone, one of the earliest novels of detection, which I suggest that you read for more reasons than I can list here, and The Lady in White, also well worth reading. He wrote many other novels, and collaborated with Charles Dickens, a life-long friend, on many popular plays.
His life was equally interesting. A non-conformist in the Victorian Era, Collins openly lived with and supported two separate women, both of whom were aware of the other, without marrying either, as he claimed marriage was an institution that was unfair to women. This unusual arrangement lasted for decades, and Collins was well-liked enough that almost no negative reactions to his personal habits were to be found from his contemporaries. Afflicted with various maladies he became a laudanum addict, yet managed to write prolifically, and managed to support two families, and three children for his entire life.
All of this, and much more is wonderfully told in Peter Ackroyd’s Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life, which is one in a series of smaller-than-usual biographical works that the author has written. Now for someone who often enjoys burying myself in a massive biographical tome the size of a dictionary, some might think that I would have issues with a life story that clocks in at just over two hundred and seventy pages, but Mr. Ackroyd, an experienced and prolific writer, whose works, both fiction and nonfiction I have admired greatly, is just the man for the job. There are a places where I feel that some corners have been cut, but Mr. Ackroyd is fearsomely intelligent, and it shows in the way he manages to so successfully condense such an eventful life. Just as important he writes of Collins, for the most part, as if he were an old friend, a tactic that works particularly well as he portrays his subject’s enduring serenity and equanimity, even as his health eroded. There is sympathy and empathy in his portrayal of the aging Collins, but never pity.
As good as Mr. Ackroyd is at Collins life he really shines when discussing his art. He not only points out Collins artistic skills, which were prodigious, but his compassion for the underdogs and afflicted of Victorian society, and how the author went out of his way to shine a light upon them, and often featured them in his works in a way that was realistic and fair. In the end, where Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life succeeds best is in doing what literary biographies should do; make you want to experience the work if you have not before, and make you want to re-read it if you have. Now I am going to go dig up my copy of The Moonstone, if you don’t mind. You should do the same.