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Thursday, 6 June 2013

Book Review: The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William Clarke

This biography, written by someone married to a descendant of Collins, attempts to decode the author's tangled personal life and get as close to the truth as possible. It's a book of remarkable accuracy, piecing together what we definitely do know about Collins's life with what can be assumed about his two 'families'. In a very readable book, Clarke examines the evidence, makes assumptions where necessary and comes up with a plausible trajectory for Collins's life.

Clarke chooses to start the book with Collins's will and then back-pedal to his parents to 'start' the story as it were. This allows for a certain amount of intrigue over the familial situation and the problems with the bequests to creep in before he turns to examine Collins's father. The chapters covering William Collins and Wilkie's childhood are more interesting than I expected them to be and I very much enjoyed the chapter covering the family's visit to Italy. I suppose one of my criticisms, though, is that it took a while to get to the 'good bits' - the relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd that shaped his life. However, Collins's early life shaped his reactions to events later on. The book is crafted to give a whole view of the man and it fulfils its objectives.

For Dickens fans, there's a chapter devoted to his relationship with Collins, covering the reason for them drifting apart as well. Then the investigative work begins as Collins's relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd are pieced together from what evidence there is. It hardly builds up a complete picture of his life - he was far too secretive for that - but it's a compelling picture nonetheless.

Perhaps my favourite chapters are the ones which cover his trip to America in 1873 and, just before that, the details of his stage successes, which I knew very little about. While this book only briefly mentions the plots of the novels, it takes an interest in the stage shows which, of course, involved Collins the man and not just Collins the author.

This book is a must for anybody wanting to unravel the mysteries of Collins's personal life. I also appreciated the look at the lives of both 'families' after he had died, including the inheritance problems. Would recommend for anyone interested in one of the most secretive and yet open authors of the nineteenth century.

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