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Can Wilkie Collins Manage to Star in His Own Biography?

Andrew Lycett's Wilkie biography has been accompanying me around Chicago-town.

It struck me last week that since Wilkie's life is so inextricably bound up in Dickens's, it might be good to read a biography of Dickens finally, so I checked out Claire Tomalin's Dickens: A Life, and it is excellent. Particularly since Wilkie and Dickens don't really meet up until Dickens is an Established Figure and v. famous, so it's nice instead seeing his background with his son-of-a-servant father being in debtors prison and his mother making him work in a blacking factory and, as previously mentioned, ruining his brain about women forever.

While I appreciate the difficulty in crafting a biography of Wilkie due to the relative scarcity of information about him, I applaud Lycett for trying. One of the benefits (?) of said scarcity is a biography of him becomes more a biography of his circle, so you learn about the Victorian literary set of the 1850s and '60s. Or one of its particular cliques, anyway.


Because this week involves Wilkie making his name! His novels have conquered England and everyone loves The Woman in White, as they should. He met his gf Caroline Graves and is taking care of her and her eight-year-old daughter but is apparently v. adamant there will be no marriage.

Like many tight social circles, the one Wilkie belonged to ended up being rather incestuous. Everyone was intermarrying, most notably Wilkie's brother Charley, who married Dickens's favorite daughter Katey (ostensibly because she wanted to get out of the fraught house after her father separated from her mother Catherine).

I've always found Kate Dickens intriguing enough to want to learn more. She had a bad temper (which in Victorian times maybe just meant "a temper") and seemed more likely than most to stand up to her incredibly imposing father. But that's beside the point right now! 

I avoided reading the listed plots of Wilkie's novels because I want to read all of them, particularly No Name and Armadale, so, future readalongs there. The bio addresses his interest in insane asylums and the dubious reasons women were sometimes placed in them, including Rosina Bulwer Lytton, who publicly shamed her husband, the famous novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and was subsequently committed for a number of weeks.

Wilkie comes off as so chill, he's almost a secondary character in his own biography. Things seem to happen around him, and he keeps taking opium for his gout, refusing to marry Caroline, and writing things for Dickens's weekly publications. I'm FASCINATED in how he meets Lady #2 and I very much hope it doesn't hurt Caroline's feelings too much.



  1. Aww look at Wilkie, out and about, seeing the sights. That's a really pretty picture, BTW

    I also commented on how much of this is about Wilkie's social circle. I would not, however, list it as a benefit...That said, that Mean Girls gif is perfection. Dickens is Regina, right?

    We're gonna do future readalongs of all of Wilkie's stuff, right? Cos at this point, I don't think I can read them alone. It wouldn't feel right.

    1. Dickens is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT Regina. And Wilkie's totally Cady.

      I like seeing how everything fits together! So I like seeing people pop up that I know from other Victorian things and then it's like, oh THAT'S what they were doing! *Fascinating.* But I get that it's weird if it's supposed to be a biography of a dude.

      Yeah, should we do No Name first? Since it was written first?

    2. Since I pretty much only know Dickens as "other Victorian stuff" everyone else is like "And then this guy you never heard of did stuff that doesn't pertain to Wilkie."

      YES, let's do No Name first. I like that

  2. While I appreciate the difficulty in crafting a biography of Wilkie due to the relative scarcity of information about him, I applaud Lycett for trying.

    Judging from his narrative in this book, I don't think he'll have needed any prompting! He LOVES Wilkie an obscene amount. 'He got another STI - good for him!' I picture him in a white t-shirt with Wilkie's face on, and a little flag with 'Dickens + Collins r my homeboys' on it!

    I do love how he's taken over Harriet's school. Oh, did you see he refers to her as The Butler!? Damn it, I meant to write about that. Anyway, I like how he pays for her school and makes joint decisions about her with her Mum. It's nice :)

    Further read-a-longs would be great! I've just bought No Name and The Haunted Hotel the other day.

  3. Yes yes yesssssss to future readalongs of other Wilkie Collins books. I own Armadale! Let's do that one next! I swear I am going to catch up on this biography by next week and then I can play along with the cool kids.


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