In this major biography, Catherine Peters explores the complicated life of Wilkie Collins, the greatest of the Victorian "Sensation" novelists and author of the famous Woman in White and The Moonstone. An intimate of Dickens and of the Pre-Raphaelites Holman Hunt and Millais, Collins was called the "king of inventors" by his publisher. On the surface, he was charming, unpretentious, and extremely good company, beloved by men and women. Beneath this façade, however, he was a complex and haunted man, addicted to laudanum, and his powerful, often violent novels revealed a dark side of Victorian life. He supported two common-law wives and their children, and as Peters shows, he provoked scandal by refusing to cloak his complicated love affairs in the customary hypocritical pretense of the period.
Having discovered a hitherto unknown autobiography by Wilkie Collins's mother, Peters draws on this document and on thousands of Collins's unpublished letters to create this provocative picture of his life and times. She describes in detail the saga of his exhausting struggle for better copyright protection for authors, especially for English authors in the United States. She has also studied the manuscripts of his novels, plays, and stories, including those which he did not complete, finding that some of his neglected novels turn out to be much more interesting than most readers realize today. This edition of the book has been supplemented to include an appendix describing Collins's "Tahitian" novel. Written when he was twenty, the manuscript of this work, Ioláni, was thought to have disappeared, but it has recently been rediscovered and sold to a private collector. For any Collins enthusiast, or for anyone interested in the literary history of the Victorian period, The King of Inventors provides a vivid account of Collins's unusual personal life in the context of his literary and artistic friendships and of newly revealed facts about the two women with whom he shared his "double life."
Originally published in 1993.
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Catherine Peters was a Lecturer in English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford, from 1981 to 1992.From Kirkus Reviews:
``All his life, Wilkie Collins was haunted by a second self,'' begins this briskly authoritative portrait of the greatest of all the Victorian sensationalists--and British academic Peters (Thackeray's Universe, 1987--not reviewed) convincingly applies her thesis both to Collins's life and his work. Certainly Collins's notorious private life invites the revisionary interpretation Peters shares with W. M. Clarke's Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (1991--not reviewed) and William Palmer's novel The Detective and Mr. Dickens (1990). Unlike the properly bourgeois Dickens, who labored to keep his affair with Ellen Ternan secret, Collins lived openly for many years with his common-law wife Caroline Graves while carrying on an equally open liaison with the young servant Martha Rudd--and acknowledged the children of both women as his own. Peters traces Collins's scorn for the hypocrisy of Victorian social convention--he was a far more steadfast and consistent opponent of Podsnappery than Dickens--to an early infatuation with continental mores that, in his novels, is transformed into a fascination with the problem of personal identities thrown into question by doubles, dreams, hallucinations, and guilty secrets. Determined that his own ``other self'' should escape the trap of marriage and respectability, Collins rooted the sensational plots of his best novels, from The Woman in White to The Moonstone, in a closely observed critique of English prudery and provincialism that Peters aptly compares to the work of Balzac and Flaubert, ascribing the decline of Collins's later novels--which lack the ``mythic, fairy-tale quality'' of his earlier syntheses of melodramatic nightmares and social pathology--to the dating of his call for change, overtaken by spreading literacy and feminine empowerment. Peters persuasively recasts Collins's sensationalism as a prophetic social modernism that explains both his meteoric rise and his later decline. Seldom has a novelist so completely expressed, in both life and art, the contradictions of his moment. (Photographs) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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